More Than Two Years After Meltdown, Doubt and Fear Remain Over Fukushima’s Safety

Two-and-a-half years after an earthquake and tsunami rocked the Fukushima plant and spewed radioactive waste across the region, tens of thousands of evacuees still live in a fugue of fear and confusion

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Correction appended: Aug. 19, 2013, 3:02 a.m. E.T.

The traffic light in the middle of Tomioka flashes red: proceed with caution. The authorities have started to allow evacuated residents of some parts of this small Japanese coastal town to come back for belongings they were forced to leave behind after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, about 16 km away. But no one is around. In front of the municipality building, cars sit exactly where they were parked. Unopened beer bottles collect dust on a bar counter, the clock outside frozen at 3:47. Some neighborhoods, guarded by men in dark blue hazmat suits, are divided down the center of the road: one side accessible during daytime hours, the other off-limits. “That’s my home!” exclaims Yukiteru Naka, a veteran nuclear engineer guiding a group of foreign dignitaries on a tour of the town. Despite official permission to return, overriding concerns about radiation keep him away.

Two-and-a-half years after an earthquake and tsunami rocked the Fukushima plant and spewed radioactive waste across the region, tens of thousands of evacuees still live in a fugue of fear and confusion. While the government has deemed some areas safe enough for part-time access, locals and activists say conflicting science and official secrecy surrounding the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl have bankrupted public trust. On Aug. 7, just weeks after beaches south of the reactor were reopened, plant officials admitted that up to 300 tons of contaminated water are flowing into the sea each day.

(MORE: Leaks, Rats and Radioactivity — Fukushima’s Cleanup Is Faltering)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to take “firm measures” to stop the leak and said the central government, which has so far taken a backseat in the cleanup, would take over from Tokyo Electric Power Co. — the plant operator widely seen as having botched the cleanup operation to date. There is talk of building a wall of frozen ground around the reactor to prevent further leaks, a plan that could cost up to $400 million dollars.

While the long-term health implications of the March 2011 meltdown are a subject of bitter dispute inside Japan and abroad, the social impact is irrefutable. At a government-built housing complex on the edge of Koriyama city, about 56 km west of Tomioka, more than 500 evacuees live in a grid of prefabricated barracks that sprawl across a vast concrete lot. Tomiko Endo, 69, a lifelong farmer, shows some pictures of home, her daughters smiling in kimonos. The memory of leaving dozens of beef cattle to starve to death still burns, as does her inability to tend her relatives’ graves. But in a part of the country where generations of family members often live in close proximity, it is the sudden rupture from loved ones that hurts most.

Today Endo lives alone. Soon after arriving at the barracks, her husband developed headaches so severe that he had to move into a hospital. Her children and grandchildren moved into the town center for work, leaving Endo with her cat. She spends her days looking after a small garden and socializing at the community center, but the tedium is constant. Groups of men pass hours on the stoops, sucking down cigarettes with blank stares. Though Tomioka is one of eight Fukushima municipalities where entry is no longer forbidden, the government estimates it won’t be ready for habitation until 2017. No one is holding his or her breath. “I’ve already given up the idea of farming at home again,” says Endo, fighting back tears. “What I want most from this government is something close to a normal life.”

(PHOTOS: Images of the Tsunami Striking Fukushima)

On the face of it, the atmosphere in downtown Koriyama is just that. Shopping malls and four-star hotels play host to tour groups rolling through on air-conditioned coaches, passing brightly lit karaoke bars and 7-Eleven stores. But according to independent tests, pockets of abnormally high radiation levels exist in the heart of the city. In one downtown park tested at random, Marina Khvostova of the Russian Academy of Sciences recorded levels several times higher than published government measurements. She chalks this up to rains that have spread the fallout into absorbent clay. While limited contact is not a threat, she warns that sustained exposure could produce cancer-related problems. That children were at play with parents, oblivious to the tainted ground beneath them, she adds, was “very troubling.”

