Road to recovery

The JR Tadami line is a scenic railway that runs across Aizu. Photo: Hoshi Kenko
The JR Tadami line is a scenic railway that runs across Aizu. Photo: Hoshi Kenko

How the Reconstruction Agency is helping the 3.11 affected to normalise their lives and move to better grounds in Fukushima


Rhonita Patnaik

Published: Tue 4 Jan 2022, 11:48 AM

The Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, was the biggest earthquake the nation had ever witnessed in its history. The magnitude of 9.0 undersea megathrust earthquake had an epicentre in the Pacific Ocean, and lasted for six minutes, causing a tsunami that reached further inland than expected. As a result of that calamity that caused the triple tragedy of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident, 19,474 people lost their lives with many more being displaced. The widespread damage to the eastern parts of Japan has been referred to as the worst natural disaster in the country’s recorded history.

To mitigate the after-effects, the Reconstruction Agency in Japan came into being during the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake in February 2012. Its main role has been to revitalise and reinvigorate the status of the affected 10 prefectures and 241 municipalities back to normalcy. 10 years and eight months on, the agency is working with various ministries to play a leading role in reconstruction.

With around 31.3 trillion JPY spent on expenditure and an additional budget of 1.6 trillion JPY allocated for the next five years, the agency has come a long way in supporting and helping the survivors build a new life.

Current Status

Speaking about the current status of the projects, Kobayashi Yasuyuki, Counselor, Research and Coordination Section, Reconstruction Agency, underlined the efforts of the agency, stating that most of the initiatives have been fulfilled. Regarding the areas affected by tsunami and earthquake, which included Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, progress is at an overall stage of completion. However, the welfare of the affected people is still under scrutiny, since many were traumatised.

On the areas affected by the nuclear disaster, he said the progress is at the beginning stage of full-scale reconstrution and revitalisation. He further stated that the leading role of the national government would also be instrumental for a faster recovery.

For the evacuees and survivors, a process of seamless support to normalise their lives through prolonged evacuation and transition from temporary accommodation to permanent ones has been put in place. There is also constant monitoring of the elderly to provide mental and physical care as well as support community formation and bring up the children.

Besides these, the reconstruction and the facelift of the industries and livelihoods of the people are ongoing, especially the fisheries segment. The seafood industry is the backbone of the economy of Japan and although production facilities in three disaster-affected prefectures have been restored, the sector suffers because fishing remains sluggish due to a lot of debris still present in the sea. However, the manufacturing segment's volume of shipment is now at pre-disaster level. The same can be said about the farmland.

Support for Evacuees

Since the 3.11 incident, the Reconstruction Agency has been making utmost efforts for the well-being of the survivors and evacuees from the affected prefectures. Kobayashi says: "With proper planning, the number of evacuees has decreased from the initial 470,000 after the disaster to 40,000 as of September 2021. Furthermore, the number of residents in emergency temporary housing has also decreased from a maximum of 316,000 to 1,000 in the same period." He added that all evacuees in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures have moved out of temporary housing into their permanent homes since the end of March 2021.

Reconstruction of homes and cities

Great progress has been made in setting up homes and cities. As the reconstruction enters the final phase, most of the construction has been completed as planned. Delving into more details, Kobayashi says: "Development of residential land with relocation to higher ground (approximately 18,000 units) and development of public housing for disaster affected people (approximately 30,000 units) have been completed. Additionally, 70 per cent of the land that was left after relocating the evacuees, will be used for construction purpose."

Transportation and logistics

Transportation and logistics play a great role in mobilising communities. The Reconstruction Agency has efficiently worked to get the roads and support roads in working conditions. Today, after 10 years, 95 per cent of the totally planned road has been completed. This is equivalent to 541 km of the planned 570 km.

If you are planning a trip to Fukushima from any Japanese city, it is now possible with the railroad connectivity restored and full services resumed as of March 14, 2020. The JR Joban Line is a railway that links Tokyo with northern destinations in Chiba, Ibaraki, Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures.

