“If South Korea or China announced the same thing, I’m sure that the Japanese government and the vast majority of the Japanese people would also object,” she said.

Governments in the region most likely feel domestic pressure to take a strong stance, said Eunjung Lim, an associate professor of international relations at Kongju National University in Gongju, South Korea, who specializes in Japan and South Korea.

Whether their worries are rational or not, many people in the region “are going to be very, very anxious about what would happen if this radioactive material came into our near seas and contaminated our resources,” she said.

Even under the best of circumstances, Japan would find it “really difficult to persuade its neighbors to accept this kind of decision, because obviously, it’s not our fault. It’s Japan’s fault, so why do we have to experience this kind of difficulty?” she added.

Regional tensions have made surrounding countries even less receptive to the plan. In recent years, territorial disputes and disagreements over trade and historical issues related to World War II have strained Japan’s relations with China and South Korea, with spillover effects on government dialogues across a broad range of issues.

China warned Japan on Tuesday against taking any decision without further consultation with the international community, saying that it “reserved the right to take further action.”

In its statement, South Korea accused Japan of taking “unilateral action” without seeking consultation and understanding with South Korea, which “lies closest to Japan.”

Some in Japan believe that such complaints should be met with more than scientific arguments. Shunichi Tanaka, a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, said that the criticism smacked of hypocrisy.

South Korea itself operates four heavy-water reactors that routinely discharge water containing tritium at higher levels than those planned in Fukushima, he said in a recent interview.

“When South Korea makes claims like this, we shouldn’t be quiet, we need to properly refute them,” he said.

But the challenge Japan faces is not just on the global stage. At home, many are reluctant to trust the government or Tepco, the nuclear plant’s operator.

A parliamentary commission found that the meltdowns had been the result of a lack of oversight and of collusion between the government, the plant’s owner and regulators. And Tepco was forced to retract assertions that it had treated most of the wastewater. In fact, it had completely processed only about one-fifth, a problem that arose from a failure to change filters in the decontamination system frequently enough.

Ultimately, Japan is in a battle to alter perceptions, whether of the trustworthiness of its own government or of the risk posed by the treated water, said Hirohiko Fukushima, a professor at Chuo Gakuin University specializing in local governance issues.

In Fukushima, the government’s response to local concerns has often come across as highhanded, he said. Changing that view will require the authorities to improve transparency around their decisions and build new relationships, he said.

“From my perspective,” he added, “it’s probably difficult for Japan to convince foreign countries when it can’t even convince its own people.”

Choe Sang-Hun contributed reporting from Seoul. Albee Zhang contributed research from Shanghai.

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Japan to Start Releasing Radioactive Water From Fukushima in 2 Years

Japan said on Tuesday that it had decided to gradually release tons of treated wastewater from the ruined Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the ocean, describing it as the best option for disposal despite fierce opposition from fishing crews at home and concern from governments abroad.

The plan to release the water in two years was approved during a cabinet meeting of ministers early Tuesday.

Disposal of the wastewater has been long delayed by public opposition and by safety concerns. But the space used to store the water is expected to run out next year, and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told lawmakers on Monday that the ocean release was “unavoidable” and could no longer be postponed.

The Fukushima crisis was set off in March 2011 by a huge earthquake and tsunami that ripped through northeastern Japan and killed more than 19,000 people. The subsequent meltdown of three of the plant’s six reactors was the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Tens of thousands of people fled the area around the plant or were evacuated, in many cases never to return.

Ten years later, the cleanup is far from finished at the disabled plant, which is operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company. To keep the three damaged reactor cores from melting, cooling water is pumped through them continuously. The water is then sent through a powerful filtration system that is able to remove all of the radioactive material except for tritium, an isotope of hydrogen that experts say is not harmful to human health in small doses.

said last year that both options were “technically feasible.” Nuclear power plants around the world routinely discharge treated wastewater containing tritium into the sea.

But the Japanese government’s plan faces strong opposition from local officials and fishing crews, who say that it would add to consumer fears about the safety of Fukushima seafood. Catch levels in the area are already a small fraction of what they were before the disaster.

expressed concerns.

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Fukushima Photos: 10 Years Later

Ten years after a devastating earthquake and tsunami led to a nuclear meltdown in northern Japan, residents are readjusting to places that feel familiar and hostile at once.


FUKUSHIMA, Japan — After an earthquake and tsunami pummeled a nuclear plant about 12 miles from their home, Tomoko Kobayashi and her husband joined the evacuation and left their Dalmatian behind, expecting they would return home in a few days.

