A Derelict Japanese Village

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 Highway 389.

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 village's 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 northwest 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 residents. 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 was 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 and 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 contaminants 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.

To 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.

Of 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 tornadoes, 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."