Japan nuclear evacuees face uncertainty 1 year later

As Japan marks the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami, many of the nuclear evacuees in a city near the ruined Fukushima Daiichi plant wonder how long they will have to wait before they can move on with their lives.

As Japan prepares to mark the anniversary of last year’s devastating natural and nuclear disaster, many of the evacuees in a city near the ruined Fukushima Daiichi plant wonder how long they will have to continue waiting before they can move on with their lives.

At least a quarter of the 80,000 residents who were displaced by the nuclear meltdowns now live in Iwaki, a sprawling patchwork of communities that lies roughly 40 kilometres south of the ruined nuclear plant. Most of them live in temporary camps scattered across the city that resemble sterile trailer parks, or in private housing rented at premium prices.

Among the evacuees are Takeo Shibata and his wife, Chieko, both 74, who on March 12 of last year left the house in Naraha they had lived in, and and had run a small farming operation from, for nearly three decades.

Shortly after lunch on that day, Chieko Shibata recalls, a loudspeaker began blaring a message urging people to leave. The warning didn't give residents any explanation. 

Not far up Japan’s eastern coast, workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant had begun venting radioactive steam from two reactors in an attempt to avert an explosion. Unit 1 blew up hours later, the first in a series of explosions that has left this part of Japan blanketed with potentially dangerous radioactive particles.

The Shibatas drove south, unaware of the nuclear crisis and assuming they would be able to return within a day or two. In the year since, they’ve lived in a smorgasbord of accommodations, from a small piece of floor space in a junior high school classroom to a hotel room with no heater or bathroom.

Search for better housing

Like most of the evacuees who are from a rural area of Japan, the Shibatas are elderly, and hop-scotching between less-than-ideal accommodations has hit them particularly hard. Takeo Shibata’s health declined in the months after the evacuation and he began to have more problems getting around.

Takeo Shibata and his wife, Chieko, were evacuated from Naraha on March 11, 2011. A year later, they're living in a tiny trailer in a camp in Iwaki. Many of Japan’s nuclear evacuees have gravitated to the city of Iwaki, where they continue to make do in temporary housing. (Ian Munroe/CBC)

Eventually the couple applied and were accepted into a temporary camp in Iwaki that was set up for residents of their abandoned town. They now live alone in part of a trailer furnished with donated appliances and enough room for a small kitchen, a living room where they sleep, and a bathroom.

"It doesn’t feel like home, but it’s a much better place," Chieko Shibata said.

"The disaster took everybody’s life and hope," she added. "We are retired and were enjoying the rest of our lives growing plants. Now everything is gone."

Cleanup efforts

The Japanese government has begun the daunting task of decontaminating communities poisoned by the nuclear fallout, part of a decade-long reconstruction plan that is expected to cost 23 trillion yen ($278 billion).

While many people in Iwaki say they’re unfazed by the health threat of living with elevated radiation levels, others are concerned about its potential effects and are angry with the government’s handling of the crisis. (Ian Munroe/CBC)

In the case of Naraha, which sits just inside the 20-kilometre evacuation zone, there is a chance residents will be able to return soon if the work goes well. But for residents of communities closer to the Fukushima Daiichi plant it could be years, even decades. before officials deem it safe for them to go home.

Mikio Endo, 80, and his wife Kiiko, 75, used to live in Tomioka, about 10 kilometres from the now-infamous plant. Today they share a small rented house in Iwaki with three other relatives, where they plan to live until they’re allowed to return home.

"I’m getting used to it," says Mikio, before reading a Haiku poem to express how much he misses the cherry blossoms in Tomioka.

Like the Shibatas, the Endo family has applied for compensation from the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which ran the Fukushima Daiichi plant and is in the process of paying out billions of dollars as a result of the disaster. Their applications have yet to be settled.

Nuclear worries persist

Mikio Endo’s great niece, Yuriko Tanaka, has lived in Iwaki for years and says the destruction of the Fukushima Daiichi plant has changed the city.

Vacant hotel rooms have been booked up by employees who commute to the nuclear plant or who have found work with the government’s decontamination program. Local traffic is heavier, and it’s more difficult to find a vacant apartment.

Tanaka, 38, says the radiation problem has also left the city divided. While many people say they’re unfazed by the health threat of living with elevated radiation levels, others are concerned about its potential effects and are angry with the government’s handling of the crisis.

She falls into the latter camp, and pulled her 5-year-old daughter, Haruna, out of kindergarten after she said the school’s principal failed to take enough precautions against the radiation, which poses more of a threat to children.

Tanaka now owns a radiation detector and cleans up "hot spots" when she finds them. The radiation is particularly high in local pine trees.

She has also decided to emigrate from Japan, and hopes to find a home in Canada one day.

"People who don’t care about radiation, they treat you like ‘if you don’t like it, move somewhere else,’" she said. "But if we can’t protect kids, there is no future for Fukushima anymore."