Life after the Meltdown: A Visit to Japan's Nuclear Ghost Towns

By in Odaka, Japan

Thousands of people had to flee their homes after the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Since then, the area around the reactor has become an exclusion zone. Some former residents are now returning to salvage possessions and to say goodbye to their homes forever.

The house has been in Tsuneyasu Satoh's family for generations. It is dusk, and he has come to see it, secretly, one last time. He loves the interior walls made of rice paper and the wooden floor on which his ancestors once walked. But today he will be the last member of his family to set foot in the house.

Satoh is wearing a baseball cap and glasses with black frames, as if he were trying to hide the stony expression on his face. He and his wife Sayoko don't have much time, and they know that they will have to leave many belongings behind in their old house. Things like the framed calligraphy by Satoh's father and the awards earned by his daughter, who plays table tennis on the Japanese national team. Satoh stacks blankets and wraps up the TV set. Sayoko gathers the most important items she can find in the cabinets: documents, bed linens, the good rice cooker.

When the Satohs had to flee from their home in the city of Odaka in mid-March, they were not allowed to take anything with them. Government buses and soldiers came to pick them up. Their house had survived for centuries, weathering past earthquakes and the recent tsunami. But after the explosion of the building surrounding Reactor No. 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the Satohs had to leave the house.

Now, four weeks after the evacuation, they have secretly returned to Odaka, which is located inside the 20-kilometer (12.5-mile) restricted zone around the plant, to fill up their Nissan van.

Traffic Lights Still Work

There were 13,400 people living in Odaka before the accident. Today it's a ghost town, so quiet that one can hear the beating wings of crows flying overhead. As a last sign of life in this dead city, the traffic lights along the main road are still working. Like disco lights at a party that's been over for hours, they are still switching from green to yellow to red and back to green again.

Tens of thousands of Japanese who once lived in the danger zone around the stricken reactor are in the same position. Many suddenly had to give up all of their important and meaningful possessions. Others were allowed to stay but are now being told not to leave their houses.

The 20-kilometer restricted zone around Fukushima is, in a sense, the legacy of an uncontrollable technology. While the energy-hungry economic powerhouse that is Japan relied heavily on the dream of an inexhaustible source of energy, the people affected by the Fukushima disaster are now being left to more or less fend for themselves as they face the dirty consequences.

Odaka's dark brown wooden houses are built closely together, and some are now even leaning against each other. Some collapsed during the earthquake, but in others the walls simply crumbled. Cabbage plants and potted flowers are still lined up outside the supermarket. Some residents closed their shutters before they left, but most simply locked the front door. A black women's shoe is lying on the street at an intersection. An abandoned taxi is parked in front of the train station at the end of the main street, and a pink curtain flaps in the breeze through a broken window in the station door.

A building that housed construction workers on a bluff behind the empty coastal city looks as though the workers had just left for their shifts. A bottle of soy sauce, chopsticks, and salt and pepper shakers are neatly arranged on each table in the cafeteria. A mop is leaning against the wall. The clock above the microwave stopped at precisely the moment when the tsunami ripped apart the power lines. Some of its rushing waters also reached Odaka. The neighborhoods along the ocean, once considered among the most beautiful in Fukushima Prefecture, are now a muddy wasteland, filled with wooden debris and wrecked cars that the water pushed together into tangled piles.

Returning to Feed the Horses

Suddenly the sound of an engine breaks the silence. The soldiers sitting in the olive-green army SUV look like astronauts from a cold, faraway planet, wearing breathing masks and white protective overalls. They use probes to poke around in the mud fields, hoping to find the bodies of people who died when the tsunami ripped away the coastal sections of Odaka. The soldiers did not venture into the towns with high radiation levels at first. But now the radioactivity has declined and the risks associated with entering the restricted zone temporarily are considered acceptable.

Stray dogs are everywhere. They are timid, as if they still have to get used to the presence of people again -- and they are hungry.

The Satohs are not the only ones to venture back into the restricted zone. Horse breeder Shinjiro Tanaka periodically leaves the emergency shelter where he is living with his wife and daughters to sneak into the restricted zone and feed his animals.

"It breaks my heart to see them starving," says Tanaka, pointing to his stable. There are four dead thoroughbred horses lying next to the ones still alive. Tanaka's horses were among the attractions at a well-known equestrian event where riders wore samurai outfits. Now the animals are so thin that their ribs are showing. Suppliers refuse to bring feed to the restricted zone. Tanaka is not allowed to remove the horses, dead or alive.

'It's Safe Here'

A total of nine cities within a 20-kilometer radius of the reactor, including Odaka, Namie, Futaba and Tomioka, had to be abandoned. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated and are now living in emergency shelters outside the danger zone. Some have already rented apartments far away from the area. No one knows when it will be possible for people to live in the evacuation zone again.

The radioactivity varies from place to place. Last week radiation levels of about one microsievert per hour were measured in the vicinity of Odaka, 16 kilometers northwest of the stricken reactor. A person remaining in the area for one year would be exposed to as much radiation as a woman receiving a mammogram. Higher levels have been measured in other towns closer to the reactor.

Tsuneyasu Satoh took a close look at the reported radiation levels before venturing back into his house. "It's safe here," he says. His wife is wearing a breathing mask. Satoh, who worked in the nuclear power plant, has a personal radiation-monitoring device.

He owned a small company with 10 employees that worked for the giant utility TEPCO, which operates the Fukushima plant. As a crane operator, Satoh's job included replacing the fuel elements in the Fukushima reactor. His livelihood depended on the nuclear power plant, but now he is one of the first who have decided to abandon their houses for good.

"They have nothing under control," he says, referring to TEPCO. "So much more radioactive material will be emitted that it really won't be possible to live here any more in two years."

People will only be able to feel safe here again once the reactors have been sealed with concrete, says Satoh. He has spoken with neighbors and acquaintances who also had to flee the restricted zone. "They think that they will be able to return in a few months," he says, shaking his head. Satoh and his wife now plan to move to a small rental apartment in Tokyo, where their daughter is studying physical education.

His wife Sayoko, 53, looks tired and exhausted. She has kept a diary of their odyssey in her mobile phone. Four weeks ago, when officials told them to leave their house, they only made it to the next village in their van before running out of gasoline, and there was no gasoline to be had. After staying with friends for a while, they took a bus to Tokyo. Only gradually did they reach the decision to abandon their house in Odaka.

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