Image: Fukushima
Hiro Komae  /  AP
The crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant overlooks a graveyard and farmland in Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 17. Having survived the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, most of Futaba was intact, but thousands had to evacuate the city in the wake of radiation warnings.
updated 4/23/2011 3:13:22 PM ET 2011-04-23T19:13:22

Under a brilliant, cloudless sky, a half-dozen cows and a pony wander freely, batting the flies off their ears and chewing on fresh green sprouts. A pair of friendly Shiba dogs — cautious for just a moment — trot up and wag their tails, expectantly awaiting scraps of food. At the entrance to Main Street is a sign with the town's motto: "Nuclear Power is the Energy of a Bright Tomorrow."

But a block down, an old house has collapsed. Its roof sits in the middle of the road like an odd little pagoda.

Someone should be doing something about that.

Someone should be doing something.

It is three o'clock in the afternoon. There should be children laughing as they walk home from school, and young mothers chatting as they savor those last minutes of leisure before their sons and daughters return to be fed snacks and hustled off to after-school judo lessons, or soccer games or dentist's appointments. There should be shop owners inside the tea houses and inns. There should be old people sitting outside enjoying the warm sunshine.

There should be people, but everyone is gone.

Image: Damaged Japan home
Hiro Komae  /  AP
A downed electrical pole lies on a house in Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan on April 17.

In the distance, rising above the hilltops, above the bamboo groves and the power lines, the exhaust stacks of the nuclear plant — the reason why no there is no one here — poke at the sky. Gray and shimmering, they appear to be just another unremarkable part of the scenery in this rural Anytown, Japan.

Strangely still from afar, the plant was the epicenter of life here. It was a paycheck, a golden goose of tax revenue, a place where lunches were eaten, turbines adjusted, paperwork filed. It was the pride of the town, tiny Futaba's contribution to the national grid, the powerhouse that kept the escalators and vending machines running in far-off Tokyo.

But the plant no longer belongs to Futaba.

It is now the world-famous Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear power station, a battleground for soldiers and police and engineers in full-body radiation gear, goggles and gas masks. It has become as alien and foreboding as Mars, the fountain of an invisible poison that wafts into the air, seeps into the soil, creeps into people's heads.

It has changed.

And it has changed everything.


Radioactive Cesium. Iodine 131. Seiverts, micro and milli.

People at the shelters, the newly tossed-together community of refugees from Futaba, Tomioka, Namie, Okuma, Minami Soma — Japan's nuclear ghost towns — talk about them constantly. They joke, mostly, but it is the humor of the trenches.

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Many of these people, like people all up and down Japan's picturesque northeast coast, lost everything when the earth unleashed its power at 2:46 in the afternoon on March 11 — an instant frozen on the big clock above the entrance to the Futaba agriculture co-op — and sent the Pacific gushing in, enveloping their homes, their cars, their neighborhoods, their loved ones. They ran desperately for their lives, dashing for the hills and watching the world transform around them into a sea of ruin.

It was a once-in-a-millennium moment, a moment of history that will be studied and remembered and retold for generations to come.

For Futaba, it was just the beginning. Having survived the tsunami — most of Futaba was intact — its survivors soon learned from the megaphones of police patrol cars racing through their neighborhoods that they had to keep on moving as fast and as far away as they could.

Panic, 'meltdown,' and fires
The plant, hit by a tsunami three stories tall, was overwhelmed. Fires raged, buildings were on the verge of exploding. The word "meltdown" was being thrown about. No one knew what would happen next.

They just knew they had to get out.

"I thought we were going to die," said Hiroyuki Kohno, a radiation technician and one of the many residents of Futaba who was working in the plant when the quake hit and saw the tsunami from a hillside perch. "We didn't know what to do."

Kohno soon found himself in a mass exodus the likes of which Japan has not seen since World War II.

More than 80,000 nuclear refugees fled a 12-mile evacuation zone set up around the Dai-ichi facility and an additional 6-mile ring of heightened danger beyond that. In the ensuing weeks, as more radiation readings were compiled and the crisis at Fukushima Dai-ichi dragged on, the zones got bigger, expanding from the sea to the dairy lands in the mountains.

Thousands of Futaba residents made their way in those frenzied first days up the coast to Soma, on the edge of the hot zone, then to the local capital, Fukushima City, a two-hour drive inland over buckled and cracked roads, in cars weighed down with as many possessions as could be grabbed on the fly. The optimistic ones took nothing at all, assuming they would be right back.

Most ended up with friends or relatives or found public facilities on the outskirts of Tokyo, 150 miles away, where the mayor and the staff of the town hall had been forced to relocate their operations. But some stayed behind.

More than a month later, they live on the floors of the Azuma Sports Park, a shiny new gymnasium surrounded by forested hiking paths and a big athletic stadium on the outskirts of Fukushima City. Behind chest-high cardboard partitions, in cluttered cubicles lit by the bright gymnasium ceiling lights, they are hunkered down for a long haul.

