Photo Gallery: Namie's Nuclear Refugees

Foto: Cordula Meyer/ DER SPIEGEL

Scattered Across Japan Fukushima Refugees Trapped By Uncertainty

For months, the 21,000 residents of Namie have lived in trailers and shelters across Japan. By abandoning their homes, they unwittingly fled directly into the path of Fukushima's radiation cloud. As worried and angry as they may be, most just want to return home.

Tamotsu Baba is mayor of a city that no longer exists, except in the copied maps that hang on the wall behind him. Nine months ago, Mayor Baba evacuated the 21,000 residents of the town of Namie, sending them away from the meltdowns occurring at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Baba was left to fend for himself, he says, with no catastrophe plans and no help from Tokyo or from TEPCO, the power plant's operator. To this day, he feels he's fighting a one-man battle.

Tamotsu Baba's office is a small, windowless room at the Gender Equality Center in the city of Nihonmatsu. There was no other space available from which he could run Namie's emergency administration. Baba has a vandyke beard and a face lined with exhaustion. For months, he has been trying to save his city's future.

"I want to bring everyone together back to Namie," he says. "It will be difficult, and we may not be able to go back to all the districts of the city, but to Namie nonetheless."

All but a small part of his city falls within the exclusion zone, only about eight kilometers (five miles) northwest of the damaged power plant -- and precisely where radiation is particularly high. The idea is for soldiers to attempt to decontaminate city hall and other parts of Namie. "We need technical assistance," Baba says.

Fleeing into Danger

Namie's citizens have impossibly high hopes for these cleanup efforts, as if the cesium 137 radiation could simply be washed away down the city's storm drains, never to be seen again. "People are asking me desperately, 'When can we finally go back home?'" Baba says.

Namie's residents now live scattered across 44 of Japan's 47 prefectures. After so many months, "they're tired of living as refugees," the mayor says. "It's destroyed their daily lives."

He says TEPCO, the nuclear plant operator, promised compensation for Namie's residents. "The company assumes the emotional scars will heal with time," he adds. "But I've watched them get worse over time."

Namie is one of nearly a dozen communities located within the exclusion zone. All together, over 100,000 people became radiation refugees this March. Mayor Baba had to organize the evacuation himself, and no one warned him or his citizens that their evacuation route would prove identical to the direction the radioactive cloud would take as it spread.

The citizens of Namie fled -- and the radiation followed. For four days in March, they found themselves precisely at the spot where the most radioactive fallout landed.

A Ghost Town

For nine months, Namie has been a ghost town. Naka Shimizu, the mayor's assistant, regularly makes the trip into the exclusion zone to check on the abandoned city hall. Today, he's also returning to his old town for a few hours.

A couple kilometers before the roadblock, he dons a radiation suit, mask and gloves and pulls blue plastic covers over his boots. A wild mountain landscape extends beyond the barricades. Plants have taken over half the road, and weeds as tall as a person are running riot on the pastures and farms as well as out of the cracks the earthquake left in the road.

Shimizu peers through his windshield at the growth, at the plants that have absorbed the nuclear fallout. "Cesium grass," he comments and smiles, although he looks like he'd rather cry. Black cows are still grazing in the fields. A light inside a telephone booth illuminates weeds that have found their way inside, a bar still has stools ranged outside its entrance, and yellowed laundry hangs in front of many of the houses.

Vines have completely covered the tracks at Namie's train station. The tsunami leveled the parts of the city located directly on the Pacific, although soldiers and other clean-up crews have gathered together the largest chunks of debris.

Shimizu gets out of his car and points to a concrete building. This was Ukedo Elementary School. All of the students survived because the teachers "reacted absolutely perfectly," Shimizu says, leading the children by foot to higher ground. But other government bodies were hardly any help at all as the people fled from the radiation, he says. "Neither the government in Tokyo nor the prefecture administration helped us."

Shimizu is silent as he drives out of the exclusion zone. Then he turns abruptly and says, "Please help us. Help Fukushima! Please, Europe, help us!"

A Hurried Escape

In the night leading up to March 12, there was no one there to help. Thousands of people whose houses had been damaged by the tsunami or the earthquake sought refuge at Namie's city hall or in the city's schools. The only sources of outside information were televisions and radios.

The towns of Futaba and Okuma, located directly next to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, had been warned the evening before, and buses came to take people away. Though they were just a few kilometers further away from the damaged nuclear plant, Mayor Baba and the people of Namie claim that they weren't informed at all.

