storage tanks at Fukushima
© IAEA Imagebank
A team from the IAEA looks at water storage tanks at Fukushima in Nov. 2013.
Greenpeace charges that pro-nuclear Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cares more about politics than public health

As the Japanese government moves to accelerate the return of Fukushima refugees to their homes, environmental advocacy organization Greenpeace warned Tuesday that radioactive contamination remains "so widespread and at such a high level that" that it will be impossible for people to safely go back.

Four years after an earthquake and tsunami touched off the nuclear meltdown, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pressing to lift evacuation orders by March 2017 and cut off compensation to victims of the disaster by 2018. The move would allow—and some say force—tens of thousands of refugees to go back to their homes.

The pro-nuclear prime minister says that the move, proposed in June, is aimed at speeding up Fukushima's "reconstruction."

Greenpeace, however, warns that such a development would be reckless and dangerous. The organization evaluated radiation contamination in Iitate, a forested 75-square-mile district in the Fukushima prefecture, and found that even after "decontamination," the radiation level remains at 2uSv/h—or ten times the maximum deemed safe for the public.

"Prime Minister Abe would like the people of Japan to believe that they are decontaminating vast areas of Fukushima to levels safe enough for people to live in," said Jan Vande Putte, radiation specialist with Greenpeace Belgium, in a press statement. "The reality is that this is a policy doomed to failure. The forests of Iitate are a vast stock of radioactivity that will remain both a direct hazard and source of potential recontamination for hundreds of years. It's impossible to decontaminate."

According to Greenpeace, the elimination of compensation would effectively force people back into an environment that is dangerous for their health.

"Stripping nuclear victims of their already inadequate compensation, which may force them to have to return to unsafe, highly radioactive areas for financial reasons, amounts to economic coercion," said Putte. "Let's be clear: this is a political decision by the Abe Government, not one based on science, data, or public health."

Meanwhile, nuclear refugees from Iitate are fighting for adequate compensation through an Alternative Dispute Resolution process. Their lawyer, Yasushi Tadano, said: "The Iitate people's fate is another of numerous cases in the past where Japan abandoned its people, as with the Ashio mining pollution and Minamata disease. We can not allow this to happen again."

Residents across Japan have staged protests and filed lawsuits to block nuclear restarts, and polls show that, in the aftermath of the 2011 disaster, a clear majority of the Japanese public opposes nuclear power. In addition, surveys reveal low public confidence in the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Co.—the company behind the Fukushima Daiichi plant that continues to release radiation into the ecosystem.

Despite public opposition, Abe is aggressively pursuing a return to nuclear power. Earlier this month, Abe's Liberal Democratic Party revealed that it aims to have 20 percent of the country's electricity supplied by nuclear power by 2030.