Evacuees pack up their lives in the 'town left to die'

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The Independent Online

Tetsuo Sakuma has loaded his small pick-up with all it can carry. There's not much of value: a television, some books, boxes of clothes, snatched in haste from a home he may never sleep in again. "We hope to come back, but it's difficult to tell when," he says.

As he talks, he glances toward a hulking suite of concrete buildings nestling behind trees less than two miles away. The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant has driven him out of the house he has lived in all his life.

His grown-up son, Takashi, says hundreds of people from the area have moved to the city of Iwaki about 20 miles away, on the edge of the government-designated evacuation perimeter. "Almost everyone has gone," adds Tetsuo, tightening a rope around his belongings. "We only came back to get our stuff. The hardest thing is not knowing when we will return."

Around us, Okumamachi has all the appearance of a typical Japanese town. All that's missing is people. In their place, abandoned dogs roam the streets. Alien figures in radiation suits, gas masks and respirators peer from passing vehicles. A police car slows and the two masks inside tell the Sakumas, father and son, to get to safety quickly. "It's dangerous here. Please take shelter, for your own sake."

When the explosions at the complex began, the government declared a 12-mile evacuation zone around the plant, telling another 140,000 people living in the zone 12 to 18 miles away to seal themselves indoors. The declaration was considered arbitrary, unscientific, even callous. "The government is leaving us to die," an emotional local mayor in Minamisoma told the media.

Government spokesman Yukio Edano gave what was seen as conflicting statements on the dangers. Supplies stopped coming as deliverymen refused to drive in to the area, shops closed, government officials began driving around in protective suits. Those residents who had the means to leave did. Many old, poor and ill people stayed.

In the shadow of the plant, the few local people who venture back in cars to pick up their belongings wear pollen masks – akin to wearing socks while walking over hot coals. Some carry Geiger counters.

Last Friday, the Prime Minister's Office finally issued a voluntary evacuation order to residents in the 12-18 mile zone, after admitting that radiation levels in some areas outside 18 miles could exceed 100 millisieverts, a level considered dangerous over a period of more than 24 hours. The order was sent quietly the previous night "to avoid confusion", said Kyodo News. "I'm not confused, I'm just scared," says Takashi Sakuma. "You can't see radiation."