This could have been homecoming week in this pretty seaside town. Seven months after most residents fled as explosions rocked the nearby Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the Japanese government has declared it safe to return to Hirono.
But a week after the country’s Nuclear Disaster Minister lifted the government’s evacuation recommendation for Hirono and three other towns, no one has returned. The only people in Hirono are the same hard-core few who ignored the evacuation advisory all along, plus the teams of rescue workers who use the town as a base while they race to and from the battle to repair the four damaged reactors to the north.
For the rest of the town’s pre-disaster population of 5,500 – including the outspoken mayor – an assurance from Tokyo is nowhere near enough to persuade them to return. Most prefer to remain, for now, in cramped temporary accommodations further from Fukushima Daiichi.
“I don’t plan to come back, ever,” said a middle-aged woman who briefly visited Hirono this week to retrieve belongings from the two-storey home that she and her family fled on March 12, the day after the tsunami that set in motion the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. She paused to take in her abandoned home’s view of the ocean and its now-unkempt garden. “I’ll never feel safe here. I’ll never feel secure.”
The area where the government has lifted its advisory was one of three evacuation zones around the plant. The 20-kilometre radius around Fukushima Daiichi remains a no-go zone for the foreseeable future, as does a heavily contaminated corridor northwest of the plant that was later added to the mandatory evacuation zone. Once home to more than 100,000 people, the areas are expected to be uninhabitable for upward of two decades.
Hirono and the three other towns that the government is encouraging residents to return to are in a third zone, between 20 and 30 kilometres from the plant. Pregnant women and hospitalized patients were advised to evacuate the towns in mid-April, the rest of the 58,500 who live in the area were told at the same time to be ready to flee “on a moment’s notice.” All left immediately, with the exception of 300 steadfast residents, most of them elderly enough to claim they aren’t worried about the long-term effects of radiation.
Shifting official recommendations since the disaster struck – as well as new revelations about the scope of the disaster of Fukushima Daiichi that still make newspaper headlines on a near-daily basis here – leaves few locals willing to trust the latest assessment from Tokyo.
Hirono’s mayor, Motohoshi Yamada, is among those staying away for now. In his estimation, the order from Tokyo – announced by new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda – was made perhaps 15 months too early.
“The government’s figures on radiation are not that trustworthy. They’re not precise. My goal is to bring the radiation levels back down to what they were before March 11,” Mr. Yamada said in an interview at his administration’s temporary headquarters in the city of Iwaki, another 25 kilometres south of Hirono and away from Fukushima Daiichi.
In the past week alone, plutonium was discovered in soil 40 kilometres from the stricken plant and a local environmental group reported finding levels of radioactive cesium in the city of Fukushima, 60 kilometres from the plant, that were triple the level that requires sealing in concrete. Hirono residents whisper about sky-high cesium-137 readings rumoured to have been taken near the window of the local school.
A radiation dosimeter set up in Hirono’s near-deserted town hall bobbed around 0.09 microsievert per hour this week, a level that suggests annual exposure below the International Commission on Radiological Protection’s recommended limit of 1 millisievert per year. But few appeared convinced by an indoor dosimeter maintained by Tokyo Electric Power Company (better known as TEPCO), the same utility that operates the Fukushima Daiichi plant. “That’s just the indoor radiation,” snorted a 77-year-old woman who walked by the dosimeter clutching a bag full of bottled water. “There are hot spots all over town.”
Mr. Yamada said he wouldn’t recommend his constituents return to Hirono until the town’s upper crust of contaminated earth and pavement is scraped away, a cleanup that is expected to take until December of 2012. Only then – and barring any further setbacks – will Mr. Yamada advise people to go home.
“Restoring and revitalizing the town will take a very long time, but the situation at Fukushima Daiichi is still not solved yet,” he said.
Before the disaster, Hirono was best known for hosting J-Town, a soccer training centre used by Japan’s national team. Today, J-Town hosts 3,000 blue-uniformed nuclear workers, front-line troops in the ongoing effort to bring Fukushima Daiichi’s reactors under control.
Their escorted convoys to and from the crippled reactors provide the bulk of the activity on Hirono’s otherwise empty streets. Those working inside the plant provide little reason for optimism. “It’s endless, endless. The task will never end,” said a senior nuclear engineer who spends six hours a day, five days a week supervising the effort to make sure the reactor cores that partially melted down in March remain immersed in cooling water.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the nuclear worker said he wouldn’t risk having his own family join him in Hirono. “No matter how much they say it’s safe, as long as the soil contamination exists, I could not bring my relatives here.” And, he added, there remains the possibility of another explosion “if someone is careless or the cooling facility stops.”
Nightmare scenarios aside, some of those who have remained in Hirono throughout say they expect their town to retain its ghostly feel for some time to come.