Last year, the Japan Times reported that the government had buried a document that said, in a worst-case scenario, the crippled Fukushima reactors would release “massive quantities” of radiation for a year. And having endured months of official fumbling over issues such as food safety and the size of the area affected by fallout, some frustrated residents are speaking up. At a mothers’-support-group meeting, Koriyama councilwoman Ikuko Hebiishi decries attempts to downplay the severity of the situation in greater Fukushima prefecture, complaining that attention has only centered on the immediate radius around the plant. “They are more worried about saving face than admitting the scale of the damage,” she says. “This is a very big mistake by the government.”

The assembled mothers nod in agreement. To them, the latest news reports that radioactive waste is leaking into the Pacific Ocean are yet another signal the official pronouncements are not to be trusted. Some are taking matters into their own hands, paying for tests to detect thyroid cancer and learning how to test food with a Russian-made device.

Naka, the engineer taking visitors around a deserted Tomioka, can no longer deny the cost. He has four decades of experience at Fukushima and still makes a living at the No. 2 plant, in view of the seaside home he can no longer inhabit. “We knew all along there was some risk — the loss [of my home] is the price I have to pay,” he says. And then a moment of candor: “If I were to speak personally, then I think nuclear power in this country should be zero.”

MORE: Independent Commission Releases Report on Fukushima Meltdown, Blames Japanese Culture

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the nuclear-plant operator. It is the Tokyo Electric Power Co., not the Tokyo Electrical Power Co.

30 comments
رجب غنيم
رجب غنيم

I'm Egyptian, that what happened in Egypt is a bloody military coup, President of Egypt is Morsi

Shinsook Lee
Shinsook Lee

Still loads of people all around the world don't care radiation that much. South Korean people don't eat foods, beverages and fish from Japan.

Didem Aydogan
Didem Aydogan

Stop Nuclear Power Center World wide they are all poison

weddinginloves
weddinginloves

Nuclear power is not a large area, in case of inadvertent disclosure, is a disaster, injury, or people.

transmitterguy
transmitterguy

This is not the worse thing that can happen in Japan. The island is a giant fractured, fault line sitting, volcano. The Tsumi 2 years ago will be a sneeze compared to what's coming in the future..........

Pang Pang Sern Yong
Pang Pang Sern Yong

Their articles just like to stir up Sinophobia, Islamophobia and now Nipponophobia just to paint a picture that everywhere is dangerous and that America is like superb and "free". This can't get any lower and TIME (in fact other publications as well) should cease publication ASAP!

Tee Thongthawee
Tee Thongthawee

I know and totally understand that the sittuation in Egypt is very intense now but One question sir. Why you spam and flooding all awhole FB and open webboard about this ? What is your point sir ? Total world already know this but please respect to topic in this post. Thank you sir. Peace to all.

Ahmed Mohmed
Ahmed Mohmed

It's Not a coup but a popular revolution against the terrorists Brotherhood ... We are the Egyptian people So Don't support the terrorism WE ALL EGYPTIAN WITH ...........CC