Each partition, in big red letters, says: "Japan, don't give up."


Chernobyl. Three Mile Island.


Mikio Tadano bristles at the idea they will be forever linked.

An architect who moved to Futaba, population 8,000, when he was 15, he remembers when the plant was still under construction, back in the 1970s, just a mile from his home. For town leaders, it was a godsend, Futaba's savior from the slow death of Japan's coal industry.

Before the disaster, Futaba was even wooing the plant's operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Co., for two more reactors. Futaba's residents were encouraged to cheer for the Mareeze — TEPCO's women's soccer team — like they were hometown heroes. Mareeze posters still flap against the walls of Futaba's abandoned public gymnasium.

Even so, Tadano avoided it.

A one-time escape from stress and city life
The Futaba that Tadano loved was everything but the plant. It was a forgotten backwater, a place to raise a family, enjoy the pleasures of camping trips in the nearby mountains and watch life from the slow lane, away from the stresses and pressures of the city.

"It was nothing special, in a good way," he said, as his wife, Noriko, and 16-year-old daughter Sumire sat quietly in their empty rectangle at the end of a long, crowded hall in the Azuma shelter. "Futaba was a place to go to get away from everything else. It was just another little town that nobody really cared about."

But somewhere in his mind, Fukushima Dai-ichi cast a shadow.

"Like most Japanese, I grew up hearing the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," he said, his eyelids heavy with fatigue behind his wire-rimmed glasses. "I don't think any other nation in the world feels the same way about the word 'irradiation' as the Japanese do."

In Japanese, that word is "hibaku." Survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still called by a similar-sounding word, "hibaku-sha" — the "bombed ones." For decades the label alone, which has connotations of irradiation, was a social death warrant, its bearers shunned and denied jobs and marriages for fear that they would somehow contaminate those around them, or spawn mutant babies.

It's a senseless fear, but also a resurgent one.

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Soon after the crisis began, officials reported that Fukushima children were being turned away from schools in the places they had been forced to move to, Fukushima produce was thrown out wholesale, and even trucks with Fukushima license plates were refused service at gas stations.

Alarmed by the spreading panic, the government quickly brought in risk experts from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, internationally renowned professors who have devoted their careers to the study of radioactivity and the human body. One of them, Dr. Kenji Kamiya, director of the Hiroshima-based Research Institute of Radioactive Biology of Medicine, has gone on national television and led town hall meetings, sometimes twice a day, to assuage public fears. To each crowd — and the meetings are always packed — he stresses that Fukushima is not Chernobyl.

He explains the jargon, the units called Becquerels and Seiverts that run across the TV screens all day and rekindle the irrational bigotry.

"I hope people understand that the levels we are seeing are fairly low," he told a group of school officials and PTA representatives at one discussion group held a few days after the government raised its rating of the nuclear crisis to a seven — the top notch on the International Atomic Energy Agency's scale.

Kamiya's message, backed by reams of research and a firsthand knowledge of Hiroshima and Chernobyl, is surprisingly upbeat.

Though the crisis is still unfolding, radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant has claimed no lives. Perhaps it never will. And despite the fear-inspiring Level Seven announcement, only one-tenth of the radioactivity released by Chernobyl has been spewed out by Fukushima Dai-ichi.

Perhaps, as TEPCO has suggested, everything will start going right again. Perhaps everyone will be able to start going home in another six to nine months.

Japan, unlike any other country, has survived worse — a wartime nuclear attack. Hiroshima was hell itself. But within a few years, it was bouncing back. Today, it is a bustling metropolis, its past contained in a comfortable museum. Ground Zero is now a grassy park and a shopping arcade.

For those who survive, Kamiya said, life has a way of going on.

But will Futaba?

Reactors to be a relic of the past
There is talk of submerging the reactors and then, possibly, entombing them somehow. Few expect them ever to be productive again. They will have no bright tomorrow.

When Tadano fled, the possibility of a nuclear nightmare on top of all he had already been through was so unimaginable that he didn't bother to pack. He collected his family, slept the first night in his car in the next town over because of the aftershocks, then went home.

A few hours later, the sirens began to wail.

"It just came out of the blue," he said. "Even after the earthquake and the tsunami, the idea that there would be a crisis at the plant just never crossed our minds. For decades, they had told us over and over that nothing could ever go wrong. And nothing had. I figured we'd be back the next day."

Now, he said, Futaba is a frightening abstraction. To save their dogs and valuables, and frustrated by shelter purgatory, some residents began sneaking home for brief day trips. That has now been banned.

The closest Tadano has been is a furtive search on Google Earth.

"This disaster is still playing itself out, so I don't know what history's judgment will be," he said. "I'd like to go back. Maybe, like Hiroshima, it will be safe someday. But Futaba will never be the same. It will always be associated with nuclear disaster. It is contaminated in my mind."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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