Japan nuclear refugees face dilemma over returning home

Naraha (Japan) (AFP) - More than four years since Satoru Yamauchi abandoned his noodle restaurant to escape radiation spreading from the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant, the Japanese government is almost ready to declare it safe to go home.

But, like many of the displaced, he's not sure if he wants to.

"I want my old life back, but I don't think it's possible here," he told AFP on a recent visit to the dusty "soba" buckwheat noodle restaurant in Nahara that he ran for more than two decades.

The father-of-four has lived in Tokyo since evacuating his home to escape toxic pollution spewing from crippled reactors hit by a gigantic tsunami in March 2011.

Meltdowns in three of the reactors -- 20 kilometres (12 miles) away -- blanketed vast tracts of land with isotopes of iodine and cesium, products of nuclear reactions that are hazardous to health if ingested, inhaled or absorbed.

Of the municipalities immediately surrounding the nuclear plant, which were totally evacuated, Naraha will be the first to which people will be allowed to return.

After years of decontamination work, where teams remove topsoil, wash exposed road surfaces and wipe down buildings, the government will in September lift the evacuation order and declare it a safe place to live.

Other towns and villages will follow in coming months and years, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government aiming to lift many evacuation orders by March 2017.

A year after that, the monthly 100,000 yen ($800) in "psychological compensation" that plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has been ordered to pay to evacuees, will cease.

- Unfit for habitation -

Activists say despite government assurances, many areas still show highly-elevated levels of contamination, and many are unfit for habitation.

They say that for people who abandoned now-almost-worthless -- but still mortgaged -- homes, allowing TEPCO to stop payments amounts to forcing them to return.

Environmental campaign group Greenpeace has carried out a study of radiation contamination in Iitate, a heavily-forested 200-square-kilometre (75 square miles) district that sits around 40 kilometres northwest of the crippled plant also being eyed for resettlement.

The town is significant because the government did not order its evacuation until more than a month after the nuclear accident began, but post-facto modelling of the radiation plume showed Iitate was right in its path.

Greenpeace's new study, published Tuesday, says only a quarter of Iitate has been decontaminated -- predominatly roads, homes and a short buffer strip of woodland around inhabited areas.

"Levels of radiation in both decontaminated and non-decontaminated areas... make a return of the former inhabitants of Iitate not possible from a public health... perspective," the report says.

A person living in the area could expect to absorb 20 times the internationally accepted level for public exposure, Greenpeace says.

"The levels of radiation in the forests, which pre-accident were an integral part of (life), are equivalent to radiaton levels within the Chernobyl 30-kilometre exclusion zone", the report says, referring to the former USSR plant that saw one of the world's worst-ever nuclear accidents.

"Over 118,000 people were permanently evacuated from the 30km zone around Chernobyl in April 1986, with no prospect or plans for them ever returning."

- Reservoir -

The woodlands of Iitate are "acting as a long lasting reservoir for radiocesium and as a large source for future recontamination in the environment beyond the forest," it says.

That makes the very notion of "decontamination" problematic, says Jan Vande Putte, a nuclear campaigner with Greenpeace, who was in Iitate last week

"There is a risk that the migration of radiation will recontaminate decontaminated areas," he told AFP.

In Naraha, which is southeast of the plant -- effectively upwind of the disaster -- government data shows contamination levels are much lower than Iitate.

There are plenty of residents eager to return and rebuild their community, according to a town survey.

The end of the evacuation order is "based on citizens' real voices and plans to accelerate reconstruction," pro-resettlement mayor Yukiei Matsumoto said in a statement this month, adding a "prolonged evacuee life is not desirable."

Supporters of returning point out that while the nuclear accident is not officially recorded as having directly killed anyone, the stresses and strains of evacuee life exact their own price.

According to government figures, almost a thousand people in Fukushima prefecture have died as a result of physical and psychological fatigue because of having been evacuated.

But for some of those faced with the choice of returning, concerns are still high.

"You cannot work on a farm, you cannot grow rice, and you cannot pick wild plants either," said Yamauchi, whose speciality used to be tempura made with seasonal wild vegetables.

"(The restaurant) is my everything... it was my life," he said, his voice cracking.

"There is nothing good about going back."