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Coming Home to a Nuclear Wasteland

After a radioactive disaster destroys your hometown, when is the right time to return? We meet residents of Fukushima grappling with a choice; return and rebuild their broken community, or stay away.

Amos Roberts, Kylie Grey

Tuesday, March 14, 2017 – 21:30

When Hisao Sasaki returned to his home after years away, one of the first things he noticed was the smell. Rats and other small animals that that been living there had caused a stench through the whole house.

But despite the rats, wild boar and radiation threat – Hisao has been preparing to return home, a difficult decision thousands of survivors are facing today.

Six years ago this week, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami killed more than 15,000 people, and triggered nuclear meltdowns and the discharge of radioactive material from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Hisao’s hometown of Namie, which is 11 kilometres away from the nuclear site, was damaged and contaminated by the disaster – forcing its 21,000 residents to move to different towns outside the radioactive zone. They were provided with subsidised housing by the government, while billions of dollars was spent decontaminating the town.

Six years on, the government says Namie is now safe to live in again, and is encouraging families like the Sasakis to return and resume their lives as they were before. In 12 months, the government will cut off subsidies for people who have decided to stay outside the town.

Hisao Sasaki pulls crops from his garden in Namie, which he has been testing for radioactivity.

Hisao Sasaki pulls crops from his garden in Namie, which he has been testing for radioactivity.

Namie will be officially re-opened at the end of March, and Hisao is in the process of restoring his home. He’s excited to move back there, saying he felt uncomfortable in the cramped apartment where he lived in the years following the disaster.

“I’ve never lived away from Namie before,” he says. “I think it is best to live in your own part of the country and speak your own dialect. I think it’s one of the secrets of good health.”

In Japan, families tend to maintain strong ties to their communities. For Hisao, moving back to Namie is as much an emotional decision, as it is one of logistics or convenience.

“We are the third generation of our family living here,” he says. “It’s the house that our ancestors built, my father built. If we let it go, that’s it, so I can’t let that happen.”

For many former residents, the government’s call to return presents a confronting question; re-occupy their homes, but potentially risk their health by exposure to radioactivity. Or stay away, and deal with the loss and heartbreak of that decision.

For Shigeko Watanabe, another former Namie resident, the idea of returning brings back traumatic memories.

When the earthquake struck Namie, her first memory is trying to protect her mother-in-law; “it shook three times – the fear I had in those two minutes was extraordinary.”

Now living in Iwaki, a town 60 kilometres away, Shigeko is enjoying her new life – living with her husband Takemasa and his 97-year-old mother. While she says her heart is still in Namie, Shigeko can’t imagine trying to restart her life in the town, after what she went through there.

There’s another issue families like the Watanabe’s must face, now that the town is being re-opened – the financial difficulty of staying outside of Namie once the government subsidies end.

For families struggling with the question of whether to return home, the time to decide is running out.

Currently, less than 20 per cent of Namie’s former residents say they’ll return. Many are unconvinced by the government’s claim that the town is now safe.

Abandoned playground in Namie, Fukushima.

Abandoned playground in Namie, Fukushima.

“They’re saying it’s safe, but they haven’t shown us specific figures and the effects,” says one young woman. “That still leaves me concerned. Living at what radiation level, for how long, causes what effects?”

If these people don’t return, can the town ever been the same for families like the Sasakis, and others that do?

And for those that do return, can the town ever be truly safe – with contaminated waste dump areas and highly radioactive areas nearby?

One way Hisao Sasaki is trying to prove to former residents of Namie that the town is safe to live in, is by growing and tending a large vegetable garden on his property.

He is on a mission to prove that food from the town, which has been shunned since the nuclear disaster, is safe to eat.

Hisao has been able produce clean rice and certain vegetables, however high levels of radiation has been found in mushrooms and citrus fruits from his garden – a sign that perhaps the Fukushima area is not as decontaminated as the government is saying.

“I felt this area was safe, but it still has a poor reputation,” he says. “I’m going to keep growing crops until we are told they are safe, until everyone, including the people in this area, are convinced of their safety.”

Despite Hisao’s determination to return to Namie, where he feels most at home, he is aware that the town can never feel as safe and comfortable as it once did.

“Even though they finished decontamination and told us we can go back, the place that triggered this catastrophe is still unstable,” he says. “So I still feel anxious.”

March 14, 2017 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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