Japan’s Nuclear Refugees
After the disasters of March 11, tens of thousands were ordered to leave their homes in the vicinity of the damaged nuclear plant, their footprints now frozen in the mud. An exclusive look at the land they reluctantly left behind.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking thing about the town of Namie is that at first glance nothing seems amiss. The blue-green meadows look lush. The gently flowing Takase and Ukedo Rivers glitter in the sun. The barbershop, train station, and fried-pork restaurant seem ready for business, a universe apart from the havoc and wholesale destruction visited on towns farther up the coast. In the states of Miyagi and Iwate, clocks washed ashore frozen at roughly 3:15 p.m., when the tsunami swallowed towns whole; in the humble fishing town of Namie the clocks go right on ticking.
Namie is one of five towns, two cities, and two villages that lie partially or wholly within a 12.4-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant—designated by the government as a no-go zone. Like all the towns in the nuclear exclusion zone, it essentially no longer exists. Of its 21,000 residents, 7,500 have scattered across Japan. Another 13,500 live in temporary housing in the Fukushima region. They’re among more than 70,000 “nuclear refugees” displaced by the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
The de facto demise of Namie began in the chaotic hours after the quake struck on March 11.
Namie is shaped like a bow tie, radiating northwest from Fukushima Daiichi. Guided by news of the unfolding nuclear accident on TV and by local officials, townsfolk drove to the highlands, the center of the bow. Heading for the hills is a lifesaving instinct for Japanese conditioned by centuries of tsunamis, but in this case it turned out to be a terrible strategy. Residents fled smack into the plume of air carrying radioactive debris. They crammed into shelters with little food until the 15th, after another explosion sent them fleeing farther west to the city of Nihonmatsu. Read more…