Fukushima: a strange kind of homecoming

It is on the road to Yoshitada Unuma’s family grave that my Geiger counter really starts crackling. At some point in the past year, an invisible dusting of radioactive particles has spread across this country road and the pine trees on either side, leaving them heavily contaminated. As we drive up the quiet valley towards the graveyard, the needle of the detector on my lap climbs to more than 40 microsieverts per hour – about 800 times the level near my home in Tokyo. Somewhere in the van we are travelling in, a radiation alarm starts beeping, but Yoshitada and his wife Tomoe pay it no heed. We are deep in the exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant: here, even higher radiation levels are routine. Tomoe glances at her own radiation detector and sighs. “These days, it’s risky even to pay your respects to the dead,” she says.

I first met Yoshitada and Tomoe Unuma, aged 45 and 36, in a futuristic sports arena near Tokyo, 10 days after the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi power station plunged into crisis on March 11 2011. The quiet-spoken couple and their 10-year-old daughter Hana had been forced to flee their farm just 2km from the plant in the coastal district of Futaba, leaving behind almost all their possessions, their pack of beloved cats and dogs and 40 cattle. After a chaotic flight south, they and more than 1,000 fellow Futaba residents had found refuge in cardboard cubicles set up in the arena’s corridors.

Those were extraordinary times in Japan. The nation was still reeling from the biggest earthquake in its recorded history and a resulting tsunami that devastated the north-east coast, killing nearly 16,000 people and leaving more than 3,000 missing. Workers, soldiers and firemen were toiling in desperate conditions to cool Fukushima Daiichi’s radiation-spewing reactors. The day after I met the Unumas, then-prime minister Naoto Kan secretly commissioned a worst-case scenario for the crisis that would raise the dreaded possibility of evacuations as far away as the megalopolis of Greater Tokyo, with its population of 35 million.

One year on, those fears have receded. Conditions at the plant have been stabilised, radiation leaks stemmed and new jury-rigged cooling systems installed. Yet for many in Japan, the crisis is far from over. More than 100,000 people are still exiled from their homes; millions more suffer the anxiety of living amid elevated levels of radiation. The failure of Fukushima Daiichi has thrown into question resource-poor Japan’s energy strategy and shaken public faith in the government.

Like all the best horror story settings, the forbidden zone around Fukushima Daiichi is a blend of the bizarre and the banal. To enter, you have to show a travel pass at police checkpoints and then stop at an outdoor processing centre where you are issued with a white suit of disposable overalls, mask, gloves and shoe covers, a thin shield against radioactive dust or mud. The irregular flow of trucks and buses bound for the plant gives a veneer of normality to a road lined with a standard Japanese suburban sprawl of automobile dealerships, noodle shops and farm produce packing centres. It is only when you look closely that you notice all the lights are off in the convenience stores and grass is poking up through cracks in the tarmac of the chain restaurants’ forecourts. Off the main road, the shallow valleys are eerily quiet. Occasionally you spot a slowly patrolling police car or a fellow visitor, also clad in a white radiation suit. Otherwise all is still, except for a circling kite in the cold blue sky.

It is Tomoe Unuma’s third trip home since the March 11 disaster and Yoshitada’s fourth. This time they are travelling with a camera crew and presenter from Japanese TV broadcaster TBS, who, like me, have seized on the couple’s visit as an opportunity to bypass official restrictions on access.

A dead cow inside the Unumas’ barn

As we turn the last corner before the Unumas’ farm, Tomoe cries out at the sight of a small group of cows that start and run at our approach. It is the first time she has seen any survivors from the family herd. These were in the fields when the Unumas fled and were later set free by animal welfare volunteers. Now they roam wild. The cows and calves stuck inside on March 11 were not so lucky. We find their corpses lining the floor of the barn in tangles of skin and exposed bone. In one pen, however, there is a panicking live cow that has returned out of habit and become trapped. Tomoe finds a tool kit to dismantle the pen’s fence, then gently shoos the cow outside. “Take your time, take your time,” she tells it. “Go and join the others.”