It ended up being five years. Even now — a decade after those deadly natural disasters on March 11, 2011, set off a catastrophic nuclear meltdown — the Japanese government has not fully reopened villages and towns within the original 12-mile evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. And even if it did, many former residents have no plans to return.

Some of those who did return figured that coming home was worth the residual radiation risk. Others, like Ms. Kobayashi, 68, had businesses to restart.

“We had reasons to come back and the means to do so,” said Ms. Kobayashi, who manages a guesthouse. “It made sense — to an extent.”

one million tons of contaminated water into the sea has riled local fishermen, and cases against the government and the plant operator are winding through the country’s highest courts. The issue of nuclear power remains highly fraught.

And for miles around the plant, there are physical reminders of an accident that forced the exodus of about 164,000 people.

crashed ashore, flooding his auto body shop in the industrial city of Koriyama.

It can feel that way in the town of Namie, where bags of radioactive waste have piled up.

new schools, roads, public housing and other infrastructure in an effort to lure former residents back.

Some residents in their 60s and beyond see the appeal. It can be hard for them to imagine living anywhere else.

“They want to be in their hometown,” said Tsunao Kato, 71, who reopened his third-generation barbershop even before its running water had been restored. “They want to die here.”

One upside is that the threat of lingering radiation feels less immediate than that of the coronavirus, said Mr. Kato, whose shop is in the city of Minami Soma. In that sense, living amid the reminders of nuclear disaster — in towns where streetlights illuminate empty intersections — is a welcome sort of social distancing.

At a Futaba nursery school, umbrellas have sat untouched for a decade, protecting no one from the rain.

Nearby, a collapsed house is still waiting for a demolition crew.

Mr. Kato said that while he was happy to be back, he struggled to balance a desire to stay with the knowledge that living somewhere else would probably be safer.

“Logic and emotion can’t mesh,” he said, “like oil and water.”

Like Mr. Kato, Ms. Kobayashi had been running a family business, in her case a guesthouse, when the magnitude-9 earthquake struck. The guesthouse in Minami Soma has been in her family for generations, and she took it over in 2001 when her mother retired.

The guesthouse sustained significant water damage from the tsunami. But Ms. Kobayashi’s family restored and reopened it. (Their Dalmatian, who survived the nuclear accident, died just before the renovation was completed.)

They did not expect a surge of tourists, she said, but hoped to serve people who wanted to return to the area and had nowhere to stay.

“There’s no town left,” she said. “If you come back, you have to rebuild.”

Hikari Hida reported from Tokyo, and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.

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The Mayor’s House Was Firebombed. The Message: Keep Our Town Nuclear-Free.

SUTTSU, Japan — It seemed like easy money. The Japanese government was conducting a study of potential locations for storing spent nuclear fuel — a review of old geological maps and research papers about local plate tectonics. It put out a call for localities to volunteer. Participating would commit them to nothing.

Haruo Kataoka, the mayor of an ailing fishing town on the northern island of Hokkaido, put up his hand. His town, Suttsu, could use the money. What could go wrong?

The answer, he quickly learned, was a lot. A resident threw a firebomb at his home. Others threatened to recall the town council. A former prime minister traveled six hours from Tokyo to denounce the plan. The town, which spends much of the year in a snowbound hush, was enveloped in a media storm.

There are few places on earth eager to host a nuclear waste dump. Only Finland and Sweden have settled on permanent repositories for the dregs of their atomic energy programs. But the furor in Suttsu speaks to the deep anxiety that remains in Japan 10 years after an immense earthquake and tsunami caused the meltdown of three nuclear reactors in Fukushima Prefecture, the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

promise that the country made late last year to be carbon-neutral by 2050.

Even before the Fukushima calamity, which led to three explosions and a release of radiation that forced the evacuation of 150,000 people, ambivalence toward nuclear energy was deeply ingrained in Japan. The country is haunted by the hundreds of thousands killed by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

Still, most Japanese had come to terms with nuclear power, viewing it as an inevitable part of the energy mix for a resource-poor country that must import about 90 percent of the materials it needs to generate electricity.

government’s plan to release a million tons of treated radioactive water from the site into the ocean.

The government says it would make small releases over 30 years with no impact on human health. Fishermen in Fukushima say that the plan would wreck their long journey toward recovery.

“We have this potentially dangerous technology and we still rely on it and we need to have a long-range view on nuclear waste and decommissioning, so we better think about a much more democratic way to handle the cost associated with it,” Mr. Miyazaki said in an interview.

