Asia

Radiation fears split Fukushima community

Her children evacuated to Yamagata
Image caption Sachiko Sato sells organic vegetables from Western Japan in Fukushima

A year after the earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor, local residents still want one fundamental question answered - is it safe to live here?

Sachiko Sato sent her children away to Yamagata, more than 100km (62 miles) from Fukushima, after the meltdown at the nuclear plant.

"We couldn't trust the government," said Mrs Sato, who lives in the town of Kawamata. "They kept releasing different figures about radiation and how much of it was OK."

"So we had family members arguing about it, colleagues accusing each other of abandoning their homes."

Parents sent at least 10,000 children away from Fukushima in the aftermath of the disaster, which saw soil, air and water contaminated.

Mrs Sato has since opened a store selling organic vegetables from the other end of the country to local residents. Her customers are anxious parents and grandparents.

"We need to stop kids from eating contaminated food," she said. "Products from Fukushima are not safe so that's why I opened this shop."

Produce from Fukushima is being shunned, but some say this is unfair.

"Sales have fallen sharply," said eighth-generation farmer Koshi Fujita at his farm in the city of Koriyama.

Image caption Koshi Fujita continues to grow rice and carrots in Fukushima

He had all his products - rice and carrots - checked and no radioactive caesium was detected. Scientists also say it is safe to eat products from Fukushima.

"Most of the caesium is firmly adhered or attached to the soil," said Tomoko Nakanishi of Tokyo University. "Our study has found that agricultural products don't absorb caesium even if they are grown in highly contaminated soil."

But that has not stopped speculation.

"Some bloggers say we create toxic food and call us murderers because we continue to grow vegetables in Fukushima," said Mr Fujita.

People only talked about Fukushima "in numbers and data these days", he added. "I want them to know that there are people behind those numbers who are simply trying to recover from this disaster."

Lack of data

Every day, after the weather forecast, radiation figures are broadcast on local news.

Levels in most parts of Fukushima outside the exclusion zone have fallen to below 3 milisieverts per annum (3mSv/year), according to Professor Akira Watanabe of Fukushima University, whose students measured the levels.

In many parts, it is lower than 1mSv/year which is the exposure limit recommended by the International System of Radiological Protection for the general public.

But scientists say they do not know enough about the dangers of long-term exposure to low-level radiation.

Professor Seiji Yasumura is conducting a health survey of more than two million Fukushima residents for the government.

He began the survey in June and so far has found no serious impact on people's health, including in the thyroids of children.

This is of particular concern as the nuclear accident in Chernobyl was linked to the development of thyroid cancer amongst local residents who had been children at the time of the explosion there.

"We hope to finish checking all 360,000 children within 2.5 years and we'll continue monitoring them every other year," he said.

But Professor Yasumura is also concerned about the mental health of Fukushima residents.

"The evacuation has doubled the number of deaths among the elderly," he said. "I believe it's due to the stress of moving, which is also a huge concern for children and pregnant women."

There have also been reports of bullying or neglect in areas where they evacuated to. Professor Yasumura experienced it first-hand.

"As soon as you say that you are from Fukushima, people have this 'don't touch' attitude," he said.

"My aim is also to give evidence that we are doing everything we can to address this issue and hopefully remove any unfair bias about people or products from Fukushima."

Decontamination

Authorities have meanwhile begun clean-up efforts to lower radiation levels.

This involves removing and disposing of huge quantities of soil and concrete contaminated with caesium 137 - a radioactive isotope which can remain in the environment for 30 years or more.

But again opinions are split on how much they need to clean up.

Some residents are demanding a mass clean-up operation to reduce radiation levels to zero - or the pre-accident level. But city officials say that is unrealistic.

"I understand their feelings but it is not practical," said Takahiro Hanzawa, who is in charge of decontamination efforts in the city of Date, 50km north-west of the nuclear plant.

"No one wants a dump site near their home and no other prefectures would take the waste either so instead of producing so much waste, we need to be realistic. Our aim is to bring it down to a non-harmful level."

Communications failure

Possibly the biggest challenge faced by officials seeking to calm local residents is the loss of public trust.

"The biggest problem after the accident was censorship," says Professor Tatsuhiko Kodama, the head of the Radioisotope Centre at the University of Tokyo who famously shouted at politicians during a parliamentary session on the crisis.

"Scientists or politicians or journalists didn't say what happened because they said they wanted to avoid panic."

Many residents as a result turned to the internet to learn about radiation, and safety debates are still being held in cyber space.

Bloggers have accused some scientists of parroting government policy, while experts say they face unwarranted criticism due to government incompetence.

"If we say that radiation levels have fallen, or if doctors say that radiation has had little impact on people's health so far, people label you pro-nuclear," said one professor.

"It may only be a few people making these accusations but it really hurts because we love Fukushima as much and we are doing our best to address all the challenges," said another.

The government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), both blamed for the sense of mistrust, only have one word to say - sorry.

"We were in a panic in both Fukushima and Tokyo," said Tepco spokesman Yoshimi Hitosugi. "As a result, our information got mixed up or we didn't actually have the right information to release."

"We apologise for causing any confusion but we never intended to hide any information from the public," he added.

That may be the case, but in Fukushima the sense of distrust looks set to continue for months if not years to come.