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Home at last, but little joy as evacuee picks up pieces of her life

3 km’s up the coast. 1.8 miles to Minami-Soma from fuk. …. “The Japanese government steered displaced people toward their return by repeating that an annual exposure of up to 20 millisieverts poses little health risk,”


Tomoko Kobayashi, right, prepares with a volunteer worker for the reopening of her Futabaya ryokan in the Odaka district of Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, on July 11.

MINAMI-SOMA, Fukushima Prefecture–It was no ordinary homecoming for Tomoko Kobayashi, after an enforced absence of more than five years due to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

She says she is “in no mood for celebration” given the daunting task facing her: having to start from scratch at the traditional ryokan inn that has been in the family for nearly 70 years.

The community that Kobayashi had called home was overrun with rats, wild boar and palm civets, and she struggled to protect the family business from that nightmare.

Kobayashi’s journey home to start afresh took her via Ukraine, which she visited in 2013 to learn how victims of the world’s worst nuclear accident–the Chernobyl disaster in 1986–were coping after all those years.

Kobayashi, 63, was shocked by the different approach authorities there had taken compared with that of Japan.

She said Ukraine takes a more cautious approach toward radiation risks.

Kobayashi returned to Minami-Soma’s Odaka district on July 12 after the central government lifted a ban for 11,000 or so evacuees from the district, which is within a 20-kilometer radius of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Her initial concern is living with low-level radiation.

She also worries for her future and whether she can get the business up and running. With her husband, Takenori, 67, Kobayashi has reopened Futabaya ryokan. The inn that she took over from her mother 10 years ago has 15 guest rooms and is located in front of JR Odaka Station, which is 16 km from the plant.

Another of her concerns centers on whether her return home to reopen the inn could play into the hands of the authorities.

The central government is eager to wind up the program that compensates the victims,” she said, alluding to a sense that evacuees are being encouraged to return so that financial redress can end.

On the plus side, the radiation level in her neighborhood has dropped to below 0.2 microsievert per hour. Although it is three times the level before the triple meltdown in March 2011, the figure is significantly lower than in the immediate aftermath.

Since the disaster, Kobayashi has closely monitored the radioactivity of food, drinking water and soil by working with a local citizens group. In one instance, radioactivity registered more than 10,000 becquerels per kilogram when she measured the levels of the dust and dirt sucked up in a vacuum cleaner at her home.

Returning home means she still faces the risk of exposure to long-term, low radiation. How this could affect her health is not understood by scientists.

Odaka was previously designated a “zone in preparation for the lifting of the evacuation order,” where an annual radiation dose is estimated at 20 millisieverts or below.

Extensive decontamination work over the past three years paved the way for the evacuees’ return.

Despite the lifting of the ban, only 10 to 20 percent of the residents from Odaka and other parts of Minami-Soma are expected to go back.

Evacuees are reluctant because of the potential hazard of the long-term, low radiation exposure and the new living and social networks built during the five years they were away.

They are also wary of the risks of moving back in the vicinity of the nuclear complex where the unprecedented scale of work to decommission the damaged reactors is under way amid a host of challenges, including an accumulated buildup of highly radioactive water.

Before the nuclear accident, Kobayashi had a staff of five that washed and starched the linen. It was a hallmark of her ryokan’s hospitality. With only one staffer coming back, however, Kobayashi has to forgo the starched sheets.

At one point, more than 60,000 of the city’s 72,000 residents evacuated, including those who left voluntarily.

After she moved into temporary housing in Minami-Soma in 2012, Kobayashi occasionally visited the inn to clean up. The dark waters of the tsunami, spawned by the magnitude-9.0 tremor on March 11, 2011, almost reached the front door of her ryokan, even though it is situated 3 km from the coast.

Her neighborhood, which was blessed with a wide array of edible wild plants, mushrooms and freshwater fish, was transformed into a “gray ghost town.” The landscape became increasingly bleaker as gardens of homes were occupied by piles of black plastic bales containing radioactive waste from the cleanup operation.

Kobayashi had many sleepless nights. She wondered whether she could ever pick up the threads of the existence she led before the catastrophe.

Her turning point came in September 2013 when she joined a tour to the region in Ukraine devastated by the Chernobyl accident.

I was curious to know how victims of a nuclear accident considered more serious than Fukushima’s are faring nowadays,” Kobayashi said.

Kobayashi also wanted to convey her gratitude to those affected by the Chernobyl explosion in Zhytomyr province for sending 150 dosimeters to Minami-Soma. The devices proved to be invaluable at a time when the city badly needed them.

When her tour group visited Zhytomyr, the residents there shared their experiences and answered questions sincerely.

What struck Kobayashi during the trip was the disparity between Ukraine’s local government and Japanese authorities in their handling of radiation risks and programs made available to help the victims.

In Ukraine, authorities are more hands-on.

No Trespassing” and other warning signs were put up in communities, although their doses of radiation were lower than that in Odaka. Ukraine authorities issued a warning on the basis of radioactive contamination in the ground as it could lead to internal radiation exposure of residents through the spread of radioactive dust.

She also learned that a large number of people in Zhytomyr have developed health problems, not just cancer, but also a wide variety of diseases.

But they are guaranteed by law the right to receive treatment or to take refuge.

That is in sharp contrast with the Japanese government briefings with evacuees, which barely touched on the long-term, low radiation risks.

Kobayashi is outraged by this.

The Japanese government steered displaced people toward their return by repeating that an annual exposure of up to 20 millisieverts poses little health risk,” she said.

Kobayashi said she would have been less suspicious of the intention of Japanese officials if they had candidly admitted that they didn’t know about the possible effects on health.

She is also angered about the way authorities treated evacuees in light of the July 12 lifting of the ban.

Evacuees from Minami-Soma’s Kawabusa district, a mountainous area that fell in the “residence restriction zone,” were also allowed to return. The zone is defined as one registering an estimated annual dose of between 20 to 50 millisieverts.

Although a dose in Kawabusa was confirmed to have dropped to less than 20 millisieverts, the clearance came as a surprise to many locals since it ran counter to the government’s previous policy of designating such an area first a zone in preparation for the lifting.

Kawabusa is home to about 300 people, including many children.

Despite a drop in radiation readings in her community, Kobayashi said she cannot ask her grandchildren, who are 8 and 2, to come visit her and her husband yet.

But she is determined to make an effort for rebuilding.

I don’t know how many more years it will take to bring back the happy sounds of children to our community, but I am determined to do what I can do now,” Kobayashi said.


August 5, 2016 - Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , ,

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