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Japan

In Japansese Ghost Town, Last Holdouts Resigned To Radiation Risk

Despite stiff government warnings, some residents from the evacuated zone around Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear plant are trickling back in. Others never left.

Radiation levels remain high around the damaged Fukushima-Daiichi plant
Radiation levels remain high around the damaged Fukushima-Daiichi plant
Eric Talmadge

MINAMI SOMA - In Odaka, just inside the evacuation zone surrouding the damaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima-Daiichi, time seems to stand still. In the 70,000-person city of Minami Soma, nearly a quarter of the houses stand with open doors. Bicycles lie abandoned on the roads, and a single taxi sits abandoned by the train station. In the empty streets, only the barking of stray dogs and the cawing of crows can be heard.

Although many buildings were spared during the March 11 earthquake, the residents have not yet been allowed to return; the risk of radiation exposure is still too high. But some have come back anyway, to resume their old lives.

"It's spooky here," says Masahiko Sakamoto, who is loading a truck alongside two other workers in the company parking lot. "Everyone's gone. I think no one is left. Some people come back during the day, but at night it's too scary."

This is the third time Sakamoto has ignored the warnings not to enter the evacuation zone. He lives in a shelter, and every day he is tested for radiation exposure. Sakamoto is aware of the risks of going into the zone, but says the small company would go bankrupt if he did not go back to work.

The government has warned the area's 70,000 to 80,000 residents against entering the evacuation zone. But there are few roadblocks to stop people from entering the area, and the police are busy with other things.

"The police don't know I'm here"

A few people have not even left their homes. "I'd rather die of radiation poisoning than live in a shelter," says 55-year-old Mitsuo Sato. He has food and electricity in his house, which is located within the evacuation zone. He gets his water from a well nearby. "I don't think the police know I'm here."

In other parts of Minami Soma, volunteers wearing blue and white protective suits work together with soldiers to look for the the bodies of the roughly 1,100 people still missing in the city. As many as 25,000 people in total may have been killed in last month's earthquake and tsunami, but so far only half that number have been found.

A few districts of Minami Soma lie – at least for now – outside of the evacuation zone. The Japanese government is pushing these residents to leave their homes within the next month in order to avoid long-term radiation effects.

Already, about half of the population has left the city, but near the town hall, a state of quasi-normality has returned. Some shops and restaurants have already reopened. People living in the shelters are hoping for permission to return home long enough to save their belongings. The government is willing to allow this, as long as residents wear protective clothing and are accompanied by relief workers, says government spokesman Yukio Edano.

Mitsuo Sato, who remains in the evacuation zone, refuses to leave his house despite all warnings. "But I feel lonely," he says. "It is very odd to live in an empty city."

Read the original article in German.

Photo - Daveeza

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