In March 2011, several people had to abandon their homes in Nahara to escape radiation spreading from the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. Meltdowns in three of the nuclear reactors, 20 kilometers (12 miles) away, blanketed vast tracts of land with isotopes of iodine and cesium, products of nuclear reactions that are hazardous to health if ingested, inhaled or absorbed. After years of decontamination work, where teams remove topsoil, wash exposed road surfaces and wipe down buildings, the Japanese government will lift the evacuation order in September and declare it a safe place to live. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government aims to lift evacuation orders in other towns and villages by March 2017.
Health activists say despite government assurances, many areas still show highly-elevated levels of contamination, and are unfit for habitation. Environmental campaign group Greenpeace has carried out a study of radiation contamination in Iitate, a heavily-forested 200-square-kilometer (75 square miles) district that sits around 40 kilometers northwest of the crippled nuclear plant also being eyed for resettlement. The study suggests that only a quarter of Iitate has been decontaminated, predominantly roads, homes and a short buffer strip of woodland around inhabited areas.
The report revealed, "Levels of radiation in both decontaminated and non-decontaminated areas make a return of the former inhabitants of Iitate not possible from a public health perspective. A person living in the area could expect to absorb 20 times the internationally accepted level for public exposure. The levels of radiation in the forests, which pre-accident were an integral part of (life), are equivalent to radiaton levels within the Chernobyl 30-kilometer exclusion zone. Over 118,000 people were permanently evacuated from the 30km zone around Chernobyl in April 1986, with no prospect or plans for them ever returning."
The report further stated, "The woodlands of Iitate are acting as a long lasting reservoir for radiocesium and as a large source for future recontamination in the environment beyond the forest." Jan Vande Putte, a nuclear campaigner with Greenpeace, said, "That makes the very notion of decontamination problematic. There is a risk that the migration of radiation will recontaminate decontaminated areas."
However, the government data suggests that the contamination levels In Naraha, which is southeast of the plant, are much lower than Iitate. Many residents are eager to return and rebuild their community, according to a town survey. Pro-resettlement mayor Yukiei Matsumoto said, "The end of the evacuation order is based on citizens' real voices and plans to accelerate reconstruction. A prolonged evacuee life is not desirable." Supporters of returning back to Naraha point out that while the nuclear accident is not officially recorded as having directly killed anyone, the stresses and strains of evacuee life exact their own price.