For the Unumas this is the strangest kind of homecoming. Futaba’s coastal villages were scoured by the tsunami, but most houses inland survived the earthquake. Now, neglect is exposing them to a more insidious kind of destruction and everything is tainted by the fear of radiation. I find in the Unumas’ home a chaotic mess, created first by the earthquake, which turned over furniture and tossed toys off shelves, and then later deepened by their rushed efforts to find prized belongings and by the defecation of abandoned pets. At least the family appears to have been spared by the burglars who looted many homes and businesses in the evacuation zone in the first months after the disaster. But the house where Tomoe’s parents lived, a long, low structure that combines living quarters and a barn for rearing calves, is already starting to sag. Its paper interior walls are torn and rot is spreading across its ceilings.

Inside the Unumas’ home, a photo of Tomoe aged 20 hangs on the wall; the clock is still ticking and has only lost three minutes since the disaster

Now that the Unumas are home, with permission to stay for only five hours, there is not actually much worth doing. The TV crew help to bury one dead cat, found nestled in the couple’s futon. A bag of dog food is opened and left in case other family pets might return. Tomoe tears the plastic covers from some bales of straw for the cows. She wonders whether to take back some hair curlers and a couple of children’s Hollywood DVDs, trying to weigh their worth against the risk of contamination. It is hard to abandon even mundane possessions when they are sitting intact in front of you. “Every time I buy a spoon or a pair of chopsticks, I can’t help thinking: ‘I’ve already got one at home’,” she says.

A feeling of being stuck in a weird limbo is common among nuclear evacuees. In Tokyo, I catch up with Ryota Takakura, who was working at Fukushima Daiichi when the earthquake hit and fled south with his extended family as conditions worsened at the plant. We meet at a council flat in a Tokyo suburb, where his sister now stays with her husband and two children.

Ryota Takakura (left) with brother-in-law Ryutaro Oshida and family in their Tokyo flat

Red-eyed after a night out with friends, Takakura, 29, says he has no long-term plans. Getting a job seems pointless since it would probably make him ineligible for loss of income compensation from Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the utility that operated Fukushima Daiichi. Yet it is hard for him to know how much he will eventually receive from Tepco. The government has unveiled some broad standards – such as a fixed payment of Y120,000 (£940) a month for time spent living in sports halls or tents – but other vital details are still to be decided.

Many evacuees also find the compensation process confusing and bureaucratic. Even after a government-ordered simplification, the pack that Tepco sends claimants is a daunting sheaf including one form that runs to 30 pages and has a guide to filling it in that is twice as thick.

“When I saw that, I thought they were making fun of us,” says Takakura’s brother-in-law, Ryutaro Oshida. After fleeing Fukushima, Oshida has opened a restaurant in Tokyo to replace the one he ran near the plant and is part of a band that has released a song in support of local tsunami reconstruction. But such successes do not make him any more forgiving of Tepco. “The way they act, it seems like they don’t really think they have done anything wrong,” he says.

Anger against Tepco and its complacent government overseers runs deep in Fukushima and among a wider public that had been promised Japan’s nuclear plants were fully proofed against the seismic misfortunes that plague this unstable archipelago. When March 11 demonstrated the emptiness of those promises, nervous local authorities began blocking the restart of reactors shut down because of the earthquake or idled for routine maintenance. By this month, only two of Japan’s 54 commercial reactors – which until the disaster accounted for nearly a third of the nation’s electricity supply – were still online.

Yet while Japan’s love affair with nuclear power is surely over, it is striking how muted the backlash has been. Within a few months of the failure of Fukushima Daiichi, Germany and Italy turned decisively against atomic power, but Japan has so far merely announced a review of its energy policy. Many in the political and media establishments are convinced the resource-poor nation cannot abandon nuclear power completely. Meanwhile, only a handful of anti-nuclear demonstrations have managed to muster more than a few thousand participants.