Industries and livelihoods

While building the lives of those affected, it is also essential to build their livelihoods. The Agency has positively revived the production facilities, and continues to support the seafood processing industry, which is the key industry in the affected regions, although it has been facing a few challenges.

With planned efforts, the region has witnessed the volume of shipments of manufactured products recovered to the pre-disaster level (Iwate: 125 per cent, Miyagi: 127 per cent, Fukushima: 100 per cent (2019/2020). This has restored confidence among the people as well as the industry. Thwarting all doubts aside was the rise of the tourism sector that saw the Tohoku region achieve 1.5 million overnight stays by visitors from overseas in six prefectures. However, this number corresponds to pre-pandemic levels.

The seafood industry is still affected because fishing has been sluggish, and sales in the seafood processing industry are still in recovery. Efforts are ongoing to support the seafood processing industry, which is the core industry of the disaster-affected area in developing sales channels and converting raw materials for processing.

Fukushima DAIICHI

One of the most talked about nuclear disasters of the century is the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. This natural incident on 3.11 left devastating images, not only in the minds of those affected, but also around the globe.

But never before has the world seen such a quick turnaround of revitalisation as Fukushima. 10 years on, today the prefecture has not just been rebuilt, but it is also safe from radiation and any other harmful effects to human beings and the environment.

Going into the details on the road to recovery, Kobayashi says that in March 2020, evacuation orders were lifted in all areas, except for in the restricted area — 2.4 per cent of the total area of Fukushima. Full-scale reconstruction and revitalisation started soon after.

Some of these include:

- Decommissioning and safety measures of contaminated water or ALPS treated water.

- Treating affected soil in 100 municipalities across eight affected prefectures. Efforts are now on for the management and restoration of temporary storage sites, and transportation to interim storage facilities, as well as treatment of specified waste, such as volume reduction and recycling, for final disposal.

- It is vital that for the areas to be revitalised for livelihood, the residents must return to normal lives. With constant endeavours of the agency, the number of evacuees in Fukushima Prefecture has decreased from a maximum of 165,000 to 35,000. Furthermore, all the areas where evacuation orders have been lifted, there is a rise in the number of residents to 15,000.

Releasing treated ALPS Water into the Sea

Following the 3.11 incident of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (FDNPS), the government of Japan adopted a roadmap for the decommissioning of the FDNPS. One of the major steps include the release of ALPS treated water at the affected site into the sea.

In April this year, the government of Japan announced the basic policy that going forward the Fukushima Daiichi accumulated Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) treated water in the facility will be released into the ocean after undergoing necessary procedures and regulatory standard for discharge. A spokesperson of the Agency of Natural Resources and Energy laid down the conditions and status of the water discharged from the fuel reactors of the FDNPS. Currently, the volume of treated water stored in more than 1,000 tanks at the site is almost the size of the Tokyo Dome, an area of 46,755 sq m or 1.28 million tonnes in volume.As a result, to work towards the decommissioning of the FDNPS, there is not enough available space, which is why the treated water must be released in the sea.

What is ALPS Treated Water

It is the water that has been purified from contaminated water, i.e., water generated by cooling fuel debris, and in which the radioactive materials are removed by the ALPS method to meet the regulatory standards, with the exception of tritium.

As a relative of hydrogen, tritium exists in nature and is found in rain, sea and tap water, as well as inside the human bodies as a form of tritiated water. It emits weak radiation, which can be blocked by a piece of paper. Also, it is not accumulated in the human body and can be released as a waste. However, it is almost impossible to remove tritium from water as it has the same properties as hydrogen.

According to the spokesperson, after purification with the ALPS treatment, the concentration of tritium will come down to less than 1,500 becquerel (Bq) per litre, far below the permissible limit as mandated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) of 10,000 Bq/litre for drinking water. This shows that the ALPS treated water is perfectly safe to be in the water body. Adding more, the spokesperson stated that in Japan, the required regulation of tritium concentration naturally is 60,000 Bq/L. This means the concentration will be less than 40 times, thus indicating the country's commitment to safeguard the environment.