Critics of nuclear power in Japan frequently point to the decades of failure to find a solution to the waste problem as an argument against restarting the country’s existing reactors, much less building new ones.

In November, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi took his campaign against nuclear energy to Suttsu at the invitation of local activists. Speaking in the town’s gymnasium, he said that after visiting Finland’s underground waste storage site — a facility much like the one proposed by the Japanese government — he had decided that Japan’s active geology would make it impossible to find a workable location.

Japanese reactors have generated more than 18,000 tons of spent fuel over the last half-century. A small proportion of that has been turned into glass — through a process known as vitrification — and sheathed in giant metal canisters.

Almost 2,500 of the huge radioactive tubes are sitting in temporary facilities in Aomori and Ibaraki Prefectures, waiting to be lowered 1,000 feet beneath the earth’s surface into vast underground vaults. There, they would spend millenniums shedding their toxic burden.

It will be decades — if ever — before a site is selected and the project begins in earnest. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan, known as NUMO and represented by a cartoon mole cautiously sticking its snout out of a hole, is in charge of finding a final resting place.

Long before he took NUMO up on its offer to conduct a study in his town, Mr. Kataoka, the Suttsu mayor, had taken an entrepreneurial view toward government subsidies.

Suttsu has a population of just under 2,900, spread thinly around the rocky rim of a deep cerulean bay, where fishing boats prowl for mackerel and squid. Beginning in 1999, with government-supported loans, Mr. Kataoka championed an initiative to install a stand of towering wind turbines along the shore.

Many in the town were initially opposed, he said during an interview in his office, but the project has delivered handsome returns. The town has spent the profits from selling electricity to pay off debts. Townspeople have free access to a heated pool, a golf course and a modest ski slope with a rope tow. Next to a sleek community center is a free day care for the few residents with children.

The facilities are not unusual for small-town Japan. Many localities have tried to stave off decline by spending large sums on white elephant projects. In Suttsu, the effect has been limited. The town is shrinking, and in early March, snow was piled to the eaves of newly built but shuttered stores along the main street.

Mr. Kataoka nominated Suttsu for the NUMO program, he said, out of a sense of responsibility to the nation. The subsidies, he admitted, are a nice bonus. But many in Suttsu doubt the intentions of both Mr. Kataoka and the government. The town, they argue, does not need the money. And they question why he made the decision without public consultation.

At a meeting of the town council on Monday, residents expressed concern that once the process had begun, it would quickly gather momentum and become impossible to stop.

The plan has fiercely divided the town. Reporters have flooded in, putting the discord on national display. A sign in the hotel by the harbor makes it clear that the staff will not accept interviews.

In October, an angry resident threw a Molotov cocktail at Mr. Kataoka’s home. It broke a window, but he smothered it without any further damage. The perpetrator was arrested and is now out on bail. He has apologized, Mr. Kataoka said.

The mayor remains bewildered by the aggressive response. Mr. Katatoka insists that the literature review is not a fait accompli and that the townspeople will have the final say.

In October, he will run for a sixth term. He wants voters to support his proposal, but whatever the outcome, he hopes the town can move forward together.

Losing the election would be bad, he said, but “the saddest part of all this has been losing the town’s trust.”

Motoko Rich contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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10 Years After Fukushima Disaster, This Nurse May Be the Region’s Best Hope

Rina Tsugawa recalls a charmed childhood amid rice paddies in northern Japan, hopping on bicycles with her sister and roaming the streets of their village, where monkeys sometimes descended from the mountains and neighbors offered the girls sweets as they popped into their homes.

The sisters were the only children in their hamlet in Fukushima Prefecture, living with their mother and grandparents in the house where their grandfather was born. On that terrible day a decade ago when Fukushima was struck by a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, setting off a triple meltdown at a nuclear power plant, a 12-year-old Ms. Tsugawa was at school 90 miles inland. As the powerful shaking jolted her sixth-grade classroom, she and her classmates hid under their desks, crying in fear.

In the years since, many of her peers have left for jobs in Tokyo and other cities, an outflow common to rural Japan but accelerated by the disaster in Fukushima. Ms. Tsugawa has different plans. After graduating this month from nursing school, she ultimately wants to return to her hometown to care for the aging residents who helped raise her.

“They gave us so much when we were little,” said Ms. Tsugawa, now 22. “I want to help these elderly people stay healthy longer.”

several towns near the nuclear plant remain uninhabitable.

many graying and shrinking communities, where jobs are sparse, the lifestyle is inconvenient and birthrates are low. The town’s population, which peaked at close to 20,000 in 1950, has fallen to 6,000. Aging residents are close to half of the population, and health care workers are in short supply.

