TOKYO (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Japanese farmers and fishermen from areas closest to a stricken nuclear power plant are starting to face a dire possibility: they may never go home.
More than two weeks after a huge earthquake and tsunami triggered the world’s worst nuclear crisis since 1986, prospects for a speedy resolution at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant look more distant by the day.
Plutonium has been found in the soil at the crippled plant 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, authorities said on Tuesday, the latest in a series of radioactive contamination revelations.
Radiation has been found in the sea off the plant, in vegetables and even in Tokyo tap water, though only briefly, the government said.
Each bit of bad news fans alarm in Japan and beyond but the anguish strikes much closer to home for the more than 200,000 people who live near the plant.
“These lands have come from their ancestors, and their affection for it is enormous,” said Tomo Honda, 36, a member of the Fukushima Assembly.
“The first step is to actually tell these refugees that they can’t go back but people are not facing that reality yet,” Honda said.
Honda has been doing relief work for the area’s people since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which left 28,000 people dead or missing.
More than 70,000 people have been evacuated from a 20-km (12 mile) exclusion zone around the plant and another 130,000, who live in a 10 km (6 miles) band beyond the exclusion zone, have been advised to leave, or, if they don’t, to stay indoors.
The government has not extended the mandatory evacuation zone but is coming under mounting criticism for not doing so.
Experts say an extension may be inevitable.
District governments in several of the towns within the 30 km zone have relocated and basic supplies are running short with many trucking firms reluctant to venture in to make deliveries.
And there’s going to be no quick fix, experts say.
“The amount of time it’s going to take to mitigate this accident is not measured in days or weeks, it’s measured in months or maybe even years,” said Robert Gale, visiting professor in the Hematology Division at Imperial College, London, after visiting Fukushima.
“It is not a practical solution,” he said of the government recommendation that people in the 20 km to 30 km zone stay inside.
After the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl, thousands of people were ordered out of a 30-km (20-mile) zone around the plant. Most have never gone home.
Today, the area is a weird, overgrown wilderness, teeming with wildlife but nearly empty of people and with its buildings decaying into ruin.
Some people fear that’s the fate that awaits Fukushima.
The area affected is a long, flat stretch of farmland and woods, sandwiched between the Pacific and a craggy range of central mountains.
Its economy is based on fishing, farming — particularly rice, but also fruit such as peaches — and the production of energy, both nuclear and conventional, most of it for Tokyo.
A ban on the shipment of vegetables is already bringing despair. A 64-year-old farmer hanged himself last week after saying “our vegetables are no good anymore”, Japanese media reported.
“These nuclear plants produce energy consumed in Tokyo. That’s why people are angry now,” Honda said. “We have sold our land for those electric plants and now people in Tokyo aren’t buying our agricultural products. People feel betrayed.”
While the government and many experts play down comparisons with Chernobyl, the radioactive substances being emitted are the same — iodine-131, caesium-134 and caesium-137.
Radioactivity in iodine-131 fully disintegrates in 80 days, but it can find its way rapidly into people through the air, through milk and through leafy vegetables.
Caesium is more troubling as it remains radioactive for more than 200 years, threatening people with longer-term exposure through food and from external exposure as it settles.
Fukushima officials declined to say whether they were working on a plan to extend the evacuation zone, saying they needed a central government decision.
The people who have left their homes can only wait, many in school sports halls, and ponder their fate.
“The curse of the people of Fukushima is that its name is going to be associated with radiation, maybe all over the world,” Honda said. “This is just a small country place, but now people know exactly where it is.”
Editing by Robert Birsel