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Fear and gas shortages isolate Japanese farming towns outside evacuation zone

Just because we're close to Fukushima Daiichi doesn't mean we get more radiation, insists one local mayor. Still, Japan has banned the sale of milk and spinach from farms near the power plant.

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One shopper taking advantage of Matsuzake’s initiative, Masumi Sato, says she is staying put because she has to help her parents take care of their small cattle herd. But a lot of her neighbors have fled. “They were afraid of the nuclear threat,” she says.

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The mayor, too, is worried that four reactors at the plant are still not under control: A plume of grey smoke rose from reactor No. 3 on Monday afternoon, underlining the continuing danger.

“Nobody tells me anything” about what is going on at the plant, or the real risks his townspeople are running by remaining in the area, Tomitsuka complains. “I call the Fukushima prefecture and each time somebody tells me something different.

“How can I get real information about the risk?” he asks rhetorically. “Whom can I trust? If the plant explodes it will be too late for us to do anything.”

Farming in Fukushima province

As a precaution, the mayor ordered 3,000 residents of Tamura living between 13 and 20 miles from Daiichi to evacuate last week, although the government is recommending only that people living in that area should stay indoors.

Many of those who left are farmers. “One million chickens and thousands of cattle and pigs will die in the next week if they are not fed,” Tomitsuka worries. “But it is a matter of human safety."

The threat to Tamura and many other farming communities in Fukushima prefecture, where 25 percent of the workforce depends wholly or partly on agriculture, was highlighted over the weekend when the government banned the sale of milk from Fukushima and spinach from neighboring Ibaraki prefecture. Tokyo widened the ban to other nearby prefectures on Monday.

Some milk has been found to contain 17 times the maximum allowable level of radioactive iodine, according to Yoshio Sawada, a senior official in the agriculture department of the Fukushima prefecture, and spinach 7 times the limit. The government says, however, that even consuming normal amounts of both products for a year would expose a person to only the equivalent of one X-ray examination.

That is unlikely to reassure consumers, says Mr. Sawada. “I don’t think that even a solution at the Daiichi plant would be enough to convince the Japanese,” he says. “We have experienced Hiroshima and Nagasaki and we know that nuclear problems linger for a long time.”

"My biggest fear,” he adds, “is that consumers will not buy vegetables from Fukushima even if radiation levels go down to normal because of fear of our bad reputation.”

If that happens, says Tomitsuka, “I cannot imagine what the economic impact would be on my town. It would be massive.”

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