Furuuchi folded the letter up and thought it all seemed premature. Government authorities and radiation experts kept saying that her old city could become safer, but almost nobody said it was safe. The ambiguity meant that Furuuchi, like tens of thousands of others who fled their homes after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in March, had to weigh the comfort of a homecoming against a danger she could not quantify.
As Japan readies this month to cancel its “evacuation preparation zone” — the ring just beyond the 12.4-mile no-entry radius — the long-term viability of the region depends on people returning to their towns and accepting the new risks. For cities such as Minamisoma, the largest in this ring, the next months will determine whether they wither or endure. That’s why officials here are pushing for people to return, even before they know the outcome of frenzied decontamination efforts.
“We are aiming to make the city safer,” Minamisoma Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai said in an interview. “But we don’t know if it’s safe or not.”
Tokyo wants local governments such as the one in Minamisoma to decontaminate public areas, reopen schools and re-create a region that offers jobs and security. But research offers conflicting data on the long-term effects of low-level radiation, particularly on children and pregnant women.
Furuuchi and her three teenagers have lived since April 3 in Chiba, an hour’s train ride from Tokyo. The oldest two like city life even more than they expected. And when the family visited Minamisoma last month, they agreed that the things they loved about it were gone. Fewer residents played outside. Nobody visited the beach. The main shopping street had become a glum passageway of shuttered storefronts.
But for Furuuchi, Minamisoma also offers one thing that Chiba has not given: a job. The hospital where she worked has been calling; they want her to return. Furuuchi doubts it’s safe to go back, but recently she pulled her kids together and said, “Let’s talk about the best way to decide.”
Seeing an opportunity
In an unlucky region, Minamisoma got lucky. The city center sits about 15 miles northwest of the nuclear plant, and its radiation levels — 0.61 microsieverts per hour Aug. 26 at the city office — are a small fraction of those in towns closer to the plant. The levels are also far below those in many mountainside hot spots farther away. If you spend a year in Minamisoma, you’ll probably get one-fifth to one-fourth of the government’s maximum 20-millisievert annual limit for adults.
In the initial days of the disaster, amid explosions at three of Fukushima Daiichi’s reactors, the government urged those between 12.4 and 18.6 miles from the facility to evacuate or stay indoors. Tokyo modified its orders in late April, removing the request to stay inside, but the area still had a special designation — it was a place where residents should be ready to flee in case the situation worsened.