Âhmëd Êssãm Møãwäd
Âhmëd Êssãm Møãwäd

1- القيادي الإخواني وليد خطاب: سنغرق الشوارع "بالدم".. وضباط الشرطة والجيش ليس لهم عندنا دية Muslim Brotherhood leader Walid Khatab says "The streets would sink in blood and the police and army are of no value to us http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tm887hVNM-A ==================================== 2- أحد أنصار مرسي يهدد "بحرق البلاد" بعد القبض عليه في "النهضة" A Morsi supporter threatenes to burn the country after being arrested at Al Nahda sit in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6g49VlsGtd0 ================================= 3- مقاومة الإخوان أثناء فض اعتصام رابعة العدوية Muslims Brotherhood resisting police during the disengagement of the sit in at Rab3a al Adaweya http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GO3Rh3OdDOg ======================================= 4- الأسلحة التي تم ضبطها أثناء فض اعتصامي "رابعة" و"النهضة" Weapons that have been seized during the disengagement of the sit in at Al Nahda http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owIS8IqiRek ====================================== 5- الأمن يعثر على نعش مملوء بالذخيرة ومسدسات خرطوش في "النهضة Security found a coffin filled with ammunition, pistols, cartridges at Al Nahda sit in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIAX41kLkdY =========================================== 6- الاخوان يحرقون الخيم و ممتلكاتهم قبل فض اعتصامهم Brotherhood burning tents and belongings before Disengagement their sit-in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdkb0XfYrJ0 ========================================= 7- أعمال عنف ومهاجمة منشآت حكومية بمصر Violence and attacks of government installations in Egypt http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkGn7h_eeuY ======================================== 8- .. إضرام النار في كنيسة بالمنيا A fire set on in a church in Minya http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRNq3KCSmhw ======================================= 9- استخراج أكثر من 20 جثة مقتولة من أسفل منصة رابعة العدوية More than 20 dead bodies found under Rab3a Al Adaweya platform http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1paxyysbOBc ==================================== 10- عناصر الإخوان يشعلون الحرائق في القاهرة Brotherhood elements ignite fires in Cairohttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=REZv5E4bFvk ==================================== 11- الإخوان يقطعون شارع جامعة الدول العربية وملثمون يطلقون أعيرة نارية Muslims Brotherhood cut Game3et Al Dewal Street and the masked men fire shots http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TTTTNpgsRKY ================================ 12- الإخوان يقطعون شارع جامعة الدول العربية وملثمون يطلقون أعيرة نارية Muslims Brotherhood cut Game3et Al Dewal Street and the masked men fire shots http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JdL9lPU9mw ================================= 13- الشرطة تضبط كمية كبيرة من الأسلحة والرصاص الحي بإعتصام النهضة Police seized a large quantity of weapons and live ammunition at Al Nahda sit in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lROCtr2hyNU ========================================= 14- مشاهد مقتل ضباط قسم كرداسة على يد عناصر من الإخوان Scenes of the killing os Kerdasa Department officers by members of the Muslim Brotherhood http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljuk2WH3iYE ===================================== 15- فيديو سحل وقتل سائق التاكسي من قبل مؤيدي الرئيس المعزول بالأسكندرية Dragging and killing of a taxi driver by supporters of the outsed president in Alexandria http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VYsU9goF74 ===================================== 16- معتصمو رابعة يضرمون النار بمسجد رابعة العدوية قبل مغادرتهم Protesters setting fire at Rabaa Al Adaweya mosque before departure http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZsLd6GOI7yg&feature=share ======================================= 17- شاهد غرفة الإعدام بالمستشفى الميدانى وحبل المشنقة فى رابعة العدوية Field execution chamber and the gallows at the hospital at Rabaa Al Adaweya http://videoyoum7.com/?p=218865 ======================================= 18- فضيحــــــــه عالميـــــه يقوم ببثها التليفزيون المصرى لجماعه الاخوان المسلمين وشاهد ماذا فعلوا Worldwide scandal broadcasted by the Egyptian television of the Muslim Brotherhood and watch what they did http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfoWLuro-X8&feature=share ======================================= 19- حاول الاخوان قتل مصورين اثناء تصويرهم استخدام الاخوان للرشاشات Muslims Brotherhood tried to kill photographers while being filmed using their gunshttps://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=544233678957492

