Tue, Jan 07, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Fukushima’s ghost towns struggle to recover

With the 2011 tsunami-earthquake and nuclear meltdown no longer in the news, many evacuees feel they have been forgotten

By Simon Tisdall  /  The Guardian, NAMIE, Japan

Illustration: Yusha

Nearly three years after a major earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation leak devastated coastal and inland areas of Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture, 280km northeast of Tokyo, Namie has become a silent town of ghosts and absent lives.

Namie’s 21,000 residents remain evacuated because of continuing high radiation levels, the product of the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant 9.5km to the south. Homes, shops and streets are deserted except for the occasional police patrol or checkpoint.

Resembling the set of a Hollywood post-apocalypse movie, grass and weeds poke up through cracked pavement. At an abandoned garage, a rusting car sits on a raised ramp, waiting for a repair that will never be completed as a feral dog peers out from a wild, untended garden.

Namie is nobody’s town now. Nobody lives there and nobody visits for long. Even the looters have stopped bothering to come and no one knows when its former inhabitants may be allowed to return permanently — or if they will want to.

The 2011 catastrophe faded from world headlines long ago, but in Namie, Tomioka, Okuma, Futaba and other blighted towns in the 32km evacuation zone around the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, it is a disaster that never ends.

At the plant itself, recent leaks of contaminated water into the sea and a fraught operation to remove fuel rods from one of the damaged reactors have shown how critical the situation still is — and will remain during a decommissioning process that could take up to 40 years.

For Fukushima’s displaced population, the effects of the disaster continue to be deeply felt. The evacuation area was subdivided earlier this year into three zones of higher or lower radiation risk. In the worst-affected zone, residents will not be allowed to return before 2017 at the earliest.

In other areas, families and businesses face difficult decisions about whether to go back. At present, no one is allowed to stay overnight. Locals say that whatever happens, many younger people will not return.

There is little or no trust in official pronouncements, given the failure of Fukushima Dai-ichi operator Tokyo Electric Power Co to take adequate measures to protect the plant against the tsunami and the company’s unimpressive post-disaster record.

There are suspicions that the government knows some towns may never be safe to live in again, but refuses to admit it in a bid to protect Japan’s unpopular nuclear power industry. There is also a sense that the disaster victims have been forgotten.

That said, the painstaking cleanup continues and there has been some progress in adjoining, less badly affected areas, according to Hiroshi Murata, the head of the Odaka ward of Minamisoma, close to Namie.

As many as 18,000 people died or were declared missing in Fukushima Prefecture after the tsunami struck. The radiation plumes caused the forced evacuation of a further 154,000, according to the Japan Reconstruction Agency.

In Odaka, 148 people died, and there were more than 300 fatalities in Minamisoma as a whole. However, about 53 percent — 6,800 — of Odaka’s residents have since returned home, of a pre-disaster population of 12,800, Murata said.

Nobody has died directly as a result of the nuclear meltdown, but a close eye is being kept on the incidence of thyroid cancer in children, following the experience of Chernobyl.

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