“The alarm is ringing. That means danger,” says Keiko Sanpei, above, with a nervous laugh as she looks at a meter which shows radiation levels, at her dairy farm, more than five times the health limit. “I was afraid when I first returned. But being with the cows, that fear goes away.”
Sanpei’s home is in Namie, a radiation hotspot 17 miles downwind of the leaking Fukushima nuclear plant. It is just outside the government’s mandatory exclusion zone, but the ground here was so contaminated during the crisis residents are now exposed to almost as much radiation as someone standing outside the plant’s west gate.
Namie has become a ghost town. The fields, normally a hive of activity in this season, are deserted. Roads are almost empty, apart from emergency vehicles and a police van that blocks the route into the 16 mile-radius exclusion zone.
Almost all of the 2,000 residents followed government advice to evacuate after the explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant on 15 March, but Sanpei and her husband were among a few dozen farmers who returned, more concerned for their cattle than their personal safety.
“I could hear the cows in my ears mooing. I couldn’t sleep. I was so worried,” says Sanpei as one of the herd licks her arm. “We came back after a week. Even though the radiation was frightening, when we saw the cows again we had peace of mind.”
Back then they were unsure of the risks. At the peak, in the worst affected areas of Namie, residents say radiation levels surged past 150 microsieverts per hour when it rained. But the government did not release data about radioactivity in the area until April.
“The government draws a boundary with a compass from the site of the reactor. But the reality is completely different. The most irradiated areas are in a line heading north-west from the plant. That includes here. But we only realised that in April,” says Sanpei.
She now has her own dosimeter. It shows radiation outside her home is 13 microsieverts per hour – 200 times the level in Tokyo and equivalent to having a chest x-ray every four or five hours.
Radiation readings are falling slowly as the situation stabilises at the nuclear plant. This week, for the first time since the earthquake and tsunami, radiation levels inside No 1 reactor fell low enough to allow workers to enter. But the crisis is far from over. Engineers are still battling to prevent further leaks from the four damaged reactors and pools of highly radioactive spent fuel.
Sanpei’s only precaution is to stay mostly indoors, where she is exposed to three microsieverts an hour. But she needs to go out to tend to the cows, though the milk has to be thrown away.
Hideaki Monma, another resident, has to borrow money from the bank to cover the daily loss of roughly 1,000 litres of milk. It is not just affection for the animals that keeps him in the danger zone. He has invested 30 years of his life in his herd. “We all want to evacuate. But if we leave the cows behind, then all we will take with us are debts,” he says. “Tokyo Electric [which operates the Fukushima plant] promise compensation but I doubt it will be enough. They have so many people to pay.”
The government has ordered the company to pay initial compensation of 1m yen (£7,580) each to about 50,000 families forced to leave the exclusion zone. Merrill Lynch estimates the final bill could climb to 11 trillion yen.
Monma is unsure, but not too concerned, about the effect on him of the radiation. Doctors found radiation in his throat – the area of the body most susceptible to contamination. “On a risk scale of nought to 10, it was just a one. It will be OK,” says his wife . “The cancer rate rises only very slightly with this level of exposure. I think it is acceptable.”
The government no longer thinks so. After ignoring earlier calls for the evacuation area to be widened, it announced last month that people in hotspots such as Namie must leave by the end of May.
Frustration was evident at a public meeting at the weekend between cattle farmers and officials from Tokyo Electric and the Fukushima prefecture. One farmer who had to abandon cattle inside the evacuation zone related the horror he found. “All my cows had died of starvation. The bodies stank. I’m furious. It is like losing members of my family,” said Takashi Sanbonmatsu.
So far only beef cows have been transported from Namie. No decision has been made about the dairy cattle.
“I think the government is waiting for them to die,” says Monma. “We don’t stay for fun. We think of the cows we have lived with. We want to look after them until the end.”
Many farmers say the fear over contaminated milk has grown to encompass discrimination against people from affected areas. Some spoke of carparks refusing vehicles with Fukushima licence plates and families cancelling marriages because they did not want a bride from an area with higher-than-normal radiation.
A sign on the wall of the meeting read: “Don’t give up after the earthquake. Don’t give in to nuclear power. Don’t give in to public opinion.”
Tokyo Electric officials have apologised repeatedly. The company president, Masataka Shimizu, went down on his knees to Namie residents last week. Such shows of contrition do not impress those whose homes are irradiated.
“I am angry as a result of Tokyo Electric. Our lives have been turned upside down,” says Sanpei. “We didn’t know very much about the nuclear power plant even though it was very close. But Tokyo Electric told us it was safe. They repeated that over and over. They did that to hide the danger.”
The government said this week it has no plans to abandon nuclear power, which supplies about a third of Japan’s electricity. It has ordered extra safety inspections and the decommissioning of three reactors at the Hamaoka plant considered vulnerable to earthquakes.
The residents of Namie are finally preparing to leave. They are not sure if they will ever come back.
Sanpei says soil samples near her home showed 30,000 bequerels of radioneuclides, which might make it impossible to grow fodder for cows. “The government says it will take a year to clear up. But cleaning up this land … will take a long time and a lot of money,” she says. “Even though I want to come back, I might have to give up hope of returning any time soon.”