Âhmëd Êssãm Møãwäd
Âhmëd Êssãm Møãwäd

To all of my American, European & Foreign friends, You all might have heard about the current situation in Egypt, kindly be informed that for some political interests and goals of some international players, the western media is trying to imply a deceiving and lying image regarding what is happening in Egypt, the Egyptian Armed Forces, Police Forces, and the current interim government. The truth is that the Egyptian Authorities are fighting against a group of fanatics disguised under the name of religion, some of them belong to the “Muslim Brotherhood” organization which has a long history of violence since the beginnings of the twentieth century, "Islamic Jihad" organization which was responsible for the assassination of Egypt's former president "Anwar Al Saddat", who paid his life as the price for his decision to go for peace with Israel after several years of bloodshed between the two sides, as well as a bunch of other militant groups who have no problem in using violence as a mean of expressing their opinions. All of these groups and organizations are linked to "Al Qaeda" terrorist organization in a way or another. The majority of moderate Egyptians, Muslims & Christians, who came out in millions to the streets of Egypt on the 30th of June demanding President Morsi to leave and afterwards on the 26th of July mandating the Security forces to fight terrorism, are strongly against those extremists and their evil goals, especially after they have adopted an extremely hostile behavior against civilians and authorities, including daily blocking of vital streets, burning governmental buildings, museums, police stations, hospitals, factories, stores, churches and mosques, terrifying people and killing whoever against them (you could easily fetch the internet for videos displaying how the security forces responded to brutal offences by bullets and sometimes rockets from the so-called protesters during the past 48 hours). On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood uses their Palestinian Militant Extremist allied groups and organizations to attack Egyptian lands in Northern Sinai, causing a lot of damages and loss of lives. We cannot understand the official reactions of the American and Western Governments, who have been for long suffering from terrorism over their lands and everyday they go out on their statements and their leader's speeches talking about their claimed "War on Terrorism". It is totally unfair for them to be taking the wrong and evil side, because history taught us that "what goes around comes around" and when you foster a deadly contagious virus afterwards you may at some point easily get infected with the same virus. The western people pay taxes to their governments, from which their governments by turn fund and support terrorist organizations under the cover of backing democracy, these organizations who later on launch their attacks against the western people, who funded them indirectly at first place. Naom Chomsky once said " Everybody's worried about stopping terrorism, Well, there's a really easy way: stop participating in it.", and We here in Egypt ask the same from the western nations, please demand from your governments to STOP supporting terror groups, because Egypt is not under an act of terrorism but in a WAR with terrorism. May God Bless Egypt, protects its people and its national loyal army & police forces.

Elbrense Ashia
Elbrense Ashia

WHERE ARE YOU HUMAN RIGHTS ARE YOU TAKING A NAP AFTER KILLING 26 EGYPTIAN SOLIDERS in Cold Blood today in Sinai, they were killed by what you call "Peacefull" Muslim Brotherhood Protestors? History will never forget your position This a documentary to proof that it is Not an Egyptian coup but it is a revolution And our country is fighting terrorism and Western country are supporting it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgEP1NB3pLk&feature=youtu.be

Page Bridges
Page Bridges

TIME, I see a pattern here. You might as well get off the Facebook wagon. Nobody's listening.

Salman Bello
Salman Bello

Sisi is the leader of terror group in egypt everybody know that!!!

Salman Bello
Salman Bello

You want world to just watch Nazi Army killing people we are supporting world leaders to inter!!!

