Tomioka, Japan – The highway leading up to the town at the base of the damaged and leaking Daiichi nuclear plant has only been open for a couple of weeks.
But the small town, with a gorgeous beach and a lush canopy of green cradling it, remains in the nuclear exclusion zone – too contaminated for its residents to return to.
They’ve been evacuated to temporary housing in other areas and are allowed to return to two of the three zones in the town for no more than six hours at a time, between 9am and 3pm – or at least those are the advised hours.
Triggered by an earthquake and tsunami, Japan was battered by the March 2011 disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima nuclear power plant north of Tokyo. It was the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.
One of Tomioka’s three zones is still so highly contaminated with radiation that officials allow only one six-hour visit per month, and that requires a special permit.
The three zones were created last year based on aerial-contamination measurements taken in 2011.
Among those who can visit for a few hours at a time on a daily basis is Sugihara Mochida, 71, who has returned to clean his home, which he said is now infested with mice.
“We come back once in a while but not for long because we are afraid of the effects of radiation on our health,” said Sugihara.
He retrieved a well-worn Geiger counter – a standard accessory in these parts since the start of the nuclear meltdown – to measure the radiation levels in the air.
But Sugihara said he frets that he can’t measure contamination on the ground he’s standing on.
Joe Moross, a Safecast volunteer who came to map radiation levels in the area and attach a sensor to one of the homes, pulled out his bGeigie Nano, which can measure becquerels of contamination per square metre.
His device read 70,000bq/sqm on the gravel driveway. “That’s not low,” said Moross, adding pre-accident levels in the area were likely closer to 5bq/sqm.
And the truth is, according to scientists, there is no going back to that level. Tomioka, like the rest of the towns in the area, must cope with the fact that it will take decades to decommission the still unstable nuclear plant.
‘Kicked out’ like a dog
From afar, the scene in the field looks promising – farming equipment moving, men working.
But a closer look reveals a darker reality: The men are not farmers – they’re decontamination workers, gathering the top layer of soil, bagging it in large sacks, and moving them to a storage area in town, where they will be buried for decades, maybe centuries.
Caesium-137 is the radioactive isotope of concern, and it’ll take about 300 years for it to break down.
Daizuke Matusmara lived 80 of his 83 years in Tomioka, where he farmed rice and vegetables. The lines on his weathered face speak to a life spent outdoors in the town that had a population of roughly 16,000 prior to the nuclear meltdown.
He now lives in nearby Ohana but comes back periodically as the leader of a volunteer group that feeds abandoned cattle.
“There’s nobody here just dogs and cattle,” said Matsumara. Well, also an ostrich, which he is now taking care of.
“It was just wandering around,” he said, eyeing the bird warily.
Matsumara said Tomioka’s former residents are not told much about what is going on, only that the area “is not suitable for human beings”.
“There’s not so much progress [on decontamination] lately,” he said.
While he stays calm and simply gets on with it, coming back to take care of animals and trying to maintain his house, Matsumara’s true feelings boil to the surface for a split second when asked if he misses his lifelong home.
“It’s like when a dog is kicked out,” he responded, spitting on the ground and looking away.
Exactly when Matsumara can return to Tomioka permanently remains unknown, however, there is a bit of potential good news.
Shinji Sugihara, a professor of environmental radioactivity at Kyushu University, told Al Jazeera an experiment using rice grown in the area for ethanol was harvested with low doses of radiation.
“Rice planted in 2013 showed 27bq/kg at the time of harvesting, while the soil sample at the same time was 2,780bq/kg,” said Sugihara.
But there’s still the contamination stigma of Fukushima that must be overcome.
“Of course, there is difference between something you can eat and something you will buy,” said Kenji Kaneko, 56, another Tomioka resident back for a few hours. “No one will buy anything grown in Fukushima.”
Signs of tsunami damage are still apparent on houses, the fishing port and fractured roads, but with so much radioactive debris to gather, perhaps a busted train station leading to a ghost town or a few dozen upturned cars isn’t all that important.
Still, disemboweled shops stand with metal and wires hanging out. This is where Kazuo Shibata, 65, was heading to check out his cousin’s liquor store.
|Some major roads and bridges damaged by the earthquake and tsunami in Tomioka remain unrepaired [D. Parvaz/ Al Jazeera]|
“He’s in temporary housing – used to be in Aizu, but he’s been moved and I don’t know where he is now, so I thought I’d come I’d come check on his shop,” he said, although looking at the state of things, it’s hard to tell what he could report back.
If Shibata is unsure of where his cousin is, it’s hard to imagine how the government will track down property owners and residents in order to get their permission to decontaminate their homes, a process that has not yet begun.
Why is this the case, three years later?
To start with, the Tomioka government office has no idea how many of the 7,000 people who pay property taxes in the town were residents.
Shinya Takehara, vice-chief of the Tomioka revitalisation department, told Al Jazeera so far only property owners south of the Tomioka River – which represents one-third of the town’s total area – have been contacted with requests allowing workers to wash and decontaminate their homes and property.
And by contacted, he means via snail mail.
“All the information we have is that the central government has sent letters to the property owners south of the Tomioka River,” said Takehara.
“We do not know if all of them have received the letters. We are in the process of calling these people and making appointments to explain the cleaning procedure,” he said.
So that’s 2,650 property owners, only 25 percent of whom have actually been in contact with the Tomioka city office. Of those, 95 percent have agreed – some reluctantly – to have their properties decontaminated.
The five percent who declined to have the procedure done, he said, tend to either believe that the decontamination does not work, or have other issues with how the government is going about it.
Even if everyone signs on to have their homes hosed down and driveways scraped, the decontamination process has yet to begin because of a shortage of trained manpower.
Tomioka will need an estimated 3,000 people to decontaminate the two less-contaminated zones by the end of March 2017. There is no estimate for when the most contaminated zone will be habitable.
All of which means that for the former residents of Tomioka, the unblocked highway leading up to the town they’re reluctant to give up is just the start of a long, tedious road to recovery.
Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @dparvaz