News / Asia

Some Japanese Evacuees Brave Radiation Fears to Briefly Return Home

A Greenpeace radiation expert monitors the radiation near Namie village, 40 kms from the stricken Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, April 8, 2011
A Greenpeace radiation expert monitors the radiation near Namie village, 40 kms from the stricken Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, April 8, 2011

Some residents forced to flee their homes a month ago, when radiation began spewing from a damaged Japanese nuclear power plant, are making furtive trips back into the so-called hot zone. 

In Namie - about 15 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant - a dog crossing the main intersection is initially the only sign of life.  The traffic lights still cycle between red and green.  But, within the space of an hour, only a few cars pass through the intersection, paying no heed to the signal.

The virtual silence is only broken when a powerful aftershock rattles the already damaged downtown buildings and the pavement rumbles. Elsewhere in Fukushima prefecture, the tremor knocks out power to thousands of homes and temporarily forces a halt to repair work at the damaged reactors.

The quake compels three members of the Yamagata family to come out into the street from the interior of their pharmacy, where they had returned to retrieve some medicine.

Chieko Yamagata says being exposed to potentially higher levels of radiation for a few hours does not concern her.

Yamagata says she had been frustrated being away for a month and that was not going to put her off making a brief return.

But she and her family have no illusions about resuming their lives here.

She says it will be absolutely impossible to ever live here again. She proclaims the town of 22,000 is now history.

At one point during March, the radiation level in Namie registered 1,600 times the normal level.  Radiation levels have drastically fallen here since then, but the town is still considered a relative hot spot.

Parts of the town, which lie beyond the 20-kilometer exclusion zone, where residents previously were told to stay inside, are coming under a wider evacuation order.

Passing through Namie on Tuesday is a man who only identifies himself as a 48-year-old air conditioning specialist at Reactor 1 of the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant.  He says he felt compelled to return home to retrieve his personal seal, required to stamp legal documents.

The Namie resident says police at a roadblock tried to convince him not to return home, even for a short time.  But he says he knew today might be his last chance before the off-limits notice becomes legally enforceable.  He predicts that is inevitable, now that the nuclear disaster has been deemed a Level Seven on the international nuclear
incident scale.

Japanese officials say the provisional change from Level Five was made based on the amount of radiation emitted into the air in the past month from the Fukushima plant.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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