At Edge of Japan's Nuclear Zone, Residents Face an Uncertain Future

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Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg via Getty Images

A man walks in Iitate, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, April 21, 2011. Iitate, which is 40 km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, used to be a major producer of wagyu beef and rice

Nobuyuki Ito wanted to try his hand at farming after retiring as a software engineer. Now 68, Ito proudly takes in the view from Iitate Farm, in a remote valley of Fukushima prefecture. The idyllic scenery and rich soil make it an ideal spot for an agricultural retreat where overworked urban dwellers can experience nature by growing their own food. For now, however, the place remains off-limits until authorities figure out a way to eliminate the invisible threat that blankets the region: radiation from the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors.

Four days after the earthquake and tsunami, fallout from the nuclear plant contaminated vast patches of land beyond the 20-km exclusion zone, eventually forcing residents to evacuate. In an attempt to get them back, several municipalities affected by the crisis have recently launched projects to reduce radiation levels, by scraping off topsoil and blasting water on roads and buildings. Ito, for one, is not sold. "It doesn't make any sense to remove the top two inches of soil and expect radiation levels to go down," says Ito. "Are they going to scrape off the entire mountain? And where would they put the soil anyway?"

Ito is part of a small group of indomitable farmers who refuse to leave the municipality of Iitate, despite a government evacuation order issued after the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi. They, together with neighbors who left, are locked in a silent showdown with the mayor over plans to decontaminate the land they call furusato — their home. After spending nearly one year in the cramped conditions of relocation camps, idleness and the absence of clear prospects are undermining their health. They long to know when — or if — they will be able to return to their former lives.

In the coastal township of Minamisoma, one-third of which lies within the 20-km exclusion zone, private contractors are hard at work in public parks, digging trenches to bury the contaminated soil between layers of tarpaulin. With figures hovering around 1 microsievert per hour, a reading well below the official limit for public exposure to radiation, monitoring stations in Minamisoma show comparatively low levels of radiation. But the municipality is still finding it hard to evacuate the waste generated by both the tsunami and the decontamination work. Few prefectures elsewhere in Japan are willing to take in materials — be it wood, soil, smashed cars or tainted water — stamped with the name of Fukushima. Starting in April, Minamisoma will extend decontamination operations to the whole municipality. The budget set aside by the central government for such programs, worth hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars, is a welcome boost for local economies devastated by a comprehensive ban on farming and fishing.

The situation in Iitate is quite different. The town lies outside both the 20-km exclusion zone and the 30-km zone wherein people were urged to stay indoors. Last March 15, changing wind patterns sent the plume of radionuclides spewing from the crippled reactors on a northwesterly course, raining iodine and cesium on the forested hills, rice paddies and farms. "We didn't have any information, so we continued living as usual," recalls Takashi Owada, a 73-year-old farmer born and raised in Iitate who now lives in Temporary Housing Settlement 2, a camp of prefab units in Matsukawa, some 30 km further west. "But soon, among the refugees from the coastal areas hit by the tsunami, came people who lived near the plant. They told us about the radiation."

The 40 km separating Iitate from Fukushima Daiichi, combined with statements by government officials stressing the absence of "immediate concerns for human health," led many residents to believe they were relatively safe. "For five days we continued distributing water to the residents and the refugees," says Takumi Aizawa, a school administrator who helped coordinating relief operations. "It was only later that we discovered we had unknowingly poisoned them, as well as our own children."

Exactly one month after the disaster, local businessmen gathered on the second floor of Iitate's town hall for a briefing. "The government says we might have to prepare for evacuation due to concerns about the cumulative levels of radiation," said mayor Norio Kanno, referring to the threshold of 20 millisieverts per year beyond which experts said it would be unsafe to remain. "But I would like to stress that things could still go either way." Two hours later, a government spokesman announced on television that Iitate was to be evacuated within a month. There, unlike in the official exclusion zone, evacuation was to proceed on a voluntary basis.

Over the past year, Nobuyuki Ito focused his energy on trying to understand what was happening around him. "How many people have had the opportunity of studying the consequences of a nuclear accident?" he asks, clasping sheets of data from his countless experiments. In violation of the ban on farming, Ito grew rice, sweet potatoes, sunflowers and various vegetables. He asked a lab to analyze how much cesium — one of the main radioactive isotopes that escaped from the plant — they had absorbed, and then compiled extensive spreadsheets to compare the results. More than anything, the retired software engineer is trying to prove the mayor wrong by demonstrating that radiation levels in Iitate are beyond the reach of bulldozers and high-pressure cleaners. "Instead of spending millions of taxpayers' money in a futile attempt to decontaminate, why don't we allow the community to relocate and resume farming elsewhere?" says Ito.

In Temporary Housing Settlement 2, where 80% of occupants are above 65, time is not on the villagers' side. Nearly one year after the accident, Owada and his wife sit in their regulation-size living room, their legs tucked under a kotatsu, a low table equipped with a heating unit and covered by a quilt. "Even if we returned, the radiation would prevent us from doing what we've done all our lives. Nobody would buy our produce," he says. "All our dreams are gone. If at least we had a clear picture of the situation, it would be easier to move on. But, to tell you the truth, I may have given up already."