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Pains, gains accompany Fukushima disaster recovery work

A worker engaged in disaster recovery is pictured in Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture, on Aug. 29, 2017. The worker noted a variety of professions his fellow recovery workers had been engaged in the past, such as cooking and caregiving. (Mainichi)

FUKUSHIMA -- Nearly six and a half years since the outbreak of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant disaster, numerous people from across the country are engaged in disaster recovery work in Fukushima Prefecture, including 5,000-plus workers a day engaged in reactor decommissioning at the plant and others joining decontamination work in the region. Despite a lack of deep exchanges with local communities, the workers take pride in their jobs that contribute to regional reconstruction.

    A former farmer in his 50s hailing from southern Fukushima Prefecture has been engaged in reactor decommissioning and decontamination of houses tainted with radioactive materials emanating from the nuclear disaster over the past four years. He found the job through a public job placement office after abandoning his apple orchard due to harmful rumors in the wake of the nuclear disaster.

    "The succulent apples that I used to grow were very popular," he said, reminiscing about his farming days during an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun at a park near National Route No. 6, whose traffic is busy with vehicles involved in disaster recovery work. He used to be a part-time farmer while working for an automobile company, but he switched to full-time farming after being reassured of the popularity of his apples with a high sugar content, as they had earned a good reputation among consumers even from as far away as Tokyo.

    The nuclear disaster broke out at a time when he was adding more apple trees to his orchard. Telephone orders for apples slowed after fears of possible radiation contamination spread among consumers. He was overwhelmed by snowballing debts, becoming even unable to cover fertilizer expenses. He had no choice but to leave farming.

    Currently, he clears land at a construction site for an interim storage facility straddling over the Fukushima Prefecture towns of Okuma and Futaba for radiation-tainted soil generated from decontamination work in the prefecture.

    As disaster recovery work often takes place in areas with high radiation doses, workers' daily wages are almost 10,000 yen higher than those of general construction workers, according to him. When it comes to work on the premises of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, the monthly wage sometimes even tops 500,000 yen.

    Workers engaged in disaster recovery are seen with groceries they have bought at a supermarket in Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, on the evening of Aug. 23, 2017. (Mainichi)

    In the meantime, he sometimes feels a sense of anxiety among residents toward the soaring number of disaster recovery workers in the area as they are complete strangers to locals. This appears to be partly because some workers have been arrested over criminal cases such as theft and assault. Although he had wished he could resume farming once disaster recovery progresses, his hopes were gradually dashed amid prolonged reconstruction work.

    Having his own family to support, he has little choice but to stay with his current job. "We must help fellow prefectural residents because they are having a difficult time," he once told himself, but he sometimes feels helpless whenever he sees houses that he and his fellow workers thoroughly cleaned remaining unoccupied. "What are we doing this for?" he wonders every now and then.

    A man in his early 30s originally from Tochigi Prefecture has been involved in demolition work for houses that were vacated by residents due to evacuation orders and have become dilapidated. Once a system engineer upon graduation from university, he subsequently changed jobs a couple of times during his six years living in Tokyo after simply getting tired of daylong computer work. He ended up returning to his parents' home in Tochigi and found a part-time job.

    One day, he was driving along the Fukushima coastlines for the first time and was devastated to see houses that were barricaded as they were within the so-called "difficult-to-return" zones plagued by high radiation levels.

    "I want to participate in historic work to rebuild Fukushima," he thought to himself. He wasted no time to search for a job on the internet and soon found himself clad in a work suit, doing heavy physical work under the scorching sun -- his first such experience.

    "What you do is something we cannot carry out on our own. Thank you," an elderly disaster victim once told him. He was thrilled, realizing he was somehow being of help to the area. "I'm so happy," he said.

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