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.
The entire prefecture has been stained because of the link, according to Governor Yuhei Sato.
“At Fukushima airport you don’t see Chinese and Korean visitors like before because of negative associations,” he said.
The fear of radiation was prevalent after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and it stigmatized the survivors, known as hibakusha, or people exposed to radiation. Many hibakusha concealed their past for fear of discrimination that would prevent them finding work or marriage partners, according to the Japan Confederation of A-and H-bomb Sufferers Organization.
Some people believed A-bomb survivors could emit radiation and others feared radiation caused genetic mutations, said Evan Douple, associate chief of research at the Radiation Effects Research Foundation in Hiroshima.
An examination of more than 77,000 first-generation children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombings found no evidence of mutations, he said.
While radiation readings are lower in Fukushima than Hiroshima, Abel Gonzales, the vice-chair of the International Commission on Radiological Protection, said similar prejudices could emerge.
“Stigma. I have the feeling that in Fukushima this will be a very big problem,” Gonzales said in a symposium held in Fukushima City on the six-month anniversary of the disaster.
Some children that fled Fukushima are finding out what Gonzales means.
Fukushima schoolchildren were being bullied at their new school in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo for “carrying radiation,” the Sankei newspaper reported in April, citing complaints made to education authorities.
An 11-year-old Fukushima boy was hospitalized in Niigata Prefecture after being bullied at his new school, Kyodo News reported on April 23.
Produce from Fukushima’s rich soil is also being shunned. Peaches, the prefecture’s biggest agricultural product after rice, have halved in price this year. Beef shipments from the prefecture were temporarily suspended and contamination concerns stopped the town of Minamisoma from planting rice, according to local authorities.
Some land around the Fukushima reactors will lie fallow for two decades or more before radiation levels fall below Japan’s criteria for evacuation, the government said on Aug. 26.
Radiation risks forced the evacuation of about 8 percent, or 160,000 people, who live in Fukushima. Almost 56,000 were sent to areas outside Fukushima, prefectural spokesman Masato Abe said by telephone.
Inside the evacuation areas, levels of radiation higher than the government’s criteria for evacuation have been recorded at 89 of 210 monitoring posts. At 24 of the sites, the reading was higher than the level at which the International Atomic Energy Agency says increases the risk of cancer.
While scientists knew back in March that radiation contamination would create an uninhabitable zone in Fukushima, information to the public has come intermittently, said Hiroaki Koide, a nuclear physics scientist at Kyoto University.
“Many people in Fukushima have to face the reality that they cannot go back to their homes for decades,” Koide said.
Masaki Otsuka said it may be worse than that.
“I don’t think I can ever go back to my house, because it was just 4km from the Dai-ichi reactors,” the 51-year-old pipe welder said in an interview at an evacuation center in Azuma, Fukushima City, where he has lived for six months.
People’s distrust of politicians and scientists, as well as conflicting commentary, makes it harder for residents to decide whether to stay or leave, said Michiaki Kai, a professor in environmental health science at Oita University of Nursing and Health Sciences.
Similar circumstances affected residents near Chernobyl and those close to the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979.
“Contradiction in some official statements and the appearance of non-scientifically based ‘expert’ voices, confused and added stress to the local populations in each case,” said Evelyn Bromet of the department of psychiatry at Stony Brook State University of New York.
“Lies got told, contradictions got told. In the end it’s easier to believe nobody,” Bromet said in an interview, citing mental health studies she did on people in the areas.
What radiation hasn’t ruined, the earthquake and tsunami devastated. Fukushima Prefecture welcomed 56 million domestic and overseas visitors in 2009, equal to 44 percent of Japan’s population.
The coastal town of Minamisoma this year canceled its annual qualifying stage for the world surfing championship, part of a waterfront that lured 84,000 beachgoers in July and August last year, said Hiroshi Tadano, head of the town’s economic division. This year, nobody visited the beaches in the two months.
“Most of the beaches are destroyed,” Tadano said. “And of course, radiation played its part.”
The area’s biggest festival, Soma Noma Oi, a re-enactment of samurai battles, attracted 200,000 visitors last year. This year 37,000 came. Of the 300 horses typically used in the event, 100 were drowned in the tsunami and another 100 were evacuated because of radiation, Tadano said.
Minamisoma resident Miyaguchi, 54, lost his home and parents in the tsunami. He quit his job at TEPCO, leaving him unemployed and housed in an evacuation center.
Still, he has no plans to move away.
“Most people who wanted to move away have done so, but I can’t live in big cities like Tokyo,” he said, declining to give his first name.
The future of Fukushima is in the hands of residents like Miyaguchi and Harada who say they want to stay and work to reclaim their land from disaster.
A giant banner in the playground of the closed Haramachi elementary school in Minamisoma makes that a promise: “To all of you wherever you are, we say we won’t give up.”