To find out why, I visit Hidekatsu Yoshii, a member of parliament for the Japanese Communist party. If anyone should be reaping a political reward from the Fukushima Daiichi crisis, it is Yoshii and his comrades, who have been opposing nuclear power since the 1960s. Yoshii warned parliament six years ago that a combination of an earthquake and tsunami could disable a Japanese atomic power plant’s cooling systems, with dire consequences.

Hidekatsu Yoshii, Diet lower house member for the Japanese Communist party

But the Communists have hardly surged since last March. Opinion polls put the party’s support among voters at 2 per cent or less. Yoshii, a loquacious political veteran with a smooth, deep voice, admits that anti-nuclear campaigners face a hard fight to defeat an industry in which much of the Japanese business establishment – from construction companies to mega-banks – has a stake. And he complains that Japan’s mainstream media ignores homegrown anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Still, Yoshii senses a sea-change in public opinion fuelled by the growing sense that renewable energies can be a realistic alternative to nuclear. A book he wrote making that case had little impact when it was published in late 2010, but sales surged after Fukushima Daiichi failed. A small town that he cited as a model of renewable energy use was suddenly overwhelmed by would-be emulators. “It’s caused a lot of trouble for them,” Yoshii grins. “They’ve had to start only accepting visitors two days a week.”

The one-year anniversary of the disaster will offer an opportunity for anti-nuclear activists to put renewed pressure on national politicians. Campaigners, including Nobel prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe, are planning to hold a major rally in one of Fukushima Prefecture’s biggest cities on March 11. Yet even organisers admit it is hard to rouse a public that has had little experience of mass protest since the febrile 1960s. Author and activist Keiko Ochiai says that after travelling around Japan to take part in anti-nuclear events, she is “not necessarily optimistic” that the movement can gain momentum. “I worry that the crest of the wave may have passed.”

The most important task for the Unumas during their brief time in the exclusion zone is to visit their family graves. First we pay our respects at a row of headstones nestled by a stand of pines on the edge of the farm. These are Tomoe’s ancestors, who have tilled land here for at least five generations. Yoshitada married into the household, adopting his wife’s surname – a common practice for families that find themselves short of male heirs.

Next we all pile into the van for the short drive to the municipal graveyard, where Yoshitada’s parents’ ashes are buried. Although we are actually heading away from the plant, the radiation level rises sharply. Fallout does not fall evenly; it is driven by vagaries of wind and rain and then further redistributed by rivers and drains. Some farms almost in the shadow of Fukushima Daiichi have levels lower than others tens of kilometres away.

Yoshitada Unuma tends the grave of a friend’s baby while visiting his parents’ graves

At the graveyard, Yoshitada, who has dyed hair and a taste for motorbikes and the latest consumer electronics, crouches to light a few sticks of incense. As their sharp scent slips through my facemask, he pours a libation of bottled green tea over the headstone and clasps his hands in prayer. The needle on my radiation meter has fallen back to 25 microsieverts per hour and its ticking sounds less urgent, but the TV announcer is still anxious. “It’s dangerous here,” he tells the Unumas. “Don’t stay too long.”

Just how dangerous is a matter of fierce debate between opposing camps; they argue on one side that radiation risk is ludicrously over-emphasised out of scientific ignorance and nuclear paranoia and on the other that it is being dangerously understated in the interests of the atomic establishment.

Tomoe Unuma checks and records radiation levels around her former home town

At 25 microsieverts an hour, it would take me less than two days to receive a dose above 1 millisievert, an internationally adopted annual limit for artificial radiation exposure to the general public. Yet that dose would still be only one-hundredth of the level at which there is generally accepted statistical evidence of increased incidence of cancer. Any thorough risk assessment would also need to take into account the different kinds of radiation given off by different radionuclides, whether the exposure is internal or external, and how much of a dose I have already received from half a dozen trips to Fukushima since the accident. But it seems to me that I would have to be incredibly unlucky to suffer harm from just a few hours in this kind of environment.

The Unumas, too, are relaxed enough to tend another grave, this one belonging to friends who had moved away from Futaba district before the accident. Because their friends are no longer residents, they do not have permission to enter the exclusion zone to tend it themselves.

