Fukushima: No longer a ghost town, but haunted by a dreaded spectre

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com

MINAMISOMA, Japan — The soulful notes of Silent Night wafted from an outdoor sound system on the near-empty main street to the station of this coastal city on the northern edge of the 20-kilometer “exclusion zone” around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The doleful refrain set the tone for a community that exists in endless doubts about recovery from radiation nearly nine months after the tsunami of March 11 inundated the plant with torrents of sea water.

At a factory that salvages old and wrecked cars just outside the barriers on the road down the coast to the plant, a digital display in the office flashed the numbers — 0.10 and 0.22 — highs and lows of micro-sieverts. “That’s well within the safety limit,” a young woman in the factory’s overseas marketing department assured me. “We are safe here.”

Officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) and Japanese journalists look at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant from bus windows in Fukushima prefecture on Nov.12. /Reuters/David Guttenfelder

For all such assurances, though, nobody really believes bad stuff is no longer floating through the clear cold air or lapping up on the innocent looking shores beyond the concrete breakwater over which 40-foot waves surged that day, wiping out an entire district down the slope from the factory.

“It’s invisible substances,” said Sumiko Goto, a manager of a hotel filled with engineers, officials and construction workers who’ve been there for months cleaning up the wreckage that inundated everything within a kilometer of the shoreline. “It’s in the air, in the river, on the walls,” she said. “People are very anxious about the situation. Radioactive substances come from the ground, from the river bottom.”

Uncertain reports daily fuel the fears. One day people hear of a leak through which radioactive water is pouring into the sea, poisoning the fish that are a staple of everyone’s diet. Next, there are stories of emissions of radioactive xenon gas and then a reading of radioactive cesium in powdered milk — enough for the Meiji Company to recall 400,000 cans of it this week “so people can feel their infants are safe.”

All the while officials talk of an imminent “cold shutdown” of the reactors, the stage at which at last the water for cooling the nuclear fuel rods is no longer boiling — and therefore not capable of reheating the fuel.

It’s all very confusing, so much so that only 40,000 of the 70,000 people who once inhabited this city have returned. About 13,000 of them lived in a ward within the 20-kilometer zone, meaning they can’t stay in their old homes and need permission to go back and retrieve their belongings.

At City Hall, Koshin Ogai, a young tax official, shared his fears. Ogai, originally from Osaka in western Japan, moved here a few years ago after marrying a local woman but sent his wife and their two children to his parents after explosions at the Fukushima first spread the fear of radiation. “I don’t permit them to come back,” he said. “I don’t think the record here is safe.”

But what about all those assurances about the levels of radioactivity having fallen well within safe limits, I asked him. His answer was prompt. “The government is a liar.”

And how, I pressed, could he as a government employee, talk so frankly? “I work for the local government,” he said, not the national government.”

One reason Ogai does not hesitate to express such views is that his top boss, Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai, gained fame after the tsunami for pleading with the government to assist with food and medicine.

“We are left isolated,” said Mayor Sakurai in a lengthy harangue, posted on You Tube in April with English subtitles. “We are facing difficulty of even distributing necessary goods … Please support us. We ask for your help, volunteers to transport supplies.” People were “drying up as if on starvation,” he said. “We would like to ask for gas and petrol as well.”

Most alarming, for the city’s long-term future, was the fear of the unknown, of disease that might strike years later. “Local officials are now fighting the threat of radiation,” the mayor said at the time. “Please give us your help to get over this extreme difficulty together.”

By now the city is on its way to partial recovery. Shops have slowly come to life, schools reopened in October and rail services resumed this month going north. Encouraging though such signs may appear, they suggest only partial recovery. Business is slow. Only a few people drift in and out of food stores. A number of restaurants remain closed or on limited hours.

As for the railroad, the trains are not expected for many years to go south to Tokyo, once a three-hour run through a densely populated region. “The railroad fears radioactive substances passing by the Fukushima plant,” said one person to whom I spoke. “They can’t enter the area.”

Going north, the trains can only go as far as Soma, about 30 miles up the coast. Beyond that, on the way to the important port city of Sendai, the tsunami tore up the tracks, flinging aside all the cars on a four-car train whose passengers had luckily evacuated after the earthquake but before the waves completed the damage.

Mayor Sakurai is still asking volunteers to help while accusing central government officials and contractors of moving too slowly. People say TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, is slow to provide compensation.

Bicycling through a ravaged flatland up to the sea wall, I saw women carrying vinyl bags as they looked for whatever might remained of the slightest value. Bulldozers and cranes pushed up heaps of rubble, twisted bits of vehicles and shattered homes. At the base of the seawall, I saw frayed soccer balls and broken chairs for infants. I picked up a baseball whose cover had somehow been entirely torn off.

“Imagine, if your house were along the ocean, you would want to find something,” said Sumiko Goto, the hotel manager who had rented me my bicycle, but I wondered how much of value could still be there. About 40 people died in that district on March 11 — a microcosm of the 20,000 dead or missing from the entire disaster, including 1,200 dead or missing from this city alone.

At City Hall, Ogai said no one will be able to rebuild so close to the sea even though a tsunami only occurs every few hundred years. “That’s impossible,” he said. “No one knows if a tsunami attacks again”
The lobby of the City Hall now is crowded with people looking for relief payments while Ogai fends off complaints about taxes the city is still levying on residents. “Many people call and ask, why do we impose taxes,” he said. “My answer is the nuclear accident and the tax incident are separated.” As a concession, he added, “We have a policy to reduce taxes.”

Ogai may be more concerned about the expense of monthly flights from Sendai to Osaka to see his family. “I request compensation from TEPCO. I often call the call center of TEPCO.” The operator says, ‘I am not sure’,” said Ogai. “That is always the answer” — about as vague as responses to when TEPCO will finish cleaning up the nuke plant or what will be the impact of radiation on people 10, 20 or 30 years from now.