As one of only four people still living in the no-entry zone around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, Naoko Ito is surprisingly opposed to lifting the ban and allowing residents to return to her hometown of Naraha in the near future.
“As a person who has been living in the town all the while, I can say this is not the right time for people to return,” Ito, 63, said. “It is incomprehensible that the government mulls removing the ban when it still cannot regain control of the monster (the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant).”
Naoko and her husband, Susumu, live in their home, 19 kilometers south of the plant, where they care for her 93-year-old bedridden mother, Toshiko Takahara.
Although the government declared a 20-km radius around the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant off-limits a year ago on April 22, the area with a population of about 78,000 was not entirely vacated.
Local governments included in the zone say that as of April 19, the only people living there are the three and a man in his 70s, who also lives in Naraha, as far as they are aware of.
Now, the government is looking at lifting areas with annual radiation levels of 20 millisieverts or below from the forbidden area.
Naraha is one of them, but about 22,000 people in seven municipalities in the zone and the surrounding area are expected to be forced to remain away for more than five years due to high radiation levels.
The Itos' home in Naraha illustrates the drastic change in the local landscape after the mass evacuation of people following the nuclear disaster triggered by the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami last year.
The grass in their garden is overgrown and their roof covered with a plastic sheet.
Susumu, 59, built a bamboo fence around the house to keep out boars, which began wandering in the town after the people fled.
To prevent radioactive fallout from entering their home, storm windows remain shut and a ventilation fan in the toilet is sealed with tape.
While their home has electricity, there is no gas and water. The couple has to go to a nearby fire station to get water.
Although their home is within the no-entry zone, the reading of radiation levels in their garden is 0.5 microsieverts per hour, lower than that in the prefectural capital of Fukushima, outside the zone.
“Every morning, I wake up with a sense of gratitude that we are still alive,” Naoko said.
The town of Naraha called on its residents to evacuate on the morning of March 12, citing the unstable situation at the plant.
In the afternoon that day, a TV news program aired footage of the explosion in the No. 1 reactor. Six days later, town officials in protective gear visited the Itos to persuade them to leave.
But they declined.
Toshiko has been bedridden for 12 years, and in that time has suffered a stroke and from dementia.
It is a tiring task for Naoko to care for her mother, including changing her diapers and helping her eat.
She sleeps on a couch in daywear next to Toshiko’s bed.
Naoko said they decided not to evacuate because she was worried of possible fatal trauma to her mother as there were reports that some patients died while in transit.
“I did not want to put the blame on others if my mother dies as a result of being moved from home,” she said.
Naoko has proved to been correct in her decision, according to a doctor who has been treating Toshiko.
“The risk of moving her is greater than that of radiation exposure,” the doctor, 55, said. “She was right about not moving her mother.”
Naraha is home to the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant, which was forced to suspend operations after the nuclear disaster.
Naoko’s family was not entirely free from ties to nuclear power.
Toshiko, as the first female member of the Naraha municipal assembly, did not oppose town officials’ drive to bring a lucrative nuclear plant to the town, while she served her term from 1961 to 1965.
To the impoverished town, the project appeared to be a way to lift its population out of economic hardship.
“Whether you like it or not, we, myself included, have to be aware of our responsibility in bringing the plant to our town,” Naoko said.
Her wish now is to care for her mother in her home to the end.
“I am happy just to talk with her and sing together,” she said.
Town officials said they initially were upset with the couple, who did not comply with the evacuation order. But the town issued a special permit for them to travel between the no-entry zone and the surrounding area.
Naoko and Susumu travel to Iwaki, a nearby city, several times a week to do shopping and laundry and to bathe.
“Nothing is more important than a life,” a town official said.
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