Fukushima’s invisible fear

January 31, 2012

By Issei Kato

These days, a mask, protective clothing and radiation counter have all become a usual part of reporting trips, as essential as a camera, lenses and a laptop. Soon, this situation will have gone on for a full year.

The 20 km (12 mile) zone around Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is now a virtual ghost town after being evacuated of residents due to radiation. I asked a friend, who was forced by the disaster to leave the area and has been searching for a way to resume work, for help, and was able to enter the area where he used to live.

The massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 triggered the world’s worst nuclear accident in 25 years and forced residents around the plant to flee, leaving behind in many cases their household belongings or pets. The triple whammy is still forcing more than 150,000 people from Fukushima prefecture to take refuge, nearly half of them from the no-go zone.

When entering the zone by car, I could see houses and shops destroyed by the earthquake. Traffic signals along the street were blinking yellow but there was no one around. Instead of residents, groups of cows which escaped from farms clopped along the street or in the gardens of houses. There was no sound of cars or people on a shopping street, only the noise of the wind and the bawling of cows.

Districts near the coast were badly affected by the tsunami and there is still a lot of debris: destroyed houses, cars, boats. A child’s abandoned bicycle and wheelchairs at a nursing home showed, I thought, how residents had to leave in a tremendous hurry in the aftermath of the unexpected accident.

Occasionally, cats dashed away from me or watched our car pull away on a street inside the zone. In the haste and confusion of evacuating thousands of people, hundreds of dogs and cats were left behind. Ten months on from the disaster, the pet rescue group UKC Japan has saved over 250 dogs and 100 cats from the zone, and are still looking for others. Rescued pets are taken back to the group’s pet shelter south of Tokyo until their families are found.

By chance, I met a resident who was making a brief visit to the home he was evacuated from in Namie town, inside the exclusion zone. At a glance, his house did not appear heavily damaged. But when he checked the radiation level around his home with his own radiation counter, my thinking changed.

The meter started to beep loudly and its alert LED started to blink. The closer he moved the counter to the ground surface, the more the radiation level increased. Finally, the radiation monitor indicated 85.1 microsieverts per hour in a gully, the highest level I have experienced to date.

I was reminded that radiation is an “Invisible Fear”. We immediately left that hot spot. When I thought of the resident, who once again had to abandon his home and his home town, I felt sad.

The Japanese government said in December it would draw up new evacuation zones by the end of April, and areas where annual radiation levels are currently higher than 50 millisieverts would be deemed unsuitable for living for at least five years.

I pray that this tragedy can be eased soon and all the evacuees can go back to their radiation-free homes and all the pets can see their family someday soon.

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