Discharge of water into the sea

According to the spokesperson at the Agency of Natural Resources and Energy, the concentration of the radioactive materials, when released into the sea, will be far below the regulatory standard values by purifying/re-purifying the radionuclides other than tritium; More so, diluting it with sea water by more than 100 times, the remaining tritium concentration will be below 1,500 Bq/L. Also, the discharge into the sea from the FDNPS will be monitored/reviewed by third parties such as International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The government mandate on the discharge is that the total amount of annual release of the ALPS treated water must be below 22 trillion Bq/L, they revealed.

Radiological impact

Talking about the concern of radiological impact and based on the studies, the spokesperson added that each year, Japan’s natural radiation level is 2.1 mSV per year. The exposure when discharging the ALPS water into the sea, on the other hand, will be approximately 0.0000018 mSV per year. Thus, the impact is less than 1/100,000 of natural radiation exposure in Japan.

Nuclides other than Tritium

Around 70 per cent of all the tanks at the FDNPS (around 0.90 million tonnes out of 1.28 million tonnes in total) currently contain radionuclides of the water, which exceed the regulatory limit. These radionuclides other than tritium will be re-purified to bring them below the regulatory standard by using ALPS again before the discharge.

These include cobalt, manganese, cesium, throntium, iodine, etc. The existence of radionuclides itself is not an issue, according to the Agency of Natural Resources and Energy. What matters is the total radiation impact from all kinds of radioactive materials in the water. Furthermore, the agency assures that the radiation level will be maintained below the regulatory standards, to ensure the safety of people and the environment.

The spokesperson added that regardless of the type of the facility, accident plants or operational reactors, the regulatory standards are set to control the type of the total radiological impact of all the nuclides. "It is not a matter of nuclides or number of nuclides, but the total radiological impact to human should be considered," they stated.

Additional activities

Besides the release of ALPS water, the other activities to decommission the plant include retrieval of spent fuel stored inside the plant buildings. Another very important need is the removal of fuel debris. This is the fuel that melted during the 3.11 incident and solidified once exposed, which is still stuck inside the containment vessels. Going forward, there will also be a requirement to handle waste materials inside the plant and to ensure the safer storage of the waste.

"In order to retrieve the spent fuel, there is a vital need for space. This is why the government is looking at the safe release of ALPS treated water into the sea that is currently occupying a lot of space on the premises. By doing so, the overall risk at the FDNPS can also be reduced."

The Pride of Fukushima — Anpogaki or Persimmons — has earned quite a reputation for its unique taste and texture as well as its cultivation as per safety standards. All the fruits out of Fukushima are labelled under NDT standards and undergo strict vigilance.
The Pride of Fukushima — Anpogaki or Persimmons — has earned quite a reputation for its unique taste and texture as well as its cultivation as per safety standards. All the fruits out of Fukushima are labelled under NDT standards and undergo strict vigilance.

Fukushima is ready, are you?

A home to world-famous tourist spots, award-winning food and hospitable people, there is little that Fukushima doesn’t offer. Ken Nemoto, Assistant Director and Desk Chief, International Affairs Division, Fukushima Prefectural Government on industry and tourism in Fukushima, gives us the highlight of the place.

The Fukushima prefecture, located in the Tohoku region, is one of the largest and the most beautiful places in Japan. The mountainous region is resplendent in multiple shades of red, orange and brown in autumn. A wide variety of unique and specialised food products also make the prefecture one of the most acclaimed. 80 minutes from Tokyo via Shinkasen bullet train, the journey is scenic and a memorable one.

