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Beyond Japan's Fukushima exclusion zone, shuttered shops speak to radiation doubts

As Japan's Tokyo Electric and Power Company tries to recycle the highly contaminated water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, people just outside the exclusion zone won't let children play outside and worry about food contamination.

By Staff writer / June 27, 2011

The small town of Itate, Japan, is a ghost town on June 20, 2011. It is within the 20-to-30-kilometer zone from the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor that started leaking radiation into the surrounding area after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami damaged the plant. Radiation levels in the town are much higher than surrounding areas. Evacuation was initially voluntary, but soon will be mandatory.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

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Okaba, Japan

Ichiro Monakata sits at a small table in his cramped and dusty village store and swats flies all day. Sometimes, for a change, he goes into a backroom to watch the daytime soaps on his television.

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“You can see nobody comes here,” he laughs ruefully. “I’m alone.”

Mr. Monakata is one of the very few people still living in the bucolic countryside just outside the 12.5-mile radius exclusion zone surrounding the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where three reactors exploded after the March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. But fears of radiation have spread far beyond the hills around this hamlet.

The government says it is safe to live here, but with the invisible threat of radioactivity hanging over the area, hardly anybody wants to.

The dead, brown stalks of last year’s rice harvest poke from untilled paddy fields that at this time of year should be vivid green with a fresh crop. In village after deserted village, shops are shuttered, homes are locked and abandoned, mailboxes are empty.

Monakata says he is untroubled by the potential danger of the radiation that has leaked from the Fukushima plant to hang in the air and contaminate the soil. But few others in Fukushima prefecture are so insouciant.

What about the children?

In the small city of Date, 35 miles from the plant, the anxiety is palpable – especially among parents of young children.

“I’m afraid for my son,” says Kumiko Anzai as she finishes her weekly shopping at a local supermarket. “He’s only 2, so I don’t let him play outside. I keep the windows shut, and I don’t dry my laundry outside.”

The authorities in Date have banned schoolchildren from playing outdoors and obliged them when they are in school to wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers, or tights for girls, to try to reduce their exposure to radiation in the air.

Radiation detectors

In August, says Hiroshi Ono, an official with the local education department, the city will issue individual radiation detectors to all school-age children “to respond to growing worries about radiation exposure.” The much larger city of Fukushima has announced it will do the same for 34,000 pupils when the autumn term begins in September.

“That doesn’t mean my kids will be protected, though,” points out Hitomi Kawaguchi, whose two boys attend school in Date. “And what can I do if I find the [radiation] reading is too high? What will happen if this problem goes on for another five or six years?”

The individual detectors “will be useful only in the distant future, in studies correlating exposure with cancer rates,” argues Hisako Sakiyama, a former head of the National Institute of Radiological Studies. “They cannot prevent exposure.”

After the nuclear accident, the Japanese government set 20 millisieverts (mSv) per year as an acceptable exposure rate for children – the same level as some countries set for nuclear plant workers. Although officials have since said they aim to reduce the ceiling to its previous 1 mSv level, it is unclear how they can do so.

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