Fukushima residents fearful of returning home

2014-04-29 11:56
Kazuhiro Onuki and his wife Michiko, wearing white protective gears and filtered masks, walk beneath a tunnel of cherry trees in Tomioka. (Shizuo Kambayashi, AP)

Kazuhiro Onuki and his wife Michiko, wearing white protective gears and filtered masks, walk beneath a tunnel of cherry trees in Tomioka. (Shizuo Kambayashi, AP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Tomioka - Whenever Kazuhiro Onuki goes home, to his real home that is, the 66-year-old former librarian dons protective gear from head to toe and hangs a dosimeter around his neck.

Grass grows wild in the backyard. The ceiling leaks. Thieves have ransacked the shelves, leaving papers and clothing all over the floor so there is barely room to walk. Mouse dung is scattered like raisins. There is no running water or electricity.

Above all, radiation is everywhere.

It's difficult to imagine ever living again in Tomioka, a ghost town about 10km from the former Fukushima Dai-chi nuclear plant. And yet more than three years after meltdowns at the plant forced this community of 16 000 people to flee, Onuki can't quite make the psychological break to start anew.

His family lived here for four generations. Every time he goes back, he is overcome by emotion. Especially during that brief time in the spring when the cherry blossoms bloom.

"They flower as though nothing has happened", he said. "They are weeping because all the people have left."

The Japanese government is pushing ahead with efforts to decontaminate and reopen as much of a 20km no-go zone around the plant as it can.

Live in fear

Authorities declared a tiny corner of the zone safe for living as of 1 April, and hope to lift evacuation orders in more areas in the coming months and years.

Former residents have mixed feelings. In their hearts, many want their old lives back. But distrust about the decontamination programme runs deep. Will it really be safe?

Others among the more than 100 000 displaced have established new lives elsewhere, in the years since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami sent three of Fukushima's reactors into meltdown.

If the evacuation order is lifted for their area, they will lose a monthly stipend of $1 000 they receive from Tokyo Electric Power, the owner of the Fukushima plant.

A survey last year found that 16% of Tomioka residents wanted to return, 40% had decided never to return, and 43% were undecided. Two-thirds said they were working before the disaster, but only one-third had jobs at the time of the survey, underlining the challenges to starting over.

Former resident Shigetoshi Suzuki, a friend of Onuki, is outraged the government would even ask such a question: Do you want to go back?

Of course, we all want to return, he said. People like him were effectively forced into retirement, the 65-year-old land surveyor said.

If he hadn't evacuated to a Tokyo suburb with his wife, he would have continued working for his longtime clients.

"It is a ridiculous question", Suzuki said. "We could have led normal lives. What we have lost can't be measured in money."

In protest, he has refused to sign the forms that would allow his property to undergo decontamination.

The government has divided the no-go zone into three areas by radiation level.

The worst areas are marked in pink on official maps and classified as "difficult to return". They are still enclosed by a barricade.

Yellow designates a "restricted" area, limiting visits to a few hours. No overnight stays are allowed.

The green zones are "in preparations to lift evacuation orders". They must be decontaminated, which includes scrubbing building surfaces and scraping off the top layer of soil and is being carried out throughout the zones.

Tomioka has all three zones within its boundaries.

The green zones are those where authorities have confirmed radiation exposure can be brought below 20mSv (millisieverts) a year.

The long-term goal is to bring annual exposure down to 1mSv, or the equivalent of 10 chest X-rays, which was considered the safe level before the disaster, but the government is lifting evacuation orders at higher levels. It says it will monitor the health and exposure of people who move back to such areas.

In the yellow restricted zone, where Sukuki's and Onuki's homes lie, a visitor exceeds 1mSv in a matter of a few hours.

During a recent visit, Onuki and his wife Michiko walked beneath the pink petals floating from a tunnel of cherry trees, previously a local tourist attraction.

The streets were abandoned, except for a car passing through now and then. The neighbourhood was eerily quiet except for the chirping of the nightingales.

"The prime minister says the accident is under control, but we feel the thing could explode the next minute", said Michiko Onuki, who ran a ceramic and craft shop out of their Tomioka home. "We would have to live in fear of radiation. This town is dead."

Both wore oversized white astronaut-like gear, which doesn't keep out radioactive rays out but helps prevent radioactive material from being brought back, outside the no-go zone. Filtered masks covered half their faces. They discarded the gear when they left, so they wouldn't bring any radiation back to their Tokyo apartment, which they share with an adult son and daughter.
Read more on:    japan  |  nuclear  |  health

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.
NEXT ON NEWS24X

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
0 comments
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

 
/News

Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.




Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.