Fukushima is divided into three regions — Aizu, which is the western region, Nakadori, the central region and Hamadori, the coastal region. Aizu is famous as a sight-seeing destination, surrounded by mountains, of which Mount Bandai is the regional landmark. Many hiking and skiing opportunities and scenic beauty can be enjoyed in the city's natural surroundings. Sandwiched between the regions of Aizu to the west and Hamadōri to the east, Nakadori is famous for its industrial areas. Hamadori, facing the sea, is famous for fisheries. The coastal area in the east of Fukushima Prefecture in Tohoku means ‘the road along the coast’.

Foodies Paradise

Fukushima is renowned for its cultural traditions and food such as rice, fruits and vegetables. Home to five varieties of rice, all are which are accredited and ranked number one in Japan. No wonder, the prefecture is called the ‘Kingdom of rice’.

The region is also nicknamed the ‘Kingdom of fruit'. Globally ranked second in peach production, the prefecture also bears pears, apples, grapes, strawberries and persimmons, among the famous names.

The highlight of Fukushima Prefecture was when the softball and baseball games of the Tokyo Olympics were held there this year. The director of the US softball team who had a chance to taste the peaches in the prefecture famously said: “What marvelous taste Fukushima peaches have.”

However, post the 311 mishap, Fukushima farmers faced a lot of disparity for their agricultural, forestry and fisheries products, and the difference still remains. But with the efforts of Japan Agricultural Fukushima Mirai and other such agencies, steps are in place to push away the doubts of consumers with advanced, non-destructive testing processes in place today. Nemoto assures that all the food products out of Fukushima today are NDT-certified and with Japan imposing 10 times stricter Codex standards than worldwide, the goal is achievable in Fukushima products.


Food and culture played an important role in attracting tourists and so do the hotspots. Needless to say, Fukushima is totally safe to visit. The third largest of the total of 47 prefectures in Japan, don’t miss out on the 136 hotsprings, Bandami-atami onsen being the most famous.

Aizu is famous for Lake Inawashiro and Mount Bandai, Goshiki Numa, and five coloured lakes, Hanami Yama, Shiramizu Amidado, JR Tadami Line, and Hinoemata Kabuki. In a survey done recently, Nemoto adds that as the place comes back to normalcy and people are flocking to the towns, Fukushima now ranks second in tourist destination domestically after the Covid-19 pandemic.

To attract more visitors, the government has also taken initiatives to create unique programmes such as Hope Tourism in cooperation with the Great East Japan Earthquake Disaster Memorial Museum and other hubs, as well as spreading information about places related to Tokyo Olympics as part of the legacy of Recovery Olympics.

Business Investment Subsidy

The government is also now pushing for revitalisation of industries by creating employment opportunities and industry expansion by supporting companies looking to start anew or expand facilities. They are also actively supporting self-help and return to employment by plans to build plants in the evacuated areas to aid people to come back.

Fukushima Innovation Coast

The Fukushima Innovation Coast Framework is supporting the inward investment of companies to the Hamadori area of Fukushima Prefecture. Not only Japanese companies but also overseas companies are included in the target, but currently the achievements are limited.

Specific examples of the overseas companies include the establishment of a joint venture between a company in Fukushima prefecture and a Thai company and the establishment of a joint venture between a domestic general trading company and an Australian company.

In addition, in cooperation with JETRO, the governemnt also holds matching events in which foreign-affiliated companies also participate. At this event, multiple foreign-affiliated companies participate in matching and business negotiations with large companies and venture companies.

Furthermore, in the ‘energy field’, which is one of the priority fields of the Fukushima Innovation Coast Framework, Lancaster City in the United States and Namie Town in Fukushima Prefecture signed a ‘local government partnership for the realisation of a hydrogen society’ in October this year.

Three core pillars based on a blueprint drawn in 2019 are:

- A region where people can take up any challenge: Plans to develop the coastal region to be a place where new challenges can be taken up.

- Local companies are major player: Widespread cooperation between local and incoming companies to the region.

- Fostering human resource: Foster innovators and professionals in the industrial clusters.

The prefecture plans on becoming a hub in Japan for projects such as decommissioning, robotics and drones, energy environment and recycling, agriculture, forestry and fisheries, healthcare and aerospace.

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