In shadow of Japan's wounded nuclear beast

Mon, Mar 28, 2011, 01:00

As workers struggle to bring the stricken plant under control long-term effects remain unknown

TETSUO SAKUMA has loaded his small pick-up with all it can carry.

There’s not much of value: a television, some books, boxes of clothes. All snatched in haste from a home he may never sleep in again. “We hope to come back, but it’s difficult to tell when,” he says.

As he talks, he glances toward a hulking suite of concrete buildings nestling behind trees about two kilometres away. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has driven him out of the house he has lived in all his life.

“We’re rented an apartment in Iwaki,” explains his grown-up son Takashi. He says hundreds of people from the area have moved to the city about 30km (19 miles) away, on the borderline of the government-designated evacuation perimeter. “Almost everyone has gone,” adds Tetsuo, tightening a rope around his belongings. “We only came back to get our stuff. The hardest thing is not knowing when we will return.”

Around us, Okumamachi has all the appearance of a typical Japanese town. There’s a post office with its bright red sign, a couple of convenience stores and a petrol station. Shiny police cars are lined up outside the Futaba police station, two smiley cartoon faces beckon customers into the Mister Tire-Man garage; a gaudy sign advertises the Tsubame Pachinko Parlour. All that’s missing from Okumamachi is people. In their place dogs roam the streets, abandoned by their owners.

Alien figures in radiation suits, gas masks and respirators peer from passing vehicles. A police car slows and the two masks inside tell the Sakumas, father and son, to get quickly to safety. “It’s dangerous here. Please take shelter, for your own sake.”

Three weeks ago, this picture-postcard farming region, 250km northeast of Tokyo, was going about its business. When the March 11th quake came, it tore up bridges and roads, toppled houses and triggered the colossal tsunami. That was but a prelude to what followed as the twin disaster knocked out the Fukushima plant’s cooling systems – the start of a nightmare from which this sleepy region has yet to awake.

When the explosions at the complex began, the government declared a 20km evacuation zone around the plant, telling another 140,000 people living in the zone 20-30km away to seal themselves indoors. The declaration was considered arbitrary, unscientific, even callous.

“The government is leaving us to die,” an emotional local mayor in Minamisoma told the media.

Government spokesman Yukio Edano gave what was seen as conflicting statements on the dangers. Supplies stopped coming as deliverymen refused to drive into the area, shops closed, government officials began driving around in protective suits. Those locals who had the means to leave did so. Many old, poor and ill people remained.

Last Friday, the prime minister’s office finally issued a voluntary evacuation order to residents in the 20-30km zone, after earlier admitting that radiation levels in some areas outside 30km could exceed 100 millisieverts, a level considered dangerous over a period of more than 24 hours. The order was sent quietly the previous night “to avoid confusion” said Kyodo News.

“I’m not confused, I’m just scared,” says Takashi Sakuma. “You can’t see radiation.” On the drive up toward the Fukushima plant, buses carrying about half a dozen men in white radiation gear travel in the opposite direction.

Technicians at the plant can only work for short periods before being withdrawn and sent for decontamination.

Yesterday, Japan’s nuclear watchdog said the level of radiation near Reactor Two was now 1,000 millisieverts an hour. Exposure of 100 millisieverts a year is considered a cancer risk. But Tokyo Electric Power Co, the plant’s operator, said later that the reading was wrong. Tepco vice-president Sakae Muto apologised for the error but said radiation in the water was a still worrying 100,000 times higher than normal, rather than 10 million times higher as originally stated.

The few local people who venture back to the area in cars to pick up their belongings wear pollen masks – akin to wearing socks while walking over hot coals. Some carry Geiger counters. “The reading now is 56 millisieverts,” says Masaru Onuki, who has slowed and rolled down his window to warn me of the most dangerous area further along the coast, where he has detected 69 microsieverts or more. “It’s okay, as long as you don’t stay too long.” Until March 11th, visitors to the plant would have driven up to the reception centre, surrounded by trees blocking it off from the six reactors. On the glass doors, two cartoon characters would have welcomed them inside for a talk by Tepco on the 40-year-old plant’s safety record. The quake has broken the glass door and driven a crack through the wall sign advertising the centre.

While photographing it, a security guard in a protective suit approaches. “You can’t come here,” he says. “Where is your suit?” I don’t have one, I tell him. “You must leave the area.”

According to experts the radioactivity is not evenly spread in circles: there are places outside the 30km zone more radioactive than inside it. “In some places between 30-50km from the reactor, the reading was above 100 microsieverts per hour,” says Jan Vande Putte, Greenpeace International’s radiation expert who is part of a team monitoring the outskirts of the evacuation zone. “You were irradiated but if you didn’t spend too much time it is okay at the current radiation levels. But if something goes really wrong inside the plant you have a chance not to survive it.”

How far before it is safe? The road away winds into the mountains and eventually arrives at a town called Tamura-shi, between 20-30km away from the crippled plant. It too is eerily quiet, a Marie Celestefor the atomic age. Hironobu Matsumoto and his son Makoto drive another pick-up down the empty main street. “Almost everybody left after the earthquake,” recalls Makoto. “We can’t because we have a sick old person inside our house who can’t be moved. But there aren’t many like us . . . I mean, who knows what will happen to the nuclear plant?”

Outside the deserted police station, another local man stops his car to talk. Kingo Watanabe (86) has been here since March 11th, and isn’t moving. Isn’t he afraid of the radiation? “Compared to what happened in the war , I’m not afraid,” he says. When the Americans bombed Tokyo, he was assigned to an anti-aircraft battery. But the Americans kept coming. “We lived through Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the radiation then was far worse. I’ll live through this.”