Tragedy in Fukushima: when can we go back to home again?
After covering myself from head to toe in protective clothing in the hope of protecting me from radiation, I went to accompany evacuees who were temporarily allowed to visit their homes in the 20 km no-entry zone surrounding the tsunami-crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, a place now notorious for its radiation leaks.
My destination was Okuma town where the whole population of about 11,000 had been evacuated since last year’s earthquake. The town is still afflicted with high levels of invisible radiation.
In the evacuees’ memories, the town was a beautiful rural town with a close-knit community and the only unusual thing was that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was located close by.
Most residents accepted the nuclear plant because they believed in TEPCO, the operator of the nuclear power plant, and the government had told them their safety standards were impeccable. Some of the residents were skeptical but they could not raise awareness of possible dangers posed by the nuclear plant because it provided employment to the locals and it also gave financial subsidies to their local towns which were used to build infrastructure such as good roads and schools in exchange for tolerating the power plant which supplied electricity to urban areas.
But their trust in TEPCO and the government was betrayed. TEPCO failed to contain the fallout from the tsunami-stricken nuclear reactors and now many evacuees are suffering from invisible mental scars.
Takeda Miyoko whom I met at her temporary return visit, showed me her luxurious Kimono which she used for her dance performances. But the former traditional dancer burst into tears after saying that she could not retrieve it because it must be contaminated. She is also suffering depression and insomnia since she was evacuated to another city last year.
The evacuees’ lives in their new homes have not been easy. Their close community was torn apart and they were scattered to several different temporary housing complexes and facilities which could accommodate them. Many had lost their jobs and students were suddenly thrown into very new circumstances. Concerns about discrimination have bothered them in their new neighborhood. Mothers are concerned that their children might be bullied by new classmates worried that they are radiation-carriers.
The concern about radiation has not been limited to the evacuees. Two million Fukushima residents have growing concerns surrounding radiation contamination. Masks to prevent radiation from getting into their respiratory organs have been necessities for children and they were advised not to play outside. People line up to get their cultivated vegetables and food tested for radiation. Governments monitor radiation levels in the town and announce the level every day to ease concerns.
The thing is that these concerns are not limited to Fukushima. High radiation levels have been detected in several places, including Tokyo, more than 270 km away from the nuclear power plant, and the nuclear contamination fears have plagued the country.
Estimates for radiation cleanup range from 20-30 years, but no one knows when the pain from their tragedy can be healed. For Tomiko Ikinobu, who lives in a small temporary house with her four children, all she wants is a sense of direction. “I cannot sleep well because of concerns about me and my family’s future. Government has not given us a clear direction”, Ikinobu said.
Much like the invisible radiation however, an estimate as to when the residents of Okuma will be able to return is still impossible to see.
“I don’t know when I can go home again. Maybe I cannot go home again forever,” she said.