Tokyo, Japan - The discovery of radioactive contamination in "shiitake" mushrooms grown in Manazuru town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 300 km away from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, has raised public clamour for compensation.
Soon after the discovery, on April 5, Kanagawa authorities directed farmers and organisations dealing with agricultural produce not to ship shiitake mushrooms, a delicacy prized for its nutritive and medicinal properties in East Asian countries.
Some of the Manazuru mushroom samples were found to have over 141 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kg, while samples taken from Murata, Miyagi Prefecture, showed cesium levels as high as 350 becquerels.
The discovery comes as residents of areas surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, are raising compensation demands from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Residents of the once scenic Odaka village, located 10 km from the plant, who have been forced to abandon their farms, schools and homes, have pinned hopes for adequate recompense on a lawsuit they filed against TEPCO in February.
"The lawsuit is the only thing we have to give us some meaning to our lives after we lost our homes, livelihoods, community and the trust we had for the authorities," Susumi Yamasawa, who heads a local citizen group that has filed the suit, said.
Yamasawa, 69, a farmer who had cultivated rice for decades in Odaka said: "Life was peaceful and we did not worry too much about risks from the nuclear plant nearby until the accident."
"The hardest is seeing our close-knit community disintegrate," Yamasawa said. "Youth and children have left the area to avoid the radiation risk. The future is bleak."
Yamasawa's lawsuit adds to a whole clutch filed by citizens affected by the nuclear accident who are blaming the government and TEPCO for the predicament they find themselves in.
"Patience is running out," Ryuzo Sato, an Odaka resident, said. He feels that the availability of temporary housing, monetary reimbursements and living allowances can never fully compensate for what the residents have lost.
Officials reported last month that TEPCO may have to pay out $56.2bnn - a figure that could escalate - in compensation for business and financial losses from the nuclear accident. More than 1.7 million people have been affected to varying degrees.
Hiroyuki Kawai, who is leading 42 shareholders in their bid for compensation from TEPCO for negligence at the tsunami-sparked disaster at the plant, said senior managers must be made to pay personally.
The TEPCO shareholders are suing 27 executives of the company for $6bn, a record sum.
Kawai, who has represented several anti-nuclear movements in Japan, said the case is aimed at fixing individual responsibility for the drastic mistakes made by members of the TEPCO management.
"TEPCO failed to take into account earthquake and tsunami warnings that were made by researchers who pointed to the huge risk posed on the Fukushima nuclear reactors from a disaster… The accident clearly points to negligence and irresponsibility on the part of individuals who represent the management," Kawai said.
Yui Kimura, a shareholder, told media on March 27 that the plaintiffs had repeatedly raised the issue of risks to the nuclear plant from an earthquake and tsunami, but the management ignored their concerns.
"The Japanese system is such that TEPCO is not investigated by prosecutors for their mistakes. Our decision to go to courts is to force the individuals who made the mistakes to take personal responsibility and pay from their own pockets," she said.
TEPCO has assigned pay and bonus cuts on its employees and set up panels to collect compensation. The utility has borrowed public money and is reporting a $7.6bn loss after the decommissioning of the Fukushima nuclear reactors.
Kawai said the crux of the lawsuit is to reform the Japanese system which allows failed directors to hide behind the corporate wall, stepping down from their positions when they make a mistake, but nothing more.
"The only way to remedy an unfair the system is to get the people who made the wrong decisions to pay for their mistakes using their own assets," Kawai said.
Lack of emergency manual
Reports issued after the accident illustrate lack of an emergency manual in TEPCO to deal with a severe accident and blatant disregard for safety measures in the plants including safety drills.
"When we used to protest against nuclear power, we were looked down upon by the public as strange people," said Kimura. "Now they know the truth and support us. Nuclear power is about vested interests. We must stand up and protect life."
The Fukushima crisis could have been prevented if TEPCO had carried out simple preventive measures, such as placing an emergency power source on higher ground, Kawai said.
Radiation leaked over a large area, forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes and rendering farming impossible in an ever-widening radius - as illustrated by the radioactive shiitake mushrooms in Kanagawa prefecture, part of which falls in the Greater Tokyo metropolitan area.
On March 17, a government panel recommended that about $74,000 be paid to each individual unable to return home for the next five years because of radiation contamination - though this is seen as inadequate.
The money is also intended to compensate for the mental suffering of evacuees whose homes "are in a zone where it is difficult to return for a long time," said the compensation panel under the ministry of education, culture, sports, science and technology.
Victims who fall in that zone will receive the full value of their real estate, as calculated before the disaster struck, if the recommendations of the panel are followed.
A version of this story was first published by Inter Press Service news agency.