Katsuei Hirasawa, the country’s 10th minister for reconstruction since the disaster, said in a news briefing. “We must communicate that there are no safety-related issues in produce from Fukushima.”

Timothy Mousseau, a biologist at the University of South Carolina who has studied how radioactive contamination has affected animals and plants in Chernobyl and Fukushima.

As the disaster unfolded, Ms. Tsugawa did not learn just how devastating it was until her grandparents turned on the television later that afternoon. Like a horror movie on an endless loop, they watched scenes from the tsunami as it devoured the coastline. The next day, they learned of an explosion at the nuclear plant. A wall of water had knocked out the reactors’ cooling systems.

Although the residents of Nishiaizu never evacuated, Ms. Tsugawa began to read news items and social media posts insinuating that Fukushima was tainted. “There were these rumors that everyone in Fukushima was dangerous,” she recalled. “And that if you got close to them, you might get radiation sickness from them.”

When her mother, Yuki Tsugawa, took a business trip outside the prefecture about a year after the nuclear accident, someone scrawled the word “baka” — “stupid” — on the side of the car she had been driving. Ms. Tsugawa, 47, said she wondered if her Fukushima license plate was the reason.

Her elder daughter said she had no qualms about the safety of her hometown, where she hopes someday to raise her own family. “Just because there are some areas that are not safe,” she said, “doesn’t mean that all of Fukushima is unsafe.”

With her decision to become a geriatric nurse, Ms. Tsugawa is giving the prefecture exactly what it needs.

The demand for nursing care across Japan is so great that before the pandemic, the country began to relax its longtime insularity and allow more workers to be hired from other countries. In Fukushima, there is already a shortage of doctors and nurses. Kiyoshi Hanazumi, chief of the prefecture’s social welfare division, said that based on current trends, it will meet only about three-quarters of its needs for health care workers for older residents by 2025.

Ms. Tsugawa said she had wanted to become a nurse ever since she was 3 years old. Her grandfather had been hospitalized with lung cancer, and she observed the kindness of the medical staff who treated him.

Her interest in geriatric nursing developed over time. While their mother worked as a welfare coordinator in Nishiaizu, Ms. Tsugawa and her younger sister, Mana, 19, would accompany their grandmother, Haruko Tsugawa, 74, to visit neighbors.

“Everyone treated them as honorary grandchildren,” Mrs. Tsugawa said.

A year after the 2011 disaster, Yoshihiro Yabe, 42, also wanted to reclaim this kind of community. Mr. Yabe, a landscape architect, decided to return to Nishiaizu, where he was born, and start a family.

At one time, Mr. Yabe had planned to escape. But now he wants to reverse the migration that is all too common from his hometown.

When the earthquake and tsunami struck, Mr. Yabe was training in Canada and hoping to find a job in the United States.

“I was watching media in Japan and all over the world, and I felt that Fukushima was labeled as a contaminated prefecture,” he said. “So who would come here to create new businesses or want to start agriculture or raise their babies?”

Mr. Yabe said he felt he had to return, and he moved into his ancestral home — it has been in the family for 19 generations — and renovated some old storage warehouses for miso and soy sauce, converting them into a small inn.

He took over a local arts center and established an artists’ residency. Over the last eight years, he said, he has recruited 60 people to live in Nishiaizu, some from Tokyo and others from different parts of Fukushima Prefecture.

The town is far from resuscitated. Near Mr. Yabe’s home, half of the houses are abandoned. Aside from his 8- and 3-year-old daughters, he said, “I am the youngest guy” in the neighborhood.

Ms. Tsugawa, who starts a residency at the hospital connected to Fukushima Medical University in April, is also likely to be the youngest person in Sugiyama — population 21 — which is the enclave of Nishiaizu in which she grew up.

Even her mother had not originally intended to raise Ms. Tsugawa and her sister in Nishiaizu. Yuki Tsugawa attended technical college in Koriyama, more than 50 miles away, married and gave birth to Rina and Mana. Only after divorcing did Yuki move back in with her parents in the 100-year-old wood and slate-roofed home where she had been raised.

“If I stayed married, I probably would have stayed out” of Nishiaizu like most of her childhood classmates, Yuki Tsugawa said. “I often think ‘wow, nobody ever came back,’” she said.

Rina Tsugawa, who said she wanted to specialize in caring for patients with dementia, knows her town may struggle to survive.

“Of course, I don’t want my little village to disappear,” she said. “But even if we do things to try to get new people to come, that isn’t really happening. It’s difficult to make progress.”

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