Weeds poke up through the main street of Iitate
village in Fukushima prefecture, a once thriving dairy farming community. The
local agricultural cooperative office is padlocked; traffic lights are darkened,
as there is very little traffic aside from the occasional truck traversing
The post office is closed, and there are no deliveries for
the simple reason that there are no customers left to deliver mail to. All of
the villages 6,800 residents were evacuated in the aftermath of the March 11,
2011, earthquake and tsunami that precipitated multiple meltdowns at the
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.
Iitate was too far inland to suffer the effects of the
disastrous tsunami that wiped out whole villages along the coastline, but it
was perfectly positioned, 25 miles north west of the power plant, to absorb the
full impact of the radioactive fallout.
Immediately after the nuclear accident, Tokyo established a
mandatory evacuation zone 20 km surrounding the stricken plant. But radiation
is no respecter of circles that men draw on maps, and the radiation plume was
blown by prevailing winds and channeled by natural valleys to fall on Iitate
and on surrounding towns or parts of them.
Yet it wasn’t until late April, fully five weeks after the
accident, that the central government ordered the evacuation of virtually all
The villagers dispersed to
neighboring towns and cities even farther away. The 3,000 dairy cows for which
the village was famous were taken to the slaughter house shortly thereafter.
Despite the forced evacuation, Iitate is not entirely a
ghost town. About 500 people commute from their evacuation homes into Iitate to
work at several companies with offices there. They leave the village at the end
of the day. The idea is that as they work indoors except when commuting, they
are exposed to less radiation than they would have experienced spending the
full day there.
The local nursing home, with 80 residents, was never evacuated,
as it was felt that the trauma for the elderly residents of moving elsewhere
was worse than exposure to the radiation. It was probably wise as more than 500
residents of hospitals and nursing homes in the 20- exclusion zone are said to
have died after their removal, becoming, in a sense,
the only fatalities from the nuclear accident.
Mayor Norio Kanno keeps tabs on the evacuees, most of whom
live in temporary housing within an hour’s commute of the village and says that
they are increasingly
discouraged , anxious
and depressed there being no prospects of returning anytime soon. The village
once had about 1,500 households, with several generations living under one
roof. Now that number has doubled as families have been broken and family
members dispersed in different directions.
The ambient radiation in Iitate when it evacuated two years
ago was about 22 millisieverts, accumulated over one year period. The average under
normal conditions is about one millisievert from natural radiation. Although
decontamination efforts are moving slowly, Kanno says that the levels have
fallen to about 10-12 millisieverts over a year.
Decontamination moves in fits and starts. Workmen wipe down buildings
with damp cloths and hose drainage systems with high-pressure water. They clear
the top soil of school yards farms
other businesses, although no decision has been made as yet where to safely
store the growing mounds of bags filled with contaminated dirt.
It is an endless task as contaminates are blown back into
the town and residences from the lush green forests that surround them. Yet the
mayor says he can’t give up. “We have a duty to clean up and decontaminate this
land.” It is hard for people to accept the idea that they might never be able
to return to their ancestral homes.
What level does it need to fall before residents feel it is
safe to come back? Kanno doesn’t know. Is it 5 millisieverts or one millisievert?
“I tell people that if they hold out for one [millisievert] they may have to
wait for years.” One of his surveys showed about 60 percent want to return
home; another 30 percent will probably never return.
By necessity, Kanno has become something of an expert on
living with radiation and the real impact of nuclear power accidents on
civilian lives. Natural disasters, such as tornedoes, typhoons or even
earthquakes tend to bring people together, he says; nuclear accidents tend to
drive people apart.
“Every individual looks on radiation differently, so people
have different anxieties and fears and reactions, often depending on age and
gender. “A middle-aged man looks on radiation differently than a young mother,”
he noted. Everyone tends to be skeptical of official assurances that certain
dose levels are safe.
In the aftermath of a natural disaster, people emerge from
their shelters, look around at the devastation then start to begin to repair
the damage, even if they have to start from ground zero. “In our case, we’re
just trying to get back to zero,” the mayor said.
At least the Iitate villagers have some hope that they can
eventually return, even if it takes a few more years. Areas inside the 20 km
mandatory evacuation zone may not be safe to inhabit for decades. Police man
roadblocks coming into the exclusion zones, with residents allowed back in on
very short visit s to retrieve personal items.
Efforts to obtain compensation from the Tokyo Electric Power
Co., owner of the Fukushima reactors are still in the initial stages with very
little money flowing into their pockets despite a national disaster relief fund
has been established by the national government to meet these claims.
“Many of the refugees say they don’t want the money. ‘We just
want to get our lives back’.”
Unfortunately says Kanno, “that is impossible”.