MINAMISOMA, FUKUSHIMA PREF. – Kimie Furuuchi recently received a letter encouraging her to come home. Signed by the mayor, it began, “Dear Minamisoma Evacuee. . . .”
“We are trying to create the environment where all evacuees can come back to Minamisoma as soon as possible,” the letter stated.
Furuuchi thought it seemed premature. Government authorities and radiation experts kept saying that her old city could become safer, but almost nobody said it was safe. The ambiguity meant that Furuuchi, like tens of thousands of others who fled their homes after the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear disaster in March, had to weigh the comfort of a homecoming against a danger she could not quantify.
As the government prepares this month to lift the “evacuation preparation zone” — the ring just beyond the 20-km no-entry radius — the long-term viability of a region depends on people returning to their towns and accepting the risk.
Furuuchi and her three teenagers have lived since April 3 in Chiba Prefecture. The elder two like city life even more than they expected. And when the family visited Minamisoma in early August, they agreed that the things they loved about it were gone. Fewer played outside. Nobody visited the beach. The main shopping street had become a glum passageway of shuttered storefronts.
But for Furuuchi, Minamisoma also offers one thing that Chiba has not yet given: a job. The hospital where she worked has been calling; they want her to return. Furuuchi doubts it’s safe to go back, but recently she pulled her kids together and said, “Let’s talk about the best way to decide.”
In the initial days of the disaster, amid explosions at three of Fukushima’s reactors, the government urged those between 20 km and 30 km from the facility to evacuate or stay indoors. The government removed the request to stay inside in late April, but the area still had a special designation — it was a place where residents should be ready to flee in case the situation worsened.
People fled anyway. Minamisoma, with a population of 71,000 before the disaster, at one point had lost six of every seven residents.
But with a plan now to lift the evacuation zone between 20 km and 30 km, the government sees an opportunity in Minamisoma. Already the city has recovered 55 percent of its population.
If it can regain its school-age population, it can also regain a semblance of normalcy — a key benchmark of progress in efforts to overcome the nuclear disaster.
Efforts to decontaminate have not eliminated uncertainty for residents weighing a return. The local government mapped out a massive decontamination plan, but officials lacked the funding for a scientific trial run and can’t guarantee it will work. City assembly member Showichi Ogawa said it’s less a matter of eliminating radiation than “learning to live with radiation” — that residents could be scrubbing rooftops and discarding soil for decades.
Tatsuhiko Kodama, head of the University of Tokyo’s Radioisotope Center, has spent his weekends there, advising on the cleanup. The main challenge is to dispose of cesium-137, a radioactive isotope with a half-life of 30 years. Kodama said that because cesium sticks to soil, the key is to shave off a layer of land and deposit it somewhere safe.
Minamisoma wants to halve its current radiation levels by the end of this month and reopen 12 schools by mid-October. Ten construction companies have been commissioned to lift 5 cm of soil from the top of playgrounds, then bury that soil roughly 1 meter below the playgrounds inside a protective bubble made partly of rubber.
The central government has given Minamisoma enough funding to decontaminate only public areas, not its thousands of homes. Kodama has suggested the town improve its monitoring of food contamination, saying food safety is the greatest risk.
Conflicted about the decontamination plan, one local elementary school principal, requesting anonymity to speak his mind, said it was “critical” to reopen the schools soon. But he’s not allowing his own children to return.
“Can I say it’s safe?” the principal said. “No, I can’t say that.”
Furuuchi doesn’t want to return, fearing Minamisoma is unsafe, or will prove to be as the years pass and health problems emerge. But she also feels she must return. She’s on a nine-month leave from her job. If she quits, she would have to pay back millions of yen — the bill her hospital has paid to subsidize her nursing classes. She doesn’t have that money.
It’s ironic, Furuuchi said: She’d decided to take those classes soon after she divorced to boost her earning power and gain independence.
As her kids had dinner one night recently, Furuuchi said the disaster had “turned their lives upside down.”
“But I will go back, I think,” Furuuchi said.
“You can’t quit your job,” Mikado said, nodding.
“I can’t quit my job,” Furuuchi said.