Fukushima Ghost Towns Struggle to Recover Amid High Radiation Levels
Post-tsunami reconstruction and radiation cleanup could take 10 years, but officials say something has been permanently lost
Nearly three years after a major earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation leak devastated coastal and inland areas of Japan's Fukushima prefecture, 175 miles north-east of Tokyo, Namie has become a silent town of ghosts and absent lives.
Namie's 21,000 residents remain evacuated because of continuing high radiation levels, the product of the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, six miles to the south. Homes, shops and streets are deserted except for the occasional police patrol or checkpoint.
Like the setting for a Hollywood post-apocalypse movie, grass and weeds poke up through cracked pavements. At an abandoned garage, a rusting car sits on a raised ramp, waiting for a repair that will never be completed. A feral dog peers from a wild, untended garden.
Namie is nobody's town now. Nobody lives here, and nobody visits for long. Even the looters have stopped bothering, and no one knows exactly when the inhabitants may be allowed to return permanently – or whether they will want to.
The 2011 catastrophe faded from world headlines long ago, but in Namie, Tomioka, Okuma, Futaba and other blighted towns in the 20-mile evacuation zone around the Fukushima plant, it is a disaster that never ends.
At the plant itself, recent leaks of contaminated water into the sea and a fraught operation to remove fuel rods from one of the damaged reactors have shown how critical the situation still is – and will remain during a decommissioning process that could take up to 40 years.
For Fukushima's displaced population, the effects of the disaster continue to be deeply felt. The evacuation area was subdivided earlier this year into three zones of higher or lower radiation risk. In the worst affected zone, return will not be allowed before 2017 at the earliest.
In other areas, families and businesses face difficult decisions about whether or not to go back. At present, no one is even allowed to stay overnight. Locals say that whatever happens, many younger people will not return.
There is little or no trust in official pronouncements, given the failure of the Fukushima Daiichi operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), to take adequate measures to protect the plant against the tsunami and the company's unimpressive post-disaster record.
There are suspicions that the government knows some towns may never be safe to live in again, but refuses to admit it in order to protect Japan's unpopular nuclear power industry. There is also a sense that Fukushima's victims have been forgotten.
That said, the painstaking cleanup continues and there has been some progress in adjoining, less badly affected areas, according to Hiroshi Murata, the head of the Odaka ward of Minamisoma City, close to Namie.
As many as 18,000 people died or were declared missing in Fukushima prefecture after the tsunami struck. The radiation plumes caused the forced evacuation of a further 154,000, according to the Japan Reconstruction Agency.
In Odaka, 148 people died, and there were more than 300 fatalities in Minamisoma as a whole. But now around 53% of Odaka residents have returned home, a total of 6,800 out of a pre-disaster population of 12,800, Murata said.
Nobody has died directly as a result of the nuclear disaster, but a close eye is being kept on the incidence of thyroid cancer in children, following the experience of Chernobyl.
The biggest issues the local administration now faces, following the rehousing of residents in temporary accommodation, are the demolition of unsafe houses, replacement of infrastructure and services, including roads and school playgrounds, and the decontamination and desalination of buildings and land.
"To decontaminate one house and garden takes 10 to 14 days," Murata said. "We have to remove surface soil, cut the trees, wash the roofs, clean the rain gutters. The house owners are responsible for cleaning inside. The city and the government help with the rest."
At least in Odaka there is something to clean and repair. In Ukedo, the part of Namie municipality closest to the Pacific ocean, the devastation is total. Hardly a single house was left standing by the tsunami, which reached 17m in height in some places, Murata said – a vast wall of water that devoured all in its path.
Wrecked fishing boats still lie stranded miles inland and there are vast piles of scrap metal, smashed cars, bits of concrete bridges and broken wooden house frames where once a thriving village stood. An abandoned elementary school, 500m from the sea, looks as though it has been bombed.
But even in Ukedo, a long line of displaced local resident volunteers can be seen picking up and sorting debris on a wintry afternoon, gradually clearing the land where homes formerly stood. With impressive organisation, the local authorities are recycling everything they can, bagging it up in vast compounds erected amid the bleak, salty flatlands that were once rice paddy fields.
Tetsurou Eguchi, the deputy mayor of Minamisoma City, said the radiation-related cleanup was likely to take another five to six years and could cost as much as ¥350bn (£2bn), much of which would come from the national government. Post-tsunami reconstruction would take up to 10 years. But something intangible had been permanently lost, he said. "When it comes to the economy, and individual and social life, it is very difficult to recover this, compared with how it used to be."
The most challenging problem, he said, was decontamination. "Basically [the radioactive fallout] is not in the air any more. It's in the soil." The area was dependent economically on small businesses, agriculture, fishing and tourism, including the famous annual Soma Nomaoi samurai festival, he said. All had been seriously affected.
"People don't believe it is safe to visit here. They won't believe our produce, our livestock, our fish are safe. There is a blight. This will take a long time to change."
Much had been said by the national government about supporting Fukushima prefecture in its efforts to get back on its feet, but the reality is different, Eguchi said.
"It is a fact that we have received quite a lot of support, but is it sufficient? That is difficult, because it's not just a question of reconstruction. Politicians in Tokyo say if Fukushima does not recover, Japan will not recover, but I'm not sure they really mean that.
"I don't think Fukushima is fully supported by the whole country. And that's what the citizens here think."