Radiation fears keep Japan’s nuclear refugees from returning via AP

TOKYO (AP) — They feel like refugees, although they live in one of the world’s richest and most peaceful nations.

Five years ago, these people fled their homes, grabbing what they could, as a nearby nuclear plant melted down after being hit by a tsunami, spewing radiation. All told, the disaster in Fukushima displaced 150,000 by the government’s count.

About 100,000 are still scattered around the nation, some in barrack-like temporary housing units and others in government-allocated apartment buildings hundreds of kilometers (miles) away.

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That home is now in shambles. Although it survived the 9.0 magnitude quake on March 11, 2011, burglars have ransacked it and rats have chewed the walls. The last time she visited, