No Way Home: The Inescapable Plight of One Fukushima CommunitySociety
Slowly Eroded Hopes
It was a conversation with Takahashi Masato that finally convinced me that Nagadoro was finished.
I was visiting him and his wife at their unit in the Matsukawa Number Two temporary housing complex. They have been living in a cramped prefabricated apartment there for four years now. He explained that his oldest son, Masahiro, had recently signed a contract to acquire a plot of land in the city of Fukushima on which to build a house. He had asked Masato and his wife if they would like to come and live with them once the house is ready. And Masato had said yes. He would pay for the house to include a second kitchen and bathroom to avoid getting in the way of the younger generation.
For four years Masato had been absolutely determined to return to his home in the irradiated hamlet of Nagadoro in the village of Iitate. He had lived there all his life and fully intended to end his days there. While others frankly stated that they would never return to Nagadoro, he made several visits a week—feeding his cat and the ornamental carp in his pond, and cleaning up the house to keep everything shipshape in readiness for his return. He got some friends together to petition the mayor to start decontamination of Nagadoro. He even did some decontamination of his own, sowing sunflower seeds in a field next to the government radiation monitoring post as well as cutting the grass near the monitoring post in a quixotic attempt to reduce the published radiation levels of his beloved Nagadoro.
And now, he said, “the dream is over.”
Masato, a former headman of Nagadoro, was 75 years old when the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred. Hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant sent radioactive matter high into the sky and the prevailing winds carried it northwest over Iitate. In the days immediately after the explosions the government evacuated people within a 20-kilometer radius of the power plant and told those living 20–30 kilometers from the plant to stay indoors. Because Iitate is just outside the 30-kilometer radius, no evacuation order was issued. Yet some parts of Iitate had far higher levels of radiation than many places within the 20-kilometer radius. Nagadoro, being in the far south of the village, got hit hardest of all.
In Nagadoro an atmospheric radiation level of 95.2 microsieverts an hour was recorded on March 17, 2011. This is equivalent to 834 millisieverts a year at a time when the official safe annual limit was 1 millisievert. Yet there was no evacuation order until April 22, 42 days after the disaster, at which point all 20 of the hamlets making up Iitate were ordered to evacuate. But they were given until the end of May to do so— another 40 days—implying that the situation was not that urgent. In the case of Nagadoro, inhabitants who followed the government line and evacuated at the end of May absorbed about 50 millisieverts of radiation before departing. Only time will tell how serious the health effects of this wholly unnecessary delay may be.
Some of the men of the hamlet were sanguine. They stayed on in Nagadoro after the government evacuation date, often because they had pregnant cows that needed to calve before they could be sold. One inhabitant, Shiga Takamitsu, stayed on in Nagadoro for a whole year after the evacuation order with just his golden retriever Ray for company. He had read books about radiation and concluded that the levels around his house were not a serious threat to health. Besides, his work did not involve spending long periods outdoors. He ran a small business trading in dried seaweed, which he continued to cut and pack in Nagadoro until July 2012, when the government reorganized the evacuation zone. Officials designated Nagadoro a “hard-to-return district” (kikan konnan kuiki), put up barriers around the hamlet, and declared it uninhabitable for the next five years. At that point Takamitsu finally gave in and moved his business and residence to the city of Fukushima.
Leaving Home Behind
The people of Nagadoro were relocated, some like Masato to temporary housing and others like Takamitsu to rental housing they found themselves, with the rent paid for them by the prefecture. Some found themselves living in relatively luxurious condominiums, others in prefabricated huts. The community was scattered across Fukushima Prefecture; neighbors lost touch.
Little by little compensation money started coming in from Tokyo Electric Power, operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Basic payments were ¥100,000 per person per month to compensate for “mental suffering.” This was the same for all areas ordered to evacuate. But in the case of high-radiation districts like Nagadoro, two lump sums equivalent to five and six years’ worth of the monthly payments were made—the first in 2012 and the second in 2014. Further payments have been made, including compensation for housing, furniture, agricultural machinery, and loss of employment. For a family of five, total compensation is now in the region of ¥100 million—more money than anyone in Nagadoro has ever seen before.
For some time the people of Nagadoro were paralyzed by the disaster that had afflicted their hamlet. The mayor of Iitate, Kanno Norio, had promised to get the village repopulated in two years—a promise that he later admitted had no credible foundation. The temporary housing was also supposed to be just for two years. But that was extended to three years, then to four, and now a fifth year has been confirmed. As the years went by, however, more people found employment in the places where they were evacuated. In 2014 the trickle of people using their compensation money to buy houses grew into a flood. Now about 45 of Nagadoro’s 71 households have bought homes, many of them in Fukushima city or the neighboring city of Date. Children have settled in and made new friends. For the younger ones, life in Nagadoro has become a fuzzy, half-remembered thing of the past.