Bus driver Norito Kikuchi and his 32-year-old son Takuya sat spellbound in front of the television that night, watching as it played images of the tsunami of the century again and again and listening to reports from Fukushima Daiichi that sounded increasingly ominous.

From their house, the Kikuchis had always been able to see the red lights blinking on the power station's towers to warn airplanes. But now everything was dark. Takuya packed a bag and urged his father to leave, but his father wanted to wait and see.

Around 6 a.m. that Saturday morning, a newscaster read out a warning from then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan telling anyone within a radius of 10 kilometers (6 miles) of the power plant to evacuate. At that point, it was clear that engineers would need to release pressure from within the overheated reactor -- with the result that the wind would carry radioactive particles over Namie. Takuya jumped up and woke his sister, saying, "We have to go." Norito shook his mother awake and hurried to grab a framed picture of his late wife. Takuya took his portable Playstation, and his sister took her cell phone with its four little attached stuffed animals.

Ten minutes after they left, the grandmother realized she had forgotten her heart medication and turned back for the house. Although he had told himself he was going to stay calm, Norito cursed. The streets were growing crowded. Norito drove his small Honda down Highway 114, the same route he had driven his bus for 39 years.

When the family reached the mountain above Namie, they stopped to look down at their city, where traffic was jammed bumper to bumper. "It was like Armageddon," Takuya says. "It didn't feel like reality."

Transportation Chaos

Hangai Masao was one of those down in the traffic jam, trying to get out of the city in his tiny Subaru pickup. Firefighters had come to his farm that morning. "They didn't say anything about radiation," Masao recalls. "Just something about an evacuation." At 75, Masao is just 1.6 meters (5'3") tall, his posture slightly stooped. His truck has a sign warning "senior at the wheel." He suddenly had to look after his two granddaughters, 17 and 19 years old. Their father worked on the west coast of Japan, while their mother worked in a nursing home and had to stay and look after her elderly charges.

On his way out of town, Masao's truck got a flat tire. The elderly man parked by the side of the road and tried to change the tire by himself. "No one stopped to help," he says. Over three hours later, Masao and his wife and granddaughters finally reached an evacuation center in Tsushima. It took them over three hours to make a trip that normally took less than 30 minutes.

Keiko Watanabe, a single mother, and her two sons were also stuck in the traffic. She had slept in an elementary school with them, afraid her own house might collapse. "I saw people who had to leave their cars by the side of the road because they ran out of gas," she says. "I saw two women trying to push their car." Watanabe herself managed to remain strangely calm. "I just thought: I have to concentrate so I can take care of my children," she says.

Mayor Baba also heard Kan's message on television. He immediately activated the city's alarm, and loudspeaker announcements warned anyone in Namie who had not already left of their own accord. By 11 a.m., most residents had abandoned the city and were on their way down Highway 114.

At this point, the first reactor core at the Fukushima Daiichi plant was melting, and pressure inside Reactor 1 was mounting relentlessly. Engineers were desperately trying to release pressure from the reactor, but they initially couldn't open the valves. The finally succeeded by midday, releasing the first radiation cloud. At that point, Mayor Baba and his assistant, Shimizu, were on their way to Tsushima, a town about 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.

But Shimizu's wife had stayed back in Namie with their children. When she saw the snarled traffic, she decided it would be safer to wait at home. At 3:36 p.m., she heard a loud bang, "as if a huge bridge had collapsed."

That was the Reactor 1 building exploding. At this point, the Shimizus fled the city, as well.

A False Sense of Security

At a government building in Tokyo, a computer simulation system known as "Speedi" had predicted which direction the radiation cloud would move in once released. According to the Speedi warning, the cloud would blow northwest from Fukushima Daiichi, over Namie and toward Tsushima.

This early-warning forecast was reported to the office of Japan's prime minister, but Mayor Baba didn't learn of it until months later, nor did any of the others who escaped to Tsushima. They felt safe there, over 20 kilometers away from the power plant. They were given a place to stay in a community center and in the town's schools.

Keiko Watanabe, the single mother, signed up for cooking duty, chopping vegetables in the open air. The most significant levels of radioactive fallout came on March 15, three days after their arrival in Tsushima. It consisted of particles released by the explosion of the building containing Reactor 3. Watanabe's children were playing outside in the radioactive rain.

