Around Japanese nuclear plant, trauma is high

April 23, 2011

Defiant about the radiation that threatens his town, Kenichi Suzuki decided weeks ago that he would change almost nothing about his life. But already so much has changed.

His daughter and grandson fled to Tokyo, finding temporary housing on the 19th floor of a downtown youth hostel. The earnings of his family-run transportation business have dropped 50 percent.

Now that the government has declared the 12 miles around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility a no-go zone, Suzuki’s home town, a few miles north of that area, feels even more like a place under siege.

“I want my life back,” said Suzuki, 61. “And if it’s not happening now, I want to know when.”

Barring a major release of toxic elements from the stabilizing Daiichi plant, radiation experts predict no long-term health impact on residents in the region.

In towns around the plant, though, radiation releases have already left a ruinous legacy, with tens of thousands stressed and traumatized, either looking for new homes or trying to make sense of their atrophied home towns.

Just more than a month ago, Minamisoma was a city of 70,000. When the March 11 earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear emergency at the atomic plant to the south, the city — subdivided, by lines of latitude, into three smaller towns — was at just the distance perfect for maximum confusion. Those who lived in the southernmost strip were required to evacuate. Those in the middle strip were told to stay indoors. Those at the top strip were told they had nothing to fear.

In practice, local officials said, most people in Minamisoma followed their own guidelines, doubtful that the lines between safety and danger had such bold boundaries.

Minamisoma has become a spooky half-town, a bunker for the elderly, the stubborn and the brave. Only about 25,000 people remain, few of them children. Mail service is sporadic. Banks are shuttered. It is a city waiting for things to get better, or worse — even as Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) said recently that it will need six to nine months to end the nuclear crisis, bringing the Daiichi plant into a state of cold shutdown.

And still, businesses are reopening, with residents, sick of life as evacuees, slowly returning to town.

Lights from restaurants and food specialty stores now dot the main street that was dark late last month. Convenience stores are open and well stocked. At a radiation screening center, just three of 22,182 have been found with levels that the government considers above the limit. (They were ordered to take a decontamination shower.) Those on the city streets now ride their bikes and keep their skin uncovered.

“Initially, even going to the grocery store, people here were dressing as if they were going to outer space,” said Katuka Kazuyuki, a Fukushima prefecture emergency operations chief. “But now, nobody is doing that. I think they’re just sick of sacrificing their lives.”

But sacrifice, as Suzuki has found out, is hard to avoid. Heeding the advice to stay indoors, Suzuki hasn’t played golf this spring — something he usually does 30 times a year. He has managed to retain 10 of his 15 full-time employees, but an important subcontractor partner within the no-go zone lost all 250 of its workers to evacuation. Given the government’s Thursday no-go order, which strengthens the earlier evacuation notice, Suzuki would face arrest and a $1,200 fine just for driving south.

For Suzuki, the changes have often yielded anger: He mocks the celebrities on TV who give rah-rah encouragement for those in the northeast, and he rails against Tepco for its failure to send representatives to speak with residents in the damaged towns.

But Suzuki, most of the time, just feels sorrow.

“There’s no point in even thinking about the happy days,” he said. “Those are just memories.”

In the days after the disaster, Suzuki and much of his family headed to Tokyo. By late March, however, he and his son-in-law wanted to return to revive their business. That left Suzuki’s daughter, Minako, and her 11-year-old son, Yushin, alone in a city where they knew nobody — one of 10 families at the Tokyo Central Youth Hostel.

Every night before bed, fearful about aftershocks, Minako sets up bags with emergency supplies: water, surgical masks, jackets and shoes. She stays indoors for days at a time. She is trying to find a school for Yushin but worries that he’ll be made fun of; friends have told her that Fukushima evacuees have had a hard time at new schools.

“I want to send him to school in Tokyo and see how it goes,” Minako said. “But if indeed he gets picked on, we might return to Fukushima. I still don’t know where our true base is. I don’t know what is best for us.”

Yushin added: “I don’t want to go home because I’m afraid of the nuclear plant. I heard you’ll get cancer.”

More than two decades after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear crisis, the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation issued a report on the long-term health implications in areas around the disaster site. The report dealt mostly with resulting physical ailments for those exposed to high levels of radiation, but it also acknowledged problems brought on by anxiety about the future and distress.

For decades to come, Japan’s government will track the health of those who lived near the Fukushima plant. But for now, radiation releases have done the greatest damage to the environment, as areas directly around the plant have been dusted with cesium and iodine.

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, apologized to residents who lived within 12 miles of the nuclear plant and said that municipal governments would enforce a no-entry area for that zone, with police blocking access.

One member per household will be allowed in to collect belongings, Edano said. Those members can travel by bus and stay for two hours, no longer.

“They will be asked to wear protective gear, and upon return they will be asked to go through radiation screening,” Edano said. “We ask them that they bring back as little as possible.”

After that, Edano added, “For the sake of safety, we would ask all residents to comply with this order.”

Special correspondents Sachiko Iwata and Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

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