Back in the nuclear zone

May 12, 2011

Fukushima prefecture’s Kawauchi residents who evacuated from their village near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were allowed to return home briefly last Tuesday to pick up personal belongings. This was the first government-led operation for the evacuees.

Kawauchi village is one of the cities, towns and villages designated by the government in late April as a legally binding no-entry zone within a 20km (12 miles) radius of the plant.

Clad from head to toe in white protective suits, they got off the buses and received a screening test for signs of nuclear radiation at a village gymnasium after a two-hour trip inside the no-entry zone.

Each clutched a large plastic bag provided beforehand — a quota had been placed on the amount of belongings that could be salvaged. Most were filled with clothing but included photos and stuffed toy animals. Some residents salvaged bank statements or certifications of mutual aid association. I had the sense that the situation occurred suddenly and brought about unexpected change in their lives.

Some residents feared they may never be able to go back.

Some of the residents took bags of pet food into the village to help their animal companions survive until their next visit.

Journalists covering inside and around the zone were also required to wear the protective suits and carry equipment provided by government or police.

There was not a single minute while shooting in the no-entry zone that I wasn’t thinking; if a strong earthquake hit the region again causing catastrophic trouble to the plant, damage to the telecommunication facility, road collapse, missing the route; if suddenly the plant went out of control…

Whether we had to wear the protective suits or not – we now carry Geiger counters, protective suits, masks, goggles, shoe covers, satellite phones, walkie-talkies, wet-tissues, plastic bags along with the usual camera equipment and laptop since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. I found myself getting a little nervous despite the background radiation levels during Tuesday’s events being low.

Excessive equipment? I don’t think so. I’m being safe and concentrating on the way I cover the story because I am not an expert in radiation.

The Japanese government delayed the decision expected on Thursday on a plan to help Tokyo Electric pay compensation for damage from the nuclear crisis in Fukushima but I pray the crisis can be eased soon and all the evacuees can go back to their home someday soon.

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