Japan: living in nuclear limbo

Tsunami waves hit the coast of Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture on March 11, 2011.</p>

Tsunami waves hit the coast of Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture on March 11, 2011.

TOKYO, Japan — If there is one place that encapsulates the scope of the tragedy visited on Japan last month, it is Minamisoma.

This coastal town in Fukushima prefecture lost 1,470 of its residents to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami; five weeks on, what remains of the population is living in a state of nuclear limbo.

Part of the town lies within the 12-mile band surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant that has been declared a no-go zone. Most residents, who live within about 20 miles of the plant, have been told to stay indoors or consider leaving voluntarily amid disruption to supplies and services.

Within days of the start of the nuclear crisis Minamisoma’s population of just over 70,000 had fallen to just 10,000, as fleets of buses took petrified residents to evacuation centers hundreds of miles away.

Today, even as some people return, Minamisoma is a virtual ghost town. The inclusion last week of parts of the town, as well as several other locations up to 40 kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi, in a wider evacuation zone has added a new layer of misery to an already beleaguered community.

When GlobalPost visited Minamisoma last week, many shops and restaurants remained shuttered, military and emergency vehicles vastly outnumbered cars and, even on a sunny afternoon, the streets were almost deserted.

The new evacuation order of tens of thousands of people is expected to take a month to complete. Officials say the move is designed to protect their long-term health, not because radiation seeping from the plant poses and immediate threat.

The decision could stem the flow of people who had started returning to their homes, encouraged by lower radiation levels, after more than a month of living in evacuation shelters.

“People here are traumatized by memories of the tsunami and the struggle to survive the nuclear crisis,” said Kyohei Takahashi, a gynecologist who evacuated after the first reactor building exploded, but returned days later.

“At first the streets were dead, we had no food or medicine, and we couldn’t even administer intravenous drips. But now there are a few cars on the road and some shops have reopened. Radiation levels are very low, but people are still anxious about the future.”

“It could be months before things settles down. If we all work together, we can make something of this town, even if it takes years. But it will never be the same again.”

Even if the population returns to pre-crisis levels, radiation fears have overshadowed the sense of solidarity that usually follows disasters.

Yoshitaka Okawa, who has worked for a subcontractor that decontaminates workers at Fukushima Daiichi for almost 20 years, says his neighbors are spooked by the very mention of radiation, even though levels in the town have remained well below those considered hazardous.

“I know all about millisieverts and microsieverts [of radiation], and I have never considered leaving,” said the 60-year-old. “But other people in the town don’t think rationally. When the media report that radiation is several thousand times above legal limits, they panic.”

His wife, who asked not to be named, said her husband’s optimism had come at a cost. “We are being shut out by some neighbors because he keeps telling them everything is OK,” she said.

“No one wants to listen to him. Even families are divided — some have stayed, while others have fled. I wouldn’t say our community is split down the middle. The majority of people are very worried.”

Despite official assurances that radiation levels are falling, the prime minister, Naoto Kan, has admitted he has no idea when places such as Minamisoma will be given the all clear.

This weekend his special adviser, Kenichi Matsumoto, fended off calls to resign after he quoted Kan as saying that people living near the plant would not be able to return home for 10 to 20 years.

Kan claims he was misquoted, but the damage had already been done. “It’s outrageous,” said Michio Furukawa, the mayor of Kawamata town in Fukushima prefecture. “Does he have any idea of the hardship we are going through?”

The decision to expand the evacuation zone came on the same day that officials raised the severity of the Fukushima accident to a maximum 7, placing it on a par with Chernobyl.

Contamination levels at the Japanese plant are only one-tenth of that released by the Soviet reactor, but the initial leak of radiation and concerns over the long-term health of nearby residents left the government with little choice but declare Fukushima Daiichi a major disaster.

That has added to pressure on the plant’s operator to help those whose lives have been disrupted. On Friday, the government ordered Tokyo Electric Power Co. [TEPCO] to compensate tens of thousands of households forced to evacuate.

About 48,000 households within roughly 20 miles of the plant will be eligible for provisional damages, which have been set at 1 million yen ($12,000) per family and 750,000 yen for single-person households.

The bill will reach 50 billion yen, Masataka Shimizu, TEPCO’s president, told reporters. Additional compensation claims expected from farmers and fishermen in the area could see the total rise much higher.

Japan’s federation of agricultural cooperatives also demanded swift compensation amid bans on the sale of certain produce and unfounded contaminated rumors that have hit sales of healthy fruit and vegetables from the region.”

The federation said TEPCO had failed to explain the impact of radiation leaks on local agriculture, or pay damages. “This is totally unacceptable,'' the group said in a letter delivered to the company.

''The foundation of agriculture in the [affected] regions itself is threatened. This could result in farmers suspending their activities over a long period, or even abandoning agriculture entirely.”

Compensation aside, even Okawa concedes that a quick return to normality may prove as elusive as a solution to the nuclear crisis unfolding a few miles to the south.

“As long as the power plant is in trouble, this town might as well be dead. You walk to the station and everything is shuttered. At night the streets are dark and empty. This used to be a fun, lively lace to live. But not any more.”