A Long Road to Recovery

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Photograph by William Daniels for TIME

Ghost town Half of Minami-soma's 70,000 inhabitants have abandoned the city, most of which lies in a voluntary-evacuation zone

It's a few minutes past 8 a.m., and Hiroshi Hasegawa has a lot of radioactive veggies to scan. He impatiently waves a man waiting in the muggy offices of the Citizens' Radioactivity Measuring Station over to his desk, on which Akihisa Takahashi, a high school teacher, deposits a bag of chopped eggplant. Hasegawa asks the teacher where the eggplant was grown and whether he had removed any contaminated dirt from the garden. Not yet, Takahashi answers. But he tested his peaches for radiation, and they seemed fine. "That's a good thing," Hasegawa says, entering the data into a laptop. "You can be happy about that."

Five months after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that killed as many as 22,000 people and displaced nearly 125,000 others, Fukushima prefecture is still struggling to clean up and move on. The slow pace of recovery raises the question: Which Japan will win out in the aftermath of the tragedy? Will it be the resilient nation that rose from the ashes of World War II or the country that has become better known over the past two decades for its economic and social torpor?

In large part, the answer may depend on men and women like Hasegawa. He is a local volunteer — he works as a civil engineer by day — who decided that by helping monitor food-safety levels, he could act in the face of federal inertia. And he's not alone. Increasingly, the people of Fukushima are taking the initiative and assuming responsibility for their recovery. "A month after [the nuclear disaster], we could see huge problems, but it was totally taboo to talk about it," says Jan van de Putte, a Greenpeace International nuclear campaigner who has been working in Japan since March 15. "Now there's this opening up. People are reacting. It's late, but it's not too late."

A Persistent Danger
Most of the samples that have passed across Hasegawa's desk have proved to be within the legal consumption limit of the radioactive isotopes cesium 134 and 137 and iodine 131. But not all have been under the threshold of 500 becquerels per kg. Last month, for instance, a batch of shiitake mushrooms measured 8,850 becquerels. The sample still sits on a bookshelf in the office, sealed with a strip of yellow tape. "I was very nervous when I had to grind it," Hasegawa says. "Don't touch it."

Hasegawa braves the risks because he, like other members of a growing citizens' movement in Fukushima City, is disillusioned with Tokyo's slow and distanced handling of the nuclear crisis. Even though it lies only about 50 km from the stricken plant, the city was not included in any of the government's evacuation plans — despite the fact that local radiation levels have been high since March, in some cases higher than in locations people were forced to leave. In April, three Fukushima residents started supplementing government monitoring by doing their own testing around the city. They found spots where radiation levels exceeded 100 microsieverts per hour, about the same dose as a chest X-ray. More distressing, they found that three-quarters of the schools they visited had levels that exceeded the yearly exposure limit for employees at Japan's nuclear plants. "Seventy-six percent of our children were working in the same conditions as nuclear workers," says Seiichi Nakate, one of the testers.

When Nakate posted his findings online, hundreds of concerned parents joined his fledgling organization, which became the Fukushima Network for Saving Children from Radiation. (The food-monitoring group is an offshoot.) Since then, city and prefectural officials have picked up the pace of testing schools and agricultural products. The city has also initiated a decontamination program — and like the citizens' group, it is doing it on its own, with little outside support. Armed with shovels and high-pressure water guns, some 3,700 city employees and volunteers have started the long process of cleaning the city, scrubbing schools, parks and walkways frequented by children. "I personally feel that it's up to the country and TEPCO to undertake this work," says Tatsuo Miura, head of the city's crisis-management team. "But it's the city, the prefecture and the people who are going to have to do it." The central government has said it will set aside up to $300 million for decontaminating schools and playgrounds affected by the nuclear crisis but has yet to say when that money will appear.

Nor has Tokyo come up with any long-term solution for the radioactive waste that is quickly accumulating. Officials in Fukushima City have been disposing of some waste at an industrial dumping site, an option that residents in the area are understandably not happy about. As parks and school grounds are stripped of contaminated topsoil, the city is doing the only thing it can do: burying the waste under the sites from which it was removed. The contaminated soil is covered with a minimum of 50 cm of clean topsoil, a process that officials say has lowered ground radiation levels by 80%. "We have been asking the government for a better solution," says Miura. He reiterates that the city's tests have shown that burying the soil is safe, "but what is safe is not necessarily a relief to the public."

Even those who are part of the effort are unsure. In a small playground behind a public-housing unit, a construction worker, wearing a short-sleeve T-shirt and no gloves, shovels contaminated dirt that has been scraped off the grass into a square hole. Shuya Sato, the contractor hired to oversee the dig, lives in the neighborhood and says he feels it's his civic obligation to help clean up the radiation as quickly as possible. When asked whether it might be dangerous for the bare-armed worker to be handling the dirt, Sato stares down at his own naked forearms for a few silent moments. "I don't know," he finally answers, sounding exasperated. "Even the scientists on TV are split about the effects [of radiation]. So how can I know? I'm not an expert."

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