With No End to Crisis in Sight, Residents and Fishermen Are Fighting Back

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Fishermen hang out by a boat that they live in at Onahama port in northeastern Japan on April 5, 2011, following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (AP Photo/The Yomiuri Shimbun, Takumi Harada)

From the earliest days of Japan’s triple disaster, the residents forced to flee their homes in the evacuation zone around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have not had a lot of information to work with. Many only found out that they were supposed to leave by grace of the internet or the evening news, and when they did, had to organize their own way to safety. Thousands of nuclear refugees are now living indeterminately in evacuation centers scattered from Tokyo to Yamagata without any idea when they might be able to go home, or what their fate will be if they can’t. (See pictures of life in Japan’s evacuation centers.)

Now some are beginning to fight back. On Tuesday, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) announced a provisional plan to make token payments to farmers and residents in nine communities around the plant by the end of the month. The offer was made to 10 towns, but one – Namie, population ca. 20,000 – refused to take the functionally useless handout. Though TEPCO itself did not confirm the amount it would offer each city, a Namie city official told CNN that it was around 20 million yen — about $12 for each of Namie’s residents. Tamotsu Baba, Namie’s mayor, told CNN that they were rejecting the money on principle. “Where’s our direct apology?” he asked.

TEPCO has not been entirely uncontrite. When the utility announced on Monday, for instance, that it would have to start dumping low-level radioactive water directly into the sea, officials were reportedly visibly uncomfortable delivering the bleak news. There has been much speculation that the utility will have to be at least partially taken over by the government in order to pay out the huge compensation claims it is already racking up – up to $12.3 billion in the best-case scenario, according to a report by Bank of American Merrill Lynch. Meanwhile, the government has made moves to set aside up to 3 trillion yen this week to finance the reconstruction of the northeast, though government lawmakers expect that  installment will be followed up with at least two similar amounts during the year, amounting to as much as 10 trillion yen in the end.

(See TIME’s full coverage of the the crisis in Japan.)

Namie’s city officials aren’t alone in making their displeasure known. Two days after TEPCO said it would be dumping irradiated water off the coast, Japan’s National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives Associations issued an unsparing statement expressing fishermen’s outrage at the situation, particularly at not being consulted in the “unforgiveable” decision to dump toxic water into the sea. Japanese seafood exports, estimated at 195 billion yen last year, are already being severely impacted by the month’s events; from London to Los Angeles, foreign buyers are balking at the prospect of buying fish that could be contaminated. In response, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano announced that fishermen, too, will be compensated for their loss of livelihood under the provisional compensation plan, though further details were not provided.

Both the fishermen and residents who have lived side by side with the nuclear reactor for years say that Tepco never warned them about the potential danger the Daiichi power plant posed. On the contrary, both parties say they were explicitly told it was safe. A week after the disaster, Norimasa Kato, a resident of Minami-soma, a city within the 19-mile evacuation zone of the power plant, was shocked at finding himself newly homeless. “The company was telling people it was safe. They promised it was safe. Where the hell did that promise go?” he asked, playing with his young son on a pile of blankets in a city gymnasium where he was now living. “We had no idea such a thing could happen.”

When and how residents like Kato will be able to go back home is far from clear, and when they do, they will face a very different reality. Dr. Makoto Akashi, executive director of the National Institute of Radiological Sciences, says that it’s possible, if the cooling systems get back online soon, that people could return to the area within three to six months at the earliest, after the area is decontaminated as much as possible through removal of radioactive soil and washing external surfaces that were exposed to high atmospheric radiation levels. The more enduring problems, Akashi says, will be water and food.  “We will have to buy bottles water from other areas. No choice,” he says, and residents will also have “to buy vegetables and rice from other areas.”

Namie’s mayor told the Maichichi Daily News that though the city, like others in the area, had been receiving a yearly subsidy of between 400 and 500 million yen for living so close to the plant, now, it didn’t seem worth it. As Baba told the local daily,”The trade-off turned out to be overwhelmingly costly.”