Quite early on it became apparent that no one with children would be returning to Nagadoro. Radiation is known to be a bigger threat to children, since their cells reproduce more rapidly and they have more years of life ahead of them. The radiation levels recorded at the official monitoring post at the Nagadoro crossroads have come down to about 4 to 5 microsieverts an hour, but that is still 35 to 45 millisieverts a year, a level that no parent would wish upon their child.
Moreover, the decline in radiation level will be extremely slow from now on. This is due to the differing half-lives of the three main isotopes that fell on Nagadoro: iodine-131 has a half-life of eight days, cesium-134 two years, and cesium-137 30 years. Ironically, the 80 days before evacuation took effect was equivalent to 10 half-lives of iodine-131, meaning that any harm from the iodine had already happened before the villagers were evacuated. This accounted for the rapid decline in radiation in the first couple of months, from about 90 to about 20 microsieverts an hour. The last four years have covered two half-lives of caesium-134, reducing it to a quarter of its original level and accounting for the steady decline to the present level of about 5 microsieverts an hour. But most of the remaining radiation is caesium-137, with its 30-year half-life, and will decline far more slowly.
The reality gradually sank in that if no children or young adults would return, Nagadoro would become a much smaller settlement, perhaps with a dozen or so households rather than the 71 before the disaster, inhabited almost entirely by old people. Even prior to the meltdowns Nagadoro was suffering from a declining population: the last shop in the hamlet closed in 2010 as did its only gasoline station, and with the bus service almost non-existent it had become impossible to live in Nagadoro without a car.
Accepting the Inevitable
Four years have made a big difference to older people like Masato. Now at 79 he has various health problems. There are no hospitals near Nagadoro, and even if the nearest clinic in Iitate reopens it will be over 10 kilometers away. The prospect of returning raised many questions for Masato. For how many more years would he be able to drive? Who would take him to the hospital when he was no longer able to do so? Where would be the pleasure in living in a depopulated hamlet with a handful of households and only fellow pensioners for neighbors?
After taking a long, hard look at the situation Masato accepted the offer to live with his son in Fukushima. It was a choice between family and hometown. And despite the heavy emphasis on the hometown, or furusato, in Japanese culture, in the end family matters more.
And Masato was lucky. Not all the old folks in Nagadoro have children and grandchildren willing to house them. Many of them are living alone or with just their elderly spouse, a question mark hanging over their future living arrangements.
There is a massive decontamination program in progress in Iitate village. On most days over 1,000 workers are there, scraping off top soil and putting it into thousands of black bags that are stacked around the village awaiting transportation to the interim storage dump in Futaba and Ōkuma, the two townships where the nuclear power plant is located. Out of the 20 hamlets of Iitate, only Nagadoro is not being decontaminated. Government policy is to leave until last the most heavily irradiated districts. Mayor Kanno has been urging the hamlet to formally request an early start to decontamination, but the people of the hamlet have firmly declined to do so. They see no point in it, since none of the decontamination programs so far have succeeded in reducing radiation by more than 50%, which would not be enough to render Nagadoro inhabitable.
Thus I think we now have an answer to one question. The hamlet of Nagadoro will not be resettled—at least not in this generation and not by the people who lived there before the nuclear disaster.
But is Nagadoro a special case? What about the rest of Iitate village? What about all the other communities in the disaster zone? My personal opinion is that most of them will go the same way as Nagadoro: that plans of resettlement will fade away, leaving the communities abandoned.
First of all there is the weight of the passing time. If it really had been possible to go back to the irradiated communities in a couple of years, then some at least might have been preserved. But it has been four years and only a couple of small townships have been reopened, with a small fraction of the population returning. In four years people have made new lives for themselves in the places to which they evacuated. Return no longer seems like the obvious, natural thing to do.
Secondly, there is the problem of agriculture. Even where fields have been decontaminated the forested mountains around them have not. Rain brings radioactivity down from the mountains into the valleys, recontaminating the land. Already the need for “re-decontamination” has been recognized in several areas. Even supposing the fields could be returned to a usable condition—far from easy bearing in mind that the most fertile topsoil has been scraped off and the soil is not deep in this part of Tōhoku—there remains the question of who will buy agricultural produce from a region whose reputation has been destroyed by the nuclear disaster.
Thirdly, the powerful resistance to allowing children to live in the currently-evacuated area will eventually have the same effect as in Nagadoro—excluding such a large portion of the population that only the elderly are left, and not in sufficient numbers to enable shops, clinics, and other services to reopen. Thus even the elderly will eventually give up on returning to the land.
Events may yet show me to be wrong, but I believe that the hamlet of Nagadoro will prove to be the canary in the mine: its abandonment foreshadowing the abandonment of many other settlements in the area around the nuclear power plant. If I am right, the expenditure of hundreds of billions of yen in elaborate decontamination projects could end up looking like a terrible waste of money.(Written in English on May 18, 2015)