Japan city on border of nuclear no-go zone fights for survival

MINAMI SOMA, Japan Sun Sep 11, 2011 9:35pm EDT

An aerial view of the earthquake and tsunami damage at the coastal town of Minami Soma March 12, 2011. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

An aerial view of the earthquake and tsunami damage at the coastal town of Minami Soma March 12, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

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MINAMI SOMA, Japan (Reuters) - A line dividing the no-go zone around the Fukushima nuclear plant and the area deemed safe from radiation cuts right across this coastal city but the "good" part is starting to look very much like the ghost town on the other side.

Six months after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake unleashed a deadly tsunami that triggered meltdowns and radiation leaks at the Tokyo Electric Power's complex, Minami Soma, a city just a half an hour's drive away, struggles to stay alive.

In the part that was meant to carry on as normal, shuttered shops and eateries alongside a stretch of road that leads to a checkpoint at the entrance to the restricted 20-km (12 mile) area shows that it is not enough just to declare it safe.

"People want the government to show crystal clear directions and to come up with a road map, stating finally which areas are inhabitable, which are not and why," says Tomoyoshi Oikawa, 51, assistant director of Mimami-soma municipal hospital

Now nearly half of its 70,000 residents are gone, including doctors, nurses, teachers and officials needed to run the city's basic services, and corrosive mistrust of officialdom and sheer challenges of everyday life threaten to drive even more away.

Right after the meltdown of Fukushima reactors the authorities imposed the no-go zone, slicing off part of the city. Later, they advised the elderly and children from the 20-30 kms (12-18 miles) range to move away and the rest to be ready to leave.

Thousands still live in a limbo, gripped by fears of radiation contamination and uncertainty about their future.

"If we, as doctors, don't explain things properly to our patients, we can be sued. But the government, which has determined the lives of at least 200,000 by its post quake decisions, has failed to explain its steps to us so far," said Oikawa.

Oikawa was born in Fukushima prefecture, earned his degree there and is determined to "have his bones buried" there.

Not everyone is as committed. The exodus to other parts of the region and Japan is creating a vicious circle where those who stay find it increasingly hard to hang on.

"I have only 140 out of the former 240 staff," said Oikawa, at his desk in the corridor where an emergency response bureau created in March still operates, staff and patients passing by and a radiation map and helmets behind.

Even before the disaster, the area suffered from a shortage of doctors and now its main hospital operates at a third of capacity, struggling to cater to patients worried about the impact of radiation.

EXODUS

The long shadow of the Fukushima plant, where engineers still fight every day to stabilize the reactors and limit radioactive contamination has sparked an exodus of young people and families with children. Only around a half of the secondary and primary school students and as little as twenty percent of children of kindergarten age have returned after they were forced to evacuate in days after the explosions.

Official readings show radiation levels of around 0.3 microsieverts per hour are higher than before the accident or in Tokyo, 250 kms (150 miles) away, but are well within safety limits.

But few people trust official data.

"We haven't let them play outside for the last six months," said Yuka Nagakawa, 27, teacher at an after-school club in Minami Soma located in a building now crowded with students from four other schools from the evacuated areas.

"Many mothers are especially concerned about the internal radiation exposure and they bring their own water bottles to school," said Nagakawa.

It took the government in Tokyo nearly half a year to say that it planned to halve radiation over two years in contaminated areas, removing soil, plants and trees in an area spanning thousands of square kilometres.

Changes in official safety guidelines and the months it took the authorities to produce a plan for the nuclear clean-up has bred deep distrust toward the government.

Many children in the after-school club come from families that live in temporary housing or evacuation centres, grappling with the trauma of the disasters, nagging aftershocks and constant moves from one location to another.

"You can see it in how they play. Children shake their dolls, shouting 'dadadada' as if an earthquake struck, or they act like they drowned in the tsunami," says Nagakawa.

"Sometimes they even pretend the nuclear plant has exploded and talk to each other about things like microsieverts," she adds.

"We let them carry on, because that's how they're trying to deal with the situation."

One of the schools right on the border of the 20-km evacuation zone hosts around 40 evacuees who fled the vicinity of the Fukushima plant and are still waiting to be moved to temporary housing.

They also don't know if they'll ever return to their homes.

"If there is a possibility that people's health could be in danger, the government shouldn't encourage their comeback," said Iwao Hoshi, who runs the evacuation center.

"It should once and for all stop sitting on the fence and tell the people whether they can stay or if they should go."

(Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Jonathan Thatcher)

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