New Fukushima bus service broadens options for residents near no-go zones

[Translated by The Japan Times] Local residents in Fukushima Prefecture saw the return of public transportation on Jan. 31 after East Japan Railway Co. began a bus service that passes through the exclusion zone around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. The service, which connects the JR Joban Line’s Haranomachi Station in the city of Minamisoma and Tatsuta Station in the town of Naraha in 70 to 85 minutes, uses National Route 6 and other roads. It gives residents another option for travel after 46 km of seaside train tracks in the prefecture were destroyed in the March 11, 2011, disasters. The Cabinet Office estimates a passenger on the new service will receive around 1.2 microsieverts of radiation per one-way trip, assuming the bus passes the exclusion zone at 40 kph. Drivers will carry dosimeters and, if requested, can inform passengers their radiation exposure levels. At 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 31, around 30 people lined up at the Haranomachi Station bus terminal for the service. Tomoko Takahashi, a 40-year-old office worker from Minamisoma, said she took the first of two bus services that day to meet her three children, who were evacuated to the prefecture’s western city of Minamiaizu as the nuclear catastrophe unfolded. Takahashi had used a different bus service that passes through the inland city of Fukushima to make her weekly visits, but heavy snow had canceled the service on Jan. 31. “I’m really happy I have more than one option,” she said. Rei Nakagawa, 84, took the new bus service from Tatsuta to teach a koto lesson in the city of Soma. Before the new service became available, he was forced to use a different bus and a train, a trip that took him six hours. “The new service helps me for sure, but I think it will also help the recovery of the region significantly,” Nakagawa said. Local government officials had long lobbied for the new bus route. Minamisoma Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai took the first bus and also made a return trip between Haranomachi and Tatsuta. “This is great news for the roughly 700 residents of Minamisoma who have been forced to evacuate to the city of Iwaki,” he said, adding that he would lobby for an expansion of the twice-daily bus service. An official at the Minamisoma Tourism Association, meanwhile, expressed hope that the bus route will allow more people to visit the city, including students on school trips. Restoring the section of rail destroyed in the disasters remains a far-off goal, however. Shingo Odai, a 62-year-old company executive posted in Haranomachi who rode the bus from the town to his home in Hitachi, Ibaraki Prefecture, voiced hope for a quick recovery of train services. “While the new bus route is welcome, I think it would be even more convenient if we get train services back,” Odai said.