The sun rises for no one in the ghost towns of Fukushima
Eight years later, most residents still have not returned despite the government’s encouragement
The town of Tomioka fell chillingly silent in the days after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011. On the porches of empty homes lay abandoned shoes, newspapers and long-cold cups of tea.
Eight years on, despite the Japanese government’s efforts to encourage residents to return, little has changed.
Before March 11 2011 – the day the tsunami engulfed the nuclear facility, forcing the evacuation of more than 150,000 residents across the region – the town had a population of 15,960.
Now, just a few hundred people have returned despite the lifting of the evacuation order in April 2017.
“Officially 835 have returned, but many are plant and other clean-up workers who are renting out abandoned houses,” says Takumi Takano, a councillor who splits her time between Tomioka and temporary accommodation an hour’s drive away.
Of the remaining locals, most are either elderly or only return during the day. When night falls, they return to temporary homes elsewhere. “It’s like a ghost town.”
In the reopened parts of Tomioka, radioactivity levels remain 20 times higher than before the disaster. And in the blockaded zone they exceed 3.8 microsieverts per hour – the threshold for evacuation.
That zone is a legacy of the nuclear disaster, when reactor meltdowns and explosions, triggered by a magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami, spread radioactive materials for hundreds of kilometres around.
The government has reopened two-thirds of the original evacuation zone and started clean-up operations to reduce radiation levels below its target of 0.23 microsieverts per hour.
This adds up to an annual level of 1 millisievert (mSv), which is stipulated as safe by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
But some experts argue the figure says little about the true dangers – or otherwise – of radiation exposure.
In the months following the disaster, radiation levels for Fukushima residents were below 5mSv a year.
In comparison, according to Public Health England, the average annual exposure to naturally occurring radiation in the UK is about 2.7mSv.
Wade Allison, Oxford University emeritus professor of physics, argues that nuclear power is given a raw deal.
“Nuclear is not especially dangerous – it’s not as dangerous as fire,” he said during a presentation in Tokyo in 2014.
According to Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the plant, there have been three deaths at the facility since March 2011, none of which were due to radiation exposure.
However, in September 2018, Japan’s government announced that a worker at the nuclear plant died from lung cancer that was attributed to radiation exposure.
Cancers are among the most widely debated consequences of the disaster, and as of September 2018, 17 cancers in workers had been confirmed.
Professor Gerry Thomas, a cancer specialist at Imperial College London, says: “What we need is more evidence-based, measured discussions about the real health effects of energy generation.”
Thomas is equally sceptical of other reported health problems, among them the 202 confirmed and suspected thyroid cancers detected among 380,000 schoolchildren.
She says: “[The cancer numbers] are not due to radiation, it’s due to finding incidences of thyroid cancer that are in the population anyway. Because of the screening, they find them much earlier than they would normally.”
However, Misao Fujita, a doctor who performs thyroid scans at a clinic 48km south of the plant, says a link cannot be ruled out.
“After Chernobyl, many children developed thyroid cancer, and if you take that into account and consider the high risk that Fukushima children were exposed to radiation, then I think we should carry out tests.”
Another worry for residents is the one million tons of contaminated water stored at the stricken nuclear plant.
TEPCO claims the water had been stripped of all but one radioactive material, tritium, but was forced to backtrack when further tests showed very high levels of hazardous materials.
Ayumi Iida of Tarachine, an NGO that analyses seawater, says tritiated water is hazardous when inhaled or ingested.
“There’s already data indicating infant leukaemia rates are higher near nuclear plants, and tritium is known to cause DNA damage,” she says.
Soil radiation levels are another concern in Obori, a village about 10km northwest of the nuclear plant and within the difficult-to-return zone.
In woodland backing the pretty hamlet, this publication recorded up to 127 microsieverts an hour – more than 350 times the IAEA’s safe threshold.
Keiko Onoda, a ceramics artist now living in Tokyo, is heartbroken at not being able to return permanently.
“We were told to evacuate to avoid getting sick, and in so doing we became sick with worry,” she says, tears running down her cheeks.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)