|March 28, 2017|
A nuclear ghost town in Japan welcomes back residents this week
|Namie is a ghost town: its back streets deserted, its shops shuttered. Weeds push through the cracks between paving stones and black bags of radioactive soil are piled up everywhere.|
The town was hurriedly evacuated six years ago after an earthquake and tsunami triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station about 5 kilometres away. Is it ready for the return of its population?
The Japanese government seems to think so. From 1 April, restrictions on access will cease, the first train will pull into the railway station, buses will run again, and its 21,000 former residents will be able to resume their lives there.
When I visited last August, Namie was strangely ordered. Workers were repairing roads and buildings damaged by the earthquake and left empty since the evacuation. Truck drivers bringing construction materials into the town obeyed the still-working traffic lights. I peered through the window of a hairdressing salon that could just have been shut for lunch, with strands of hair on the floor and magazines in a rack by the door. Abandoned bicycles stood upright in shelters. One still had an umbrella in its basket.
In the old city hall, officials were planning the citizens' return. Not before time.
For a few days back in 2011, Namie was dangerously radioactive. But the short-lived isotopes were soon gone. "People could have been returning after a month, when the iodine had disappeared," says Shunichi Yamashita, a thyroid cancer specialist at Fukushima Medical University, who had been advising the Japanese government in the aftermath of the accident.
His advice was ignored. So only now, six years on, is Namie about to reopen for business. The question is: how many will want to return.
Reluctant to return
After the government evacuated more than 100,000 people living within 20 kilometres of the stricken power plant, it said they should be allowed to return to their homes when radiation dose levels fell below 20 millisieverts a year. That is a fifth of the level at which doctors say long-term health effects are possible.
On my journey to Namie, my Geiger counter recorded levels exceeding that threshold in some villages in the nearby mountains. But the town itself has long since dropped below, as radioactivity decayed and workers removed contaminated soil and vegetation. Here I recorded typical doses of around 2 millisieverts, little more than background level.
Even so, evacuees are proving reluctant to return. In the nearby town of Naraha, only a fifth of people returned when the government gave the green light in September 2015, and surveys suggest Namie will be no different.
One reason is that the accident and its chaotic aftermath broke public trust in official reassurances about anything nuclear. "It's very difficult to convince the public that it is safe to return. They don't accept the scientists' view, because they see us as nuclear allies," Ken Nollett, director of radiation health at the Fukushima Medical University, told me.
Fears of radiation are deep-seated. Ito Tatsuya, a former teacher whose wife had run a pharmacy close to the railway station in Namie, told me that however much money is spent trying to decontaminate and rehabilitate his town, "it's a strange feeling, but I never want to go there again".
It probably doesn't help that there have been reports recently of sky-high radiation levels inside the molten core of one of the reactors -- levels that would kill humans in seconds, and even disable robots' electronics within minutes.
Another reason for the reluctance to return is that the long delay in reopening the town means that many evacuees have built new lives elsewhere. They have new jobs, homes and schools for their children.
As the all-clear is sounded in Namie, there is a growing concern that it may be destined to remain a ghost town in an empty landscape for decades to come. Resurgent wildlife may remain the main residents. Wild boar root around in gardens and break into homes. In the eerie silence as I prepared to depart Namie, an urgent message came over the public address system in the street: a bear had been spotted on the outskirts of the town.