Some of the most commonly used Japanese words defy satisfactory translation into English. One such word is the verb ganbaru. Its imperative forms ganbare and ganbatte – which can be variously rendered as “Do your best!” or “Hang in there!” – are the standard way to fire up exam-takers, sports contestants or anyone faced with a challenge. So well-wishers naturally used such words to offer encouragement to the victims of the tsunami and the nuclear crisis.

But it is hard for those who have lost so much to be told by the more fortunate that they should be doing their best. There were complaints that instructing victims to “ganbatte” only added to the psychological pressure on them, leading to a mini-linguistic backlash. These days, more thoughtful Japanese find other words to comfort disaster victims – or at least shift to the more inclusive form ganbaro, which can be translated as “Let’s persevere” and has become a slogan to be stuck on the side of trains, painted on primary school walls and parroted in the prime minister’s new year speech.

When I meet Shunichi Yamashita in his office at the Fukushima Medical University, he is wearing a “Ganbaro Fukushima!” badge clipped to his tie. The badge, standard government issue in the prefecture, also offers a neat, if loose, English translation: “Fight! Fukushima!” An avuncular medical scientist from the port of Nagasaki, Yamashita certainly has a fight on his hands. His outspoken belief that low-level radiation exposure poses little risk to humans has made him a figure of hate for many.

After 20 years of work on radiation and health, Yamashita – whose mother was a survivor of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 – is confident that the evacuations, economic disruption and general stress are far more likely to harm residents’ health than fallout from Fukushima Daiichi. This is a view shared by many scientists but it enrages those who believe that radiation leaked from the plant is a pressing danger, especially to children. Internet commentators in Japan and overseas have compared Yamashita with the murderous Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele and called him a devil in human form.

“I’m not a devil,” Yamashita tells me, when I ask him about the criticism. “I’m not such a bad person, I’m working for the Fukushima people.”

Indeed, Yamashita is now helping to lead what could be one of the most important government-funded programmes in Fukushima: an ambitious survey intended to monitor the health of the prefecture’s 2 million people for decades to come. Though billed as a way of reassuring residents, the survey should also provide information to help researchers paint a clearer picture of radiation risk.

Many people in Fukushima are sceptical about the survey. Some suspect that the appointment of Yamashita as its science director means the programme will be biased against finding radiation-related harm. Public faith in authorities has been badly battered by the government’s failure to keep Fukushima Daiichi safe or to provide information about the crisis at the plant as it unfolded. There is deep bitterness about the decision to evacuate some residents to areas that turned out to have suffered heavier fallout than the homes they left behind. Rumours swirl of radiation-caused leukaemia cases going unrecorded and contamination levels being understated. “They are turning us into guinea pigs,” complains Oshida, the DJ-restaurateur. “Nobody believes the government numbers.”

Goshi Hosono, government minister for the environment and for nuclear accidents

Goshi Hosono is too smart a politician to try to deny that public trust in the government has been damaged. Instead, he says he shares responsibility for the problem. After March 11 he was appointed nuclear point man for then-prime minister Kan. Now he is the cabinet minister in charge of dealing with the consequences of the accident and preventing others.

Yes, Hosono concedes, the government was sometimes slower and less effective than it should have been in dealing with the crisis and information disclosure was inadequate. But the handsome former consultant takes pride in the fact that not a single life has been lost because of the nuclear accident – and wonders aloud if other nations would have been able to handle things better.

Now the government is pinning its hopes on a vast decontamination effort to ease citizen fears by steadily reducing radiation levels, allowing evacuees to go back to their homes. More accurate mapping of contamination levels is already helping communities to decide for themselves whether evacuation is necessary. Hosono is heartened by the recent decision taken by one evacuated township that it is safe to return.

The 40-year-old minister, one of the ruling Democratic party’s most persuasive performers, aims to do more than merely cope with the accident’s aftermath. He hopes to help make Fukushima a healthier place than it was before, promoting better diets and exercise that should leave it with a lower cancer rate than other prefectures. “If we can do that, then Japan will really have overcome the nuclear accident,” he says.

