Every month, Hiroko Watabe, 74, returns for a few hours to her abandoned house near the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant to engage in her own small act of defiance against fate. She dons a surgical mask, hangs two radiation-measuring devices around her neck and crouches down to pull weeds.
She is desperate to keep her small yard clean to prove that she has not given up on her home, which she and her family evacuated two years ago after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and a tsunami devastated the plant 8km away. Not all her neighbors are willing to take the risk; chest-high weeds now block the doorways of their once-tidy homes.
“In my heart, I know we can never live here again,” said Watabe, who drove here with her husband from Koriyama, the city an hour away where they have lived since the disaster. “However, doing this gives us a purpose. We are saying that this is still our home.”
While the continuing environmental disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant has grabbed world headlines — with hundreds of tonnes of contaminated water flowing into the Pacific Ocean daily — a human crisis has been quietly unfolding. Two-and-a-half years after the plant belched plumes of radioactive materials over northeastern Japan, the almost 83,000 nuclear refugees evacuated from the worst-hit areas are still unable to go home. Some have moved on, reluctantly, but tens of thousands remain in a legal and emotional limbo while the government holds out hope that they can one day return.
As they wait, many are growing bitter. Most have supported the official goal of decontaminating the towns so that people can return to homes that some families inhabited for generations. Now they suspect the government knows that the unprecedented cleanup will take years, if not decades longer than promised, as a growing chorus of independent experts have warned, but will not admit it for fear of dooming plans to restart Japan’s other nuclear plants.
That has left the people of Namie and many of the 10 other evacuated towns with few good choices. They can continue to live in cramped temporary housing and collect relatively meager monthly compensation from the government. Or they can try to build a new life elsewhere, a near impossibility for many unless the government admits defeat and fully compensates them for their lost homes and livelihoods.
“The national government orders us to go back, but then orders us to just wait and wait,” said Tamotsu Baba, the mayor of Namie, a town of 20,000 people that was evacuated when explosions began to rock the plant. “The bureaucrats want to avoid taking responsibility for everything that has happened, and we commoners pay the price.”
For Namie’s residents, government obfuscation is nothing new. On the day they fled, bureaucrats in Tokyo knew the direction they were taking could be dangerous, based on computer modeling, but did not say so for fear of causing panic. The townspeople headed north, straight into an invisible, radioactive plume.
Until its people left, Namie was a sleepy farming and fishing community, stretching between mountains and the Pacific. These days, it is divided into color-coded sections that denote how contaminated various areas are, and how long former residents can stay during limited daytime-only visits. They are issued docimeters on their way in, and are screened on their way out. Next to one checkpoint, a sign warns of feral cows that have roamed free since fleeing farmers released them.