To this day, radioactive contamination in Tsushima's schools is worse than almost anywhere else, at levels of 20 microsieverts per hour and even higher.

A research team from Hirosaki University, in northern Japan, began taking on-site measurements in mid-March. Using this date, they extrapolated the likely levels of radiation that the people from Namie had been exposed to during those days in March. Their finding indicated up to 68 millisieverts, or three times as much as the annual amount the government considers acceptable under emergency conditions.

By way of contrast, a study carried out by the administration of Fukushima Prefecture found the maximum contamination in Namie and other towns within the radiation zone to be 37 millisieverts. As a further comparison, 50 millisieverts is the maximum dose for people working in a nuclear power plant.

Delaying Reality

Mayor Baba didn't know anything about the high radiation levels on the morning of March 15, when he drove to the home of the mayor of Nihonmatsu, a city located further to the west. But he did fear the situation might worsen.

In Nihonmatsu, 2,000 out of a population 60,000 were homeless after the earthquake had destroyed their homes. Baba knocked on the mayor's door and asked, "Is it okay if I bring 5,000 to 8,000 people from Namie to Nihonmatsu?"

Since then, thousands of the former residents of Namie have made their homes here, in emergency housing and trailer parks. Keiko Watanabe and her two sons, aged 9 and 12, have moved three different times. At the moment, they're living in a trailer park near Nihonmatsu.

Watanabe's trailer is spotless, and her sons' schoolbooks are neatly lined up on green shelves. "I feel so bad for my children," Watanabe says. "Even though I know it's really TEPCO and the government at fault, I feel I've let them down."

Scientists from Fukushima University measured radioactivity levels in her sons' thyroids in October, and Watanabe is still waiting to get the results. She sometimes helps out the prefecture administration, distributing brochures or interviewing other refugees.

Her sons arrive home from school and get themselves popsicles from the freezer. Keiko smiles at them. But there's one conversation she's dreading having with her sons. "They're sure they can go back," she says. "They don't have the least bit of doubt." What will happen if at some point she has to tell them they can never go back home?

Imagining the Future

Hangai Masao, the elderly farmer, worries about his granddaughters. They've since moved with their parents to Niigata, on the west coast of Japan and far from Fukushima. But how harmful was the radiation they were exposed to while fleeing Namie?

Masao himself wants nothing more than to return to Namie no matter how bad the radioactive contamination is there. It's his only goal. He often stands around on the gravel yard in front of the trailer park and talks with other old men about their home. The things he misses most are fishing for salmon with his friends on the Takase River and Chinese cabbage grown in his own fields. "My greatest worry is: When will we be able to go back home? Will it ever be possible?" he says.

Norito Kikuchi, the bus driver, is also at a loss when he tries to imagine the future. "I can't work. I can't do anything," he says. His friends now live scattered throughout Japan. "I miss talking with the people I'm close to," he says.

His son and daughter have tried in vain to find work. The Kikuchis don't have to pay rent for their trailer, only the cost of electricity and gas. Takuya, the son, often gets in arguments with the rest of the family, and he also feels lonely. "I'm scared of getting sick from the radiation," he says. "No one can tell us how dangerous it really is."

Indeed, Takuya finds life as a refugee nearly unbearable. "It feels as if we've been away from home much longer than a year," he says. His father adds, "I never would have thought I would end up living this way."

Consumed with Rage

Mayor Baba found a small apartment in Nihonmatsu, where he lives with his wife and mother. He also sometimes wonders why he has to live there. But far worse than the cramped living conditions is the way he has to ask for permission when he wants to do anything for the people of Namie, even something as simple as installing streetlights in the trailer park.

Baba and his fellow local politicians often serve as lightning rods for people's anger, which should rightfully be directed at TEPCO and the government in Tokyo. Even now, when Baba thinks of the Speedi warning that reached him far too late, he's consumed with rage. "I'm not angry," he says. "It's more than that. This was murder. Why did they try to kill us?"

He slips a blue handkerchief beneath his glasses with trembling fingers and dabs at his eyes. "Why has no one brought them to court for this?" he asks. "People are suffering because of it."

Since the catastrophe, Baba has started asking himself fundamental questions about his country. "They said our country was civilized," he says, "and that nuclear power was even a sign of that civilization."

He says he couldn't help thinking about that whenever he saw pictures, in the refugee center in Tsushima, of the exploding buildings at the nuclear plant. "Why can't we control this?" he wonders. "We're battling a monster we created ourselves."

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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