For many in Fukushima, such a bright future seems a long way off. Towns and villages are deeply divided about what level of radiation is tolerable for children or pregnant women. Some fret about a permanent, prefecture-wide exodus of the young. Hosono promises that the government will support communities and individuals whether they decide to stay in irradiated areas or not. But some radiation experts are sceptical about the prospects for decontamination – which is slow and very costly – while financial compensation cannot alone make up for the disruption and stress residents suffer.

A year after the tsunami hit, the future remains unclear for those whose homes are closest to the plant. The government says that it will be at least five years before the most irradiated areas can be resettled. Hosono acknowledges that it could be decades more. The Unumas are doubtful that they will ever be able to go back. Even if they did return, who would buy their beef and rice? “We think the land is probably useless now,” Yoshitada tells me. “We understand that with our heads, but emotionally it’s still hard to accept.”

So for now the couple continue their evacuee existence. Yoshitada is working in a factory an hour’s drive from the zone, while Tomoe stays far away near Tokyo so that their daughter can go to school with other Futaba refugees. They meet once a month, and last year Yoshitada missed little Hana’s birthday for the first time. Though his company has so far survived the closure of its production line within the exclusion zone, its prospects are unclear and the initial sympathy shown to victims of the nuclear crisis is fading. His temporary apartment is well-equipped, but it gets lonely living on single-portion microwave dinners. “I never had a problem sleeping before,” he says. “Now, I lie awake a lot.”

Before we leave the zone, we take a detour through the centre of Futaba town and stop near a sign that hangs across its main shopping street. Since March 11 2011, it has become an ironic symbol of the shattering of nuclear hopes. On one side it says in Japanese: “Atomic power is the energy of a bright future”, on the other: “Correctly understand nuclear power for an affluent life”.

Tomoe Unuma looks up at the sign and gives a sniff of disgust. The street is still and empty. “Where’s the affluence now?” she asks.

Mure Dickie is the FT’s Tokyo bureau chief.

The reactor: stable but fragile

These days, the rare outsider granted a visit to Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station is greeted by ranks of hulking metal guardians. Blue and grey, cylindrical and pill-shaped, standing on end or lying on the mucky ground amid overturned trucks and debris, almost 1,000 containers for storing radiation-tainted water cover the devastated site, writes Jonathan Soble.

Three of the plant’s reactors melted down in the wake of north-east Japan’s tsunami a year ago, but today public attention has shifted to the long-term consequences of the disaster: the need to compensate victims, decontaminate nearby towns and re-write the country’s energy policy. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda declared an end to the emergency phase of the crisis in December, after engineers succeeded in bringing the reactors to a more or less safe state known as “cold shutdown”.

Yet the stability at Fukushima Daiichi is fragile. Radiation levels around the reactor cores are still too high for humans to get close, and assessing conditions inside remains largely a matter of guesswork. In late January, an apparent rise in temperature at one unit alarmed technicians enough that in February they began injecting boron, to prevent an atomic chain reaction. After readings increased for several weeks, with no new calamities, they concluded the problem was instrument failure.

The biggest problem at Fukushima Daiichi is water. Since last June, a 4km network of hoses, pumps and purification tanks has drawn irradiated water out of the reactor buildings, removed heat and contaminants, and sent it back in again as coolant. But the system has been plagued by leaks, particularly during the cold winter months, when sub-freezing temperatures have cracked dozens of pipes and seals.

More seriously, not all the contaminated water at the site can be recycled. The 1,000 storage tanks have been brought in to hold 165,000 cu m of runoff, and Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the plant’s owner, is planning to add capacity for 40,000 cu m more. Decontaminating all the water used in the emergency effort is expected to take until 2020.

Stabilising the plant is just the first step in a generations-long clean-up project. The government estimates that decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi will take between 30 and 40 years and cost at least Y1.15tn. Removing about 4,600 uranium fuel rods – or what is left of them – from the reactors’ cores and spent-fuel tanks is to begin in 2014 and, if all goes well, finish in 2021. Then the reactors themselves will be dismantled.

Jonathan Soble is the FT’s Tokyo correspondent

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