In the 12 cities, towns and villages in Fukushima Prefecture that received evacuation orders from the central government or other entity in the wake of the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the conversion of farmland mainly for the installation of mega-solar power plants has continued apace.
Farmland conversion involves diverting arable land to non-farm uses such as residential or industrial.
The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned that a combined 783 hectares of arable land has been converted for solar power plants as of the end of last December, or the equivalent of 167 Tokyo Domes.
More local farmers are leasing their land to solar power plant operators because they face difficulties resuming farm work due to harmful misconceptions about their products and a shortage of people willing to take over their farms.
The conversion of farmland for non-farm purposes in areas outside so-called urbanization promotion zones requires permission from either the governor of a prefecture or the head of a local municipal government designated by the central government.
In principle, it is forbidden to convert “superior farmland” — which exceeds 10 hectares, for instance. But an exception is made for disaster-affected areas under the law concerning the establishment of special reconstruction zones.
The amount of farmland being converted for solar power plants comprises about 3 percent of all farmland under cultivation in the 12 cities, towns and villages prior to the nuclear accident at the Fukushima plant.
By municipality, the city of Minamisoma has 340 hectares of farmland that has been converted for solar power plants, the largest among the 12 municipalities, followed by the towns of Namie and Tomioka, at 154 hectares and 113 hectares.
Mega-solar power plants opened at three locations in the town of Tomioka in the prefecture between November 2017 and March 2018.
Construction of mega-solar power plants has also begun at two locations in the town of Namie last October. Both plants are scheduled to begin operations sometime next year.
In Minamisoma, where coastal areas hit by tsunami have been left with heaps of sludge and other sediment, many farmers have given up on recultivating their land.
In response, the city government included the construction of a mega-solar power plant in its post-disaster reconstruction project, moving ahead with such efforts as buying farmland and then leasing it to private-sector power businesses.
In the village of Kawauchi, where the evacuation order has been lifted, only nearly 20 percent of evacuees have returned. Farmers have been increasingly converting their land for non-farm uses, chiefly due to the shortage of people willing to engage in farming.
In Namie, where the evacuation order was lifted for part of the town in March 2017, construction is underway on one of the largest mega-solar power plants in the prefecture on a vast tract of former farmland (about 90 hectares) in the inland district of Yatsuda.
The district is near zones designated as “difficult to return” because of high radiation levels.
The farmers leased their land to the power plant operator under a 20-year contract that stipulates they will continue to conduct maintenance work.
Takashi Matsuda, a 66-year-old rice farmer who returned to Namie last July and now leases about 8,000 square meters of land, earns about ¥800,000 per year from leasing.
“I feel guilt before my ancestors, but [renting out land] is helpful because it’s difficult to start regrowing rice here with the harmful misconceptions about our products and the advanced age of farmers,” he said.
More than 90 percent of farmers in the district, most of whom work part time, have reportedly approved of construction of the solar power plant.
On the other hand, some farmers are concerned about the increase in farmland converted for other purposes.
In Tomioka, where the evacuation order was partially lifted in April 2017, a private-sector operator has constructed a mega-solar power plant and the town government is now constructing an industrial complex.
Eighty percent of the farmland converted for these purposes was so-called superior farmland, which is large enough to be utilized efficiently.
“We understand the need for a reconstruction project, but weren’t there other options besides converting top-notch farmland?” said Yasuo Watanabe, the 68-year-old head of a farmers’ association in Tomioka.
An official of the town government said: “We have converted farmland for non-farm use while considering the entire town’s reconstruction. We want to do our best to avoid hindering the return of farming.”