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Japan should not push residents back to Fukushima: UN expert

Tokyo defends decision to raise radiation ceiling

Visitors check radiation levels near Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s tsunami-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- A United Nations-appointed expert on pollution and human rights criticized the Japanese government on Thursday as too eager to send Fukushima Prefecture residents back to the homes from which well over 100,000 were displaced by the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

"The gradual lifting of evacuation orders has created enormous strains on people whose lives have already been affected by the worst nuclear disaster of this century," said U.N. Special Rapporteur Baskut Tuncak, who presented to a General Assembly committee meeting a new report on hazardous substances and wastes.

"Many feel they are being forced to return to areas that are unsafe, including those with radiation levels above what the government previously considered safe," Tuncak said in a news release. He also cited the government's March 2017 move to stop providing housing subsidies to "self-evacuees, who fled from areas other than the government-designated evacuation zones."

After the nuclear disaster, Japan raised acceptable levels of radiation for Fukushima residents to 20 millisieverts per year from 1 millisievert per year. The sievert is the standard measure of radiation absorbed in living tissue.

"It is disappointing to see Japan appear to all but ignore" recommendations from a U.N. human rights mechanism to return acceptable radiation levels "to what it considered an acceptable dose of radiation before the nuclear disaster," Tuncak said in the news release.

Responding in a speech at the U.N., a representative from the Japanese delegation expressed "strong opposition" to the report and disputed the accuracy of Tuncak's current and past news releases.

"Fukushima Prefecture continues to provide housing assistance in the form of financial aid to rent private houses," the representative said. "The expression 'stop the housing subsidies' is therefore inaccurate."

The government currently provides temporary housing through a program scheduled to end in March 2020 in all but two towns that will still be covered, but ended unconditional housing subsidies in March 2017 to those who had left areas not deemed mandatory evacuation zones.

"To date, the government continues its effort to attain the long-term target for individual additional dose of exposure to radiation per year to within 1 millisievert," the representative said, adding that Tuncak's news release invites inaccurate media reports and propagates Fukushima's negative reputation. The figure of 20 millisieverts per year is in line with 2007 recommendations from the International Commission on Radiological Protection, he said. The recommendations set annual effective-dose limits of 1 millisievert for "public exposure" and 20 millisieverts a year, averaged over five years, for "occupational exposure" -- both in nonmedical "planned exposure situations."

Japan is making efforts with a view to "dissipating this negative reputation and restoring life back to normal," the representative said.

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