Beyond the police roadblocks that mark the no-go zone around Japan’s wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, 1m tall weeds invade rice paddies and vines gone wild strangle road signs along empty streets.
Takako Harada, 80, returned to an evacuated area of Iitate village to retrieve her car. Beside her house is an empty cattle pen, the 100 cows slaughtered on government order after radiation from the March 11 atomic disaster saturated the area, forcing 160,000 people to move away and leaving some places uninhabitable for two decades or more.
“Older folks want to return, but the young worry about radiation,” said Harada, whose family ran the farm for 40 years. “I want to farm, but will we be able to sell anything?”
What’s emerging in Japan six months since the nuclear meltdown at the Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) plant is a radioactive zone bigger than that left by the 1945 atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While nature reclaims the 20km no-go zone, Fukushima’s US$3.2 billion-a-year farming industry is being devastated and tourists that hiked the prefecture’s mountains and surfed off its beaches have all but vanished.
The March earthquake and tsunami that caused the nuclear crisis and left almost 20,000 people dead or missing could cost US$223 billion, hindering the recovery of the world’s third-largest economy from two decades of stagnation.
The bulk of radioactive contamination cuts a 5km to 10km-wide swath of land running as far as 30km northwest of the nuclear plant, surveys of radiation hotspots by Japan’s science ministry show. The government extended evacuations beyond the 20km zone in April to cover this corridor, which includes parts of Iitate Village.
No formal evacuation zone was set up in Hiroshima after an atomic bomb was dropped on the city on Aug. 6, 1945, though as the city rebuilt relatively few people lived within 1km of the blast epicenter, according to the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Museum. Food shortages forced a partial evacuation of the city in the summer of 1946.
On April 26, 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl reactor hurled 180 tonnes of nuclear fuel into the atmosphere, creating the world’s first exclusion zone of 30km around a nuclear plant. A quarter of a century later, the zone is still classed as uninhabitable. About 300 residents have returned despite government restrictions.
The government last week said some restrictions may be lifted in outlying areas of the evacuation zone in Fukushima, which translates from Japanese as “Lucky Isle.”
Residents seeking answers on which areas are safe complain of mixed messages.
“There are no simple solutions,” said Timothy Mousseau, a professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina.
Deciding whether life should go on in radiation-tainted areas is a “question of acceptable risks and trade-offs,” he said.
To Mousseau, one thing is clear.
“There will be consequences for some of the people who are exposed to levels that are being reported from the Fukushima Prefecture,” Mousseau said by e-mail.
Japan abandoned any ambition to develop atomic weapons after the 1945 bombings. Two decades later, the nation embraced nuclear power to rebuild the economy after the war in the absence of domestic oil and gas supplies.
TEPCO’s decision in the 1960s to name its atomic plant Fukushima Dai-Ichi has today associated a prefecture of about 2 million people — almost half the size of Belgium — with radiation contamination. In contrast, Chernobyl is the name of a small town near the namesake plant in what today is Ukraine.