” NARAHA, FUKUSHIMA PREF. – More than four years since Satoru Yamauchi abandoned his noodle restaurant to escape radiation spreading from the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, the central government is almost ready to declare it is safe for him to go home.
But like many of the displaced, he’s not sure if he wants to. “I want my old life back, but I don’t think it’s possible here,” he said on a recent visit to the dustysoba buckwheat noodle restaurant in Nahara that he ran for more than two decades.
The father of four has lived in Tokyo since evacuating from his home to escape toxic pollution spewing from the crippled reactors hit by gigantic tsunami in March 2011.
Meltdowns in three of the reactors — 20 km away — blanketed vast tracts of land with isotopes of iodine and cesium, products of nuclear reactions that are hazardous to health if ingested, inhaled or absorbed.
Of the municipalities immediately surrounding the nuclear plant, which were totally evacuated, Naraha will be the first where people will be allowed to return.
After years of decontamination work, where teams remove topsoil, wash exposed road surfaces and wipe down buildings, the government will in September lift the evacuation order and declare it a safe place to live.
Other towns and villages will follow in the coming months and years, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government aiming to lift many evacuation orders by March 2017.
A year after that, the monthly ¥100,000 ($800) in “psychological compensation” that plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. has been ordered to pay to evacuees will cease.
Activists say despite government assurances, many areas still show high levels of radiation, and many are unfit for habitation.
They say that for people who abandoned now-almost-worthless — but still mortgaged — homes, allowing Tepco to stop payments amounts to forcing them to return.
Environmental campaign group Greenpeace has carried out a study of radiation contamination in Iitate, a heavily forested 200 sq.-km district that sits around 40 km northwest of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant. Iitate is also being eyed for resettlement.
The town is significant because the government did not order its evacuation until more than a month after the nuclear disaster started, but post-facto modeling of the radiation plume showed Iitate was right in its path.
Greenpeace’s new study, published Tuesday, says only a quarter of Iitate has been decontaminated — predominantly roads, homes and a short buffer strip of woodland around inhabited areas.
“Levels of radiation in both decontaminated and non-decontaminated areas . . . make a return of the former inhabitants of Iitate not possible from a public health . . . perspective,” the report says.
A person living in the area could expect to absorb 20 times the internationally accepted level for public exposure of radiation, Greenpeace says.
“The levels of radiation in the forests, which pre-accident were an integral part of (life), are equivalent to radiation levels within the Chernobyl 30-km exclusion zone,” the report says, referring to the former Soviet plant that saw one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents.
“Over 118,000 people were permanently evacuated from the 30-km zone around Chernobyl in April 1986, with no prospect or plans for them ever returning.”
The woodlands of Iitate are “acting as a long lasting reservoir for radiocesium and as a large source for future recontamination in the environment beyond the forest,” the report says. That makes the very notion of “decontamination” problematic, says Jan Vande Putte, a nuclear campaigner with Greenpeace, who was in Iitate last week. “There is a risk that the migration of radiation will re-contaminate decontaminated areas,” he said.
In Naraha, which is southeast of the plant, government data show contamination levels are much lower than Iitate. A town survey says there are plenty of residents eager to return and rebuild.
The end of the evacuation order is “based on citizens’ real voices and plans to accelerate reconstruction,” pro-resettlement Mayor Yukiei Matsumoto said this month, adding a “prolonged evacuee life is not desirable.”
Supporters of returning point out that while the nuclear disaster is not officially recorded as having directly killed anyone, the stresses and strains of evacuee life exact their own price. Government figures show almost 1,000 people in Fukushima Prefecture have died from physical and psychological fatigue.
Still, the choice is hard. “You cannot work on a farm, you cannot grow rice, and you cannot pick wild plants either,” said Yamauchi, whose specialty used to be tempura with seasonal wild vegetables. “(The restaurant) is my everything. . . . it was my life. There is nothing good about going back.” ”