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.