Financial fallout from Fukushima disaster embittering victims

 

LETTER FROM JAPAN:IN AUTUMN last year, Katsuzo Shoji (75) was quietly farming rice, vegetables and a small herd of cattle in the picturesque village of Iitate. Today, he lives in a two-room temporary house 35km (22 miles) away with his wife Fumi (73).

His herd has been slaughtered, his farm abandoned to weeds. He is unlikely to earn a working income again, let alone return alive to the home that has been in his family since the 1880s.

Shoji’s story is just one of at least 80,000 from the irradiated prefecture of Fukushima, home to the disabled Daiichi nuclear power plant, which has been leaking radiation since the March 11th earthquake and tsunami knocked out its cooling system.

Most of those people were hastily evacuated from the immediate 20km (12.4-mile) vicinity of the crippled plant and the heavily irradiated towns and villages such as Iitate outside the zone, leaving behind all they had.

How is plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co to adequately compensate the victims of the planet’s worst nuclear disaster in 25 years? The government estimated this week that Tepco’s final compensation bill could top four trillion yen – more than €37 billion.

Many observers believe this is a gross underestimate: who is to pay the cost of decommissioning the Fukushima plant, for example, or cleaning up irradiated land that the government said this week could stretch to an area larger than the size of greater Tokyo?

For families like Shoji’s, such questions are very real. Since the disaster began, his family has been given just one million yen (€9,342) from Tepco, and another 300,000 yen for each family member in moving fees.

Shoji is applying for four million yen in final compensation for his farm but only expects to get half that. Standing in the way of even that modest sum is a 60-page compensation claim form accompanied by an explanation booklet 160 pages long. “We’ve spent days toiling over it and still have no idea what to do,” he says.

So complicated is the application process that a reported 3,000 people have been calling a Tepco hotline every day to ask questions or complain since the documents were sent out on September 12th. Many victims suspect that the company is making it deliberately difficult to deter all but the most dedicated, a charge it denies. Tepco says it is responding to those complaints by boosting the number of officials who explain the compensation process from 280 to 900.

Most analysts believe Tepco has no chance of footing the entire compensation bill without going bankrupt. In the summer, it announced plans to sell off properties and other assets to raise more than 600 billion yen.

It has so far paid out about 160 billion yen to households, businesses, fishermen and farmers like Shoji. But that amount is a drop in the bucket compared to the final cost of putting Shoji and thousands of others back on their feet.

Thousands of farmers are out of work. Hundreds of fishermen around the Fukushima coast have been banned from taking their boats out to sea because of the fear of contaminated fish. A few go out trawling for debris washed out by the March 11th tsunami, a job that earns them roughly €109 a day from the government. Some hope that, if they do enough to clean the sea up, they will be able to fish again.

Those who have managed to wade through Tepco’s application have found plenty to make them upset. Tepco wants the claimants to attach detailed evidence about properties and assets, and many understandably don’t have it.

A clause demands that victims waive the right to reject the size of the eventual compensation package once they sign off on the document. Following protests, the company has promised “flexibility” in dealing with claims but no cut in the length of the compensation forms.

Economy minister Yukio Edano, who was chief government spokesman through the worst of the Fukushima disaster, waded into the controversy this week. “I am a lawyer but, even as a lawyer, the content is difficult to read through immediately,” he said, adding that he found it “natural” that the victims were upset at the compensation process.

Shoji and his wife read about all this in the newspapers in their prefab bungalow, when they’re not whiling away the days wondering what will happen to them. “We’re the victims and Tepco is the perpetrator, but I get no sense at all of the company being guilty,” he says. “If I think about it, it makes me very sad, so I just try to focus on the future.”