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Fukushima ghost towns struggle to recover amid high radiation levels

Post-tsunami reconstruction and radiation cleanup could take 10 years, but officials say something has been permanently lost

Homes, shops and streets are deserted in the town of Namie, which lies six miles from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Photograph: Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Nearly three years after a major earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation leak devastated coastal and inland areas of Japan’s Fukushima prefecture, 175 miles north-east of Tokyo, Namie has become a silent town of ghosts and absent lives.

Namie’s 21,000 residents remain evacuated because of continuing high radiation levels, the product of the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, six miles to the south. Homes, shops and streets are deserted except for the occasional police patrol or checkpoint.

Like the setting for a Hollywood post-apocalypse movie, grass and weeds poke up through cracked pavements. At an abandoned garage, a rusting car sits on a raised ramp, waiting for a repair that will never be completed. A feral dog peers from a wild, untended garden.

Namie is nobody’s town now. Nobody lives here, and nobody visits for long. Even the looters have stopped bothering, and no one knows exactly when the inhabitants may be allowed to return permanently – or whether they will want to.

The 2011 catastrophe faded from world headlines long ago, but in Namie, Tomioka, Okuma, Futaba and other blighted towns in the 20-mile evacuation zone around the Fukushima plant, it is a disaster that never ends.

At the plant itself, recent leaks of contaminated water into the sea and a fraught operation to remove fuel rods from one of the damaged reactors have shown how critical the situation still is – and will remain during a decommissioning process that could take up to 40 years.

For Fukushima’s displaced population, the effects of the disaster continue to be deeply felt. The evacuation area was subdivided earlier this year into three zones of higher or lower radiation risk. In the worst affected zone, return will not be allowed before 2017 at the earliest.
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