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Monday, 19 August 2013

Time Magazine: More Than Two Years After Meltdown, Doubt and Fear Remain Over Fukushima’s Safety


Two-and-a-half years after an earthquake and tsunami rocked the Fukushima plant and spewed radioactive waste across the region, tens of thousands of evacuees still live in a fugue of fear and confusion

Fukushima safety
Ex-residents visit the cherry-blossoms orchard in the Yonomori area of Tomioka, Japan, on April 7, 2013

Correction appended: Aug. 19, 2013, 3:02 a.m. E.T.
The traffic light in the middle of Tomioka flashes red: proceed with caution. The authorities have started to allow evacuated residents of some parts of this small Japanese coastal town to come back for belongings they were forced to leave behind after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, about 16 km away. But no one is around. In front of the municipality building, cars sit exactly where they were parked. Unopened beer bottles collect dust on a bar counter, the clock outside frozen at 3:47. Some neighborhoods, guarded by men in dark blue hazmat suits, are divided down the center of the road: one side accessible during daytime hours, the other off-limits. “That’s my home!” exclaims Yukiteru Naka, a veteran nuclear engineer guiding a group of foreign dignitaries on a tour of the town. Despite official permission to return, overriding concerns about radiation keep him away.
Two-and-a-half years after an earthquake and tsunami rocked the Fukushima plant and spewed radioactive waste across the region, tens of thousands of evacuees still live in a fugue of fear and confusion. While the government has deemed some areas safe enough for part-time access, locals and activists say conflicting science and official secrecy surrounding the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl have bankrupted public trust. On Wednesday, just weeks after beaches south of the reactor were reopened, plant officials admitted that up to 300 tons of contaminated water are flowing into the sea each day.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to take “firm measures” to stop the leak and said the central government, which has so far taken a backseat in the cleanup, would take over from Tokyo Electric Power Co. — the plant operator widely seen as having botched the cleanup operation to date. There is talk of building a wall of frozen ground around the reactor to prevent further leaks, a plan that could cost up to $400 million dollars.
While the long-term health implications of the March 2011 meltdown are a subject of bitter dispute inside Japan and abroad, the social impact is irrefutable. At a government-built housing complex on the edge of Koriyama city, about 56 km west of Tomioka, more than 500 evacuees live in a grid of prefabricated barracks that sprawl across a vast concrete lot. Tomiko Endo, 69, a lifelong farmer, shows some framed pictures of home, her daughters smiling in kimonos. The memory of leaving dozens of beef cattle to starve to death still burns, as does her inability to tend her relatives’ graves. But in a part of the country where generations of family members often live in close proximity, it is the sudden rupture from loved ones that hurts most.
Today Endo lives alone. Soon after arriving at the barracks, her husband developed headaches so severe that he had to move into a hospital. Her children and grandchildren moved into the town center for work, leaving Endo with her cat. She spends her days looking after a small garden and socializing at the community center, but the tedium is constant. Groups of men pass hours on the stoops, sucking down cigarettes with blank stares. Though Tomioka is one of eight Fukushima municipalities where entry is no longer forbidden, the government estimates it won’t be ready for habitation until 2017. No one is holding his or her breath. “I’ve already given up the idea of farming at home again,” says Endo, fighting back tears. “What I want most from this government is something close to a normal life.”
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