Argument

You Can’t Go Home Again

You Can’t Go Home Again

Before former residents can enter the radioactive ghost town of Okuma, just a few miles from the ruins of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, they must first get a permit from Japanese bureaucrats, who then advise them on protective measures. They’ll need to suit up before they go in: Disposable paper coveralls, booties, gloves, caps, and facemasks will keep them safe enough for an hour’s visit. The officials suggest they bring a dosimeter so they’ll know exactly what radiation dose they’re receiving as they walk through the desolate streets to their empty houses, and can avoid lingering in the most dangerous places.

Yet until recently, the Japanese government has maintained the politically expedient fiction that this town would soon be fit for habitation once more.

The residents of Okuma are among the roughly 100,000 nuclear refugees who are still barred from their homes. March 11 marks the third anniversary of Japan’s triple catastrophe: the earthquake, tsunami, and onset of the nuclear crisis at Fukushima Daiichi, which led to partial meltdowns in three reactors. The explosions that shattered the plant’s reactor buildings released a plume of radioactive material that drifted over northeast Japan, causing more than 150,000 people to flee their homes. Fallout settled on rooftops and lawns and driveways, on rice paddies and orchards, on roads and forests. The evacuated towns are still laced with the radioactive isotope Cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years.

In the years since the accident, the Japanese government first set out to map the region’s radioactive hotspots, and then began a massive decontamination effort. A total of 100 municipalities were marked for cleanup, with 11 of those designated areas of special concern. Gradually, towns that weren’t too contaminated — those on the periphery of the evacuation zone — are being reopened for inhabitants. Right now, residents of the town of Tamura are anxiously awaiting the April 1 lifting of the evacuation order for their area, although many say they’re still worried about health consequences of moving back.

The government had stated that this strategy of cleanup and resettlement would continue apace, and would eventually reach Okuma and the other highly contaminated towns. Perhaps in a few years, officials had suggested, Okuma’s displaced residents would be able to safely resume their lives.

But the facts are clear: Some evacuated towns will be poisoned for decades to come, and their residents can’t go home again. It’s a tragedy, of that there’s no question. But perhaps the greater injustice is that these refugees were kept living in limbo for three years, denied the truth by a government that didn’t have the political bravery to speak it.

Okuma, a prosperous coastal burg of about 11,000 farmers, fishers, and nuclear workers, was one of the first towns evacuated during the Fukushima crisis. Around dawn on the morning of March 12, 2011, Okuma Mayor Toshitsuna Watanabe received the order to get his citizens out. He kept watch as fire trucks crawled through the streets and blared instructions, then shepherded his people onto buses that would take them over a ridge of mountains to a town about 30 miles away, where they’d take shelter in a gymnasium.

Mayor Watanabe is the 19th generation of his family to live in Okuma. He watched the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s construction in the late 1960s, and was very comfortable dwelling in its shadow. Even on the day of the evacuation, as he followed the departing buses in his car, he didn’t think it was possible that there could be a severe accident at the power station; he believed there were so many layers of defense and protection in place that any problem would be swiftly contained. He expected to be away for a few days at most.

Now Watanabe governs from a town-hall-in-exile in the city of Aizuwakamatsu, about 70 miles away from Okuma. He and his staff have offices in an old school building, where strings of origami cranes, sent by sympathetic well-wishers, decorate the halls. The mayor says his priority is to rebuild his town, and "to make Okuma like it was before." But he says support for his position is waning. Initially, he said, most of Okuma’s scattered citizens were eager to return to their town. His people were rooted in history, and couldn’t imagine moving away from their family tombs, which they sweep clean each year. But in Watanabe’s most recent survey, only 11 percent of his constituents still hoped for a homecoming. They’ve dispersed to the various cities of Fukushima Prefecture, and their community spirit is dissipating. 

The science is also against him. According to Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, towns can be reinhabited if residents would be exposed to less than 20 millisieverts of radiation per year, a typical safety threshold for nuclear workers. The government has also said that its long-term goal is to reduce radiation doses in the evacuation zone to 1 millisievert per year, though even the IAEA has gently suggested that such a target is unrealistic. (For comparison’s sake, a medical CT scan usually has a dose of 1 to 10 millisieverts.)

According to Watanabe, the current measurements show that anyone who went back to live in Okuma would have a dose of over 50 millisieverts per year. So the government, eager to make its case that the problem could be fixed, performed a decontamination pilot study at residential neighborhoods, forest areas, and farms. The efforts were largely unsuccessful. Workers found it impossible to purify every nook and cranny of the houses, and bushwhacking through the woodlands to remove loam and underbrush proved to be a frankly ridiculous undertaking. Only in the farms did the workers have success: By removing about 4 inches of topsoil from the fields, bagging up the soil, and carting it all away, they were able to reduce the dose rate in those fields to 1 millisievert per year. But Watanabe says it isn’t practical to remove the top 4 inches of the entire municipality of Okuma. 

For three years, many of Watanabe’s citizens have lived in temporary quarters in the cities where they’ve taken refuge, and have received monthly payments from TEPCO to keep them going during their adversity. In late December, however, the government instructed TEPCO to change its compensation policy. Now each evacuee who won’t be able to return home during his or her lifetime is entitled to $66,000 in compensation for the loss, as well as additional money to help purchase a new home elsewhere. The government hasn’t made any official announcement that it’s writing off a portion of Japan, but it is quietly acknowledging that it can’t clean up Okuma and the other terribly tainted towns during the displaced residents’ lifetimes. It’s time for them to start over. 

When Okuma’s former residents get past the guards at the roadblock on the road into their hometown, they enter a beautiful post-apocalyptic landscape. Lush green weeds grow up in their abandoned rice paddies, and flowering vines twine up the sides of their earthquake-damaged houses. They can’t see the poison all around them, but the numbers on their dosimeters tell the tale. They pull their masks a little tighter over their faces. They remember that when the bureaucrats gave their advice on how to stay safe during a one-hour visit to Okuma, they said to watch out for wild boars. Three years after the people left, the wildlife is moving in.