Nearly three years after a major earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation leak devastated coastal and inland areas of Japan‘s Fukushima prefecture, 175 miles north-east of Tokyo, Namie has become a silent town of ghosts and absent lives.
Namie’s 21,000 residents remain evacuated because of continuing high radiation levels, the product of the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, six miles to the south. Homes, shops and streets are deserted except for the occasional police patrol or checkpoint.
Like the setting for a Hollywood post-apocalypse movie, grass and weeds poke up through cracked pavements. At an abandoned garage, a rusting car sits on a raised ramp, waiting for a repair that will never be completed. A feral dog peers from a wild, untended garden.
Namie is nobody’s town now. Nobody lives here, and nobody visits for long. Even the looters have stopped bothering, and no one knows exactly when the inhabitants may be allowed to return permanently — or whether they will want to.
The 2011 catastrophe faded from world headlines long ago, but in Namie, Tomioka, Okuma, Futaba and other blighted towns in the 20-mile evacuation zone around the Fukushima plant, it is a disaster that never ends.
At the plant itself, recent leaks of contaminated water into the sea and a fraught operation to remove fuel rods from one of the damaged reactors have shown how critical the situation still is — and will remain during a decommissioning process that could take up to 40 years.
For Fukushima’s displaced population, the effects of the disaster continue to be deeply felt. The evacuation area was subdivided earlier this year into three zones of higher or lower radiation risk. In the worst affected zone, return will not be allowed before 2017 at the earliest.
In other areas, families and businesses face difficult decisions about whether or not to go back. At present, no one is even allowed to stay overnight. Locals say that whatever happens, many younger people will not return.
There is little or no trust in official pronouncements, given the failure of the Fukushima Daiichi operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), to take adequate measures to protect the plant against the tsunami and the company’s unimpressive post-disaster record.
There are suspicions that the government knows some towns may never be safe to live in again, but refuses to admit it in order to protect Japan’s unpopular nuclear power industry. There is also a sense that Fukushima’s victims have been forgotten.
That said, the painstaking cleanup continues and there has been some progress in adjoining, less badly affected areas, according to Hiroshi Murata, the head of the Odaka ward of Minamisoma City, close to Namie.
As many as 18,000 people died or were declared missing in Fukushima prefecture after the tsunami struck. The radiation plumes caused the forced evacuation of a further 154,000, according to the Japan Reconstruction Agency.
In Odaka, 148 people died, and there were more than 300 fatalities in Minamisoma as a whole. But now around 53% of Odaka residents have returned home, a total of 6,800 out of a pre-disaster population of 12,800, Murata said.
Nobody has died directly as a result of the nuclear disaster, but a close eye is being kept on the incidence of thyroid cancer in children, following the experience of Chernobyl.
The biggest issues the local administration now faces, following the rehousing of residents in temporary accommodation, are the demolition of unsafe houses, replacement of infrastructure and services, including roads and school playgrounds, and the decontamination and desalination of buildings and land.
“To decontaminate one house and garden takes 10 to 14 days,” Murata said. “We have to remove surface soil, cut the trees, wash the roofs, clean the rain gutters. The house owners are responsible for cleaning inside. The city and the government help with the rest.”
At least in Odaka there is something to clean and repair. In Ukedo, the part of Namie municipality closest to the Pacific ocean, the devastation is total. Hardly a single house was left standing by the tsunami, which reached 17m in height in some places, Murata said — a vast wall of water that devoured all in its path.