Ãĥmêď Ģĥãņêm
Ãĥmêď Ģĥãņêm

ﻳﺤﺪﺙ ﺑﻤﺼﺮ ﺍﻻ‌ﻥ ﺍﻣﺮ ﺩﺍﺧﻠﻲ ﻭﻧﺤﻦ ﺷﻌﺐ ﻣﺼﺮ ﻗﺪ ﻓﻮﺿﻨﺎ ﺟﻴﺶ ﻣﺼﺮ ﻭﺟﻬﺎﺯ ﺍﻟﺸﺮﻃﺔ ﺑﺎﻟﻘﻀﺎﺀ ﻋﻠﻰ ﺍﻟﺠﻤﺎﻋﻪ ﺍﻻ‌ﺭﻫﺎﺑﻴﺔ ﻭﻟﻦ ﻧﺴﻤﺢ ﻻ‌ﻱ ﺩﻭﻟﻪ ﻣﻬﻤﺎ ﻛﺎﻧﺖ ﺑﺎﻟﺘﺪﺧﻞ ﻓﻲ ﻫﺬﺍ ﺍﻻ‌ﻣﺮ ﻓﻤﺼﺮ ﺩﻭﻟﻪ ﺻﺎﺣﺒﺔ ﺳﻴﺎﺩﺓ ﺑﺎﻻ‌ﻧﺠﻠﻴﺰﻳﺔ What is happening in Egypt is now an internal matter and we are the people of Egypt Judges commissioned Egypt army and police the elimination of the terrorist group will not allow any State whatever to intervene in this matter Egypt is Her sovereign state ﺑﺎﻟﻔﺮﻧﺴﻴﺔ Qu'est-ce qui se passe en Egypte est maintenant une affaire interne et nous sommes le peuple de l'Egypte juges a commandé l'armée Egypte et de la police de l'élimination du groupe terroriste ne permettra pas un État que ce soit à intervenir dans cette affaire l'Egypte est son Etat souverain ﺑﺎﻻ‌ﻟﻤﺎﻧﻴﺔ Was in Ägypten geschieht, ist nun eine interne Angelegenheit, und wir sind die Menschen in Ägypten Richter beauftragt Ägypten Armee und Polizei die Beseitigung der terroristischenVereinigung wird nicht zulassen, jeden Staat, was in dieser Angelegenheit zu intervenieren Ägypten Ihr souveräner Staat ist ﺑﺎﻻ‌ﺳﺒﺎﻧﻴﺔ Lo que está sucediendo en Egipto es ahora un asunto interno y nosotros el pueblo de Jueces Egipto Egipto encargó ejército y la policía de la eliminación de la banda terrorista no permitirá que ningún Estado lo que para intervenir en este asunto Egipto es su Estado soberano ﺑﺎﻟﺘﺮﻛﻴﺔ Ne Mısır'da oluyor şimdi bir iç meselesidir ve biz Mısır Hakimler insanlar Mısır Onun egemen bir devlet ne olursa olsun bu konuda müdahale Mısır ordusu ve polis terör örgütü ortadan kaldırılması herhangi bir devlet izin vermez devreye ﺑﺎﻻ‌ﻳﻄﺎﻟﻴﺔ Quello che sta accadendo in Egitto è ormai una questione interna e noi siamo il popolo d'Egitto Giudici commissionato Egitto esercito e la polizia l'eliminazione del gruppo terroristico non permetteranno uno Stato qualunque sia di intervenire in questa materia l'Egitto è il suo stato sovrano ﺑﺎﻟﻔﺎﺭﺳﻴﺔ ﺁﻧﭽﻪ ﺩﺭ ﻣﺼﺮ ﺍﺗﻔﺎﻕ ﻣﯽ ﺍﻓﺘﺪ ﺩﺭ ﺣﺎﻝ ﺣﺎﺿﺮ ﯾﮏ ﻣﻮﺿﻮﻉ ﺩﺍﺧﻠﯽ ﺍﺳﺖ ﻭ ﻣﺎ ﻣﺮﺩﻡ ﺍﺯ ﻗﻀﺎﺕ ﻣﺼﺮ ﺑﻪ ﺳﻔﺎﺭﺵ ﺍﺭﺗﺶ ﻣﺼﺮ ﻭ ﭘﻠﯿﺲ ﺍﺯ ﺑﯿﻦ ﺑﺮﺩﻥ ﺍﯾﻦ ﮔﺮﻭﻩ ﺗﺮﻭﺭﯾﺴﺘﯽ ﺑﻪ ﻫﺮ ﺩﻭﻟﺖ ﺍﺟﺎﺯﻩ ﻧﻤﯽ ﺩﻫﺪ ﻫﺮ ﭼﯿﺰﯼ ﮐﻪ ﺑﻪ ﺩﺧﺎﻟﺖ ﺩﺭ ﺍﯾﻦ ﺯﻣﯿﻨﻪ ﻣﺼﺮ ﺩﻭﻟﺖ ﻣﺴﺘﻘﻞ ﺍﻭ ﺍ

Ãĥmêď Ģĥãņêm
Ãĥmêď Ģĥãņêm

It's not a Coup, but a people's revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorists. We don't have a civil war; it's Egypt's war against Terrorism. We are the Egyptian People & this is what's going on in OUR country, so please don't support Terrorism!

WayneAnderson
WayneAnderson

I think that one of the biggest challenges is that we don't know what we don't know.  In Japan, it has become repeatedly clear that the government and TEPCO are carefully protecting what information is disseminated.  To this end, the official status of the reactors has not been updated by TEPCO in months.  No information on what the steam that has been released from the Reactor No 3 contains has been released.  Even the quantity of water that is finally being admitted to have leaked is in doubt by scientists who have commented on TEPCO's statements.

Why have there been no independent auditors to let the rest of the world know whats going on?  Where is the IAEA in all of this?  What is the truth?

We don't know.  We only have what TEPCO has permitted to be released, and we have discovered time and again that its a very defensive, incomplete "truth".