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One of the photographs shot by UCLA researchers Yoh Kawano and Arfakhashad Munaim, who documented the evacuated Namie City, adjacent to the disabled Fukushima nuclear plant nearly four years after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Voices / Viewpoint

Ten years later, how are the people of Fukushima holding up? Not well.

In 2011, nobody knew what lay ahead. Now, we do.

Leslie Sullivan Sachs, a longtime antinuclear activist, is a member of the Safe & Green Campaign.


Ten years ago, I wrote these words from a well of grief after the multiple nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima, Japan:

“I imagine being told to evacuate my family (three children and two pets), along with 140,000 other people, into a homeland that is already a disaster from an earthquake and a tsunami. I imagine myself knowing I am leading them into a radiation zone. I imagine not being able to smell it, see it, feel it.”

Nobody knew then what lay ahead for the people of Fukushima. Photos of masked refugees being tested for radiation by masked and suited medical personnel now remind me of life in COVID.

Prior to the pandemic, the only time I wore a mask was during Fukushima anniversary events each March 11, to bring attention to the triple meltdowns of nuclear reactors that were the same design as Vermont Yankee, 5 miles from my home. People stopped and stared at our masks as we walked silently through the Winter Farmers’ Market.

How are the people of the Fukushima evacuation zone holding up? Not well. The COVID-19 pandemic is there, too, of course.

Natural disasters continue. In 2016, they experienced a 6.9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami warning; a 2019 typhoon caused six deaths in Fukushima province; and on Jan. 22, another major earthquake shook.

With each fresh catastrophe, people fear the effects on the radioactive reactors and on the tons of radioactive water stored on site. The radiation in parts of the reactors is so high that a human cannot last one hour. That makes cleanup near impossible.

The 2011 evacuation zone covered 440 square miles. Of the 160,000 people evacuated, 37,000 people remain so today, and 130 square miles are still off limits.

Some refugees lived in as many as 10 shelters before finding a home. Government-supported temporary housing was terminated in 2020. The low-income rate is double what it was before the disaster struck.

Agriculture, fishing, and tourism, once mainstays of the coast’s economy, have been devastated. It is a constant battle to keep contaminated water from being released into the Pacific.

Elderly people in Fukushima are suffering the most, and they are often the only ones who will return to the contaminated towns. Family ties have broken.

This disaster has marked a huge cultural shift in a country based in family and tradition. The suicide rates have skyrocketed.

* * *

The Reconstruction Agency makes the rules. Edicts constantly change — where you can and cannot go, whom you can socialize with, what are allowable radiation levels in what areas. It’s like COVID restrictions on steroids.

There are “difficult to return” towns, no-go zones, and towns with evacuation orders that have been lifted only in part. In some towns, evacuation has been lifted, but decontamination is not complete, so no one can live there — only visit. Most natural areas are still off limits, as cleanup there is impossible.

Nature has been our refuge during COVID. When the walls of my home start to close in, I walk out my door, and Windham County’s abundant, accessible beauty heals me for a while. My mask drops to my neck or is shoved into my pocket until I meet a fellow pedestrian.

Those in the Fukushima evacuation zone don’t have that choice. We fear unseen, airborne droplets of a deadly virus carried by some humans. They fear unseen radiation carried by wind and rain.

* * *

On Feb. 26, the Japan Times wrote: “Roadside signs show the radiation levels of areas near the no-go zones put in place after meltdowns in 2011 at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, reflecting the fact that, even after 10 years, Fukushima residents are unable to return to their homes.”

The article says the “no-go zones,” rendered uninhabitable by radiation levels, include six Fukushima towns and villages, including Okuma and Futaba, the locations of the disabled reactors.

Futaba has not reopened for residence. Parts of Okuma were determined safe for return, and 2,578 people now live in the town, whose population was 11,515, about the size of Brattleboro. The town center remains closed.

The towns are literally dumps: 14 million cubic meters of contaminated (radioactive) soil is being stored there.

Of all the towns evacuated, Naraha was the first to reopen, in the spring of 2015. Half the residents have returned. Naraha hosts J-Village, a sport and convention complex planned for the Olympic games.

In Japan, the Olympics, postponed from 2020 due to COVID, are a huge controversy. Some want the Olympic torch carried from Fukushima as a sign of resurrection; others say that between the pandemic and radiation, the Olympics shouldn’t be held at all, or at least it shouldn’t have any foreigners in the audiences.

Another town, Iitate, reminds me of Putney — it’s about the same size, geography, and distance from the reactor. It wasn’t in the evacuation zone, but it was blanketed with a cloud of radiation from hydrogen explosions in a reactor.

Up until 2018, Iitate was a no-go town full of contaminated soil. The Reconstruction Ministry wanted to reuse the soil to reduce the amount that would need to be disposed. The government wouldn’t lift the no-go status until Iitate citizens agreed to allow the contaminated dirt to be plowed back into the land for experimental vegetable farming. So now you can go there, but you still can’t stay.

Tomioka borders the reactor site and extends 6 miles south. Evacuation orders were lifted for parts of the town three years ago. The original population was 16,000; 1,500 have returned.

Here’s why, for thousands of years, people lived and visited there, as described by (now defunct):

“Tomioka would not be complete without Iwaido Hot Springs where many people come to relax.”

“The Tomioka River flows through the city straight to the Pacific Ocean.”

“The highest mountain in Tomioka is Mt. Okura, which is very scenic with its large forest.”

“The main attraction for which Tomioka is famous is its wealth of cherry blossoms. The main street is lined with trees that form a floral arch through which many people enjoy driving and walking.”

Namie is 5 miles from the reactors. It is much like Brattleboro, once home to workers at the plant, a town of 17,114. Now, 1,238 people live there. According to The Washington Post, “Four-fifths of Namie’s geographical area is mountain and forest, impossible to decontaminate, still deemed unsafe to return. When it rains, the radioactive cesium in the mountains flows into rivers and underground water sources close to the town.”

Today, I imagine myself a mother from Namie. Like most refugees, I have finally settled to live in a large city 100 miles from home. Some of my neighbors have shunned me because they think I am “un-Japanese” to leave; others fear I am radioactive.

My parents have returned to Namie, and before the pandemic I would visit them there, but without my children, whose health I won’t risk. They may never know the home where their ancestors thrived and I grew up. It is sad seeing local shops and homes rotting, falling into their foundations, and the public parks gone wild.

On Thursday, March 11, we will mark the 10th anniversary of the Fukushima disaster with a vigil at Pliny Park in Brattleboro, from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Please join us. This is a COVID-safe event.

We will wear masks.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #603 (Wednesday, March 10, 2021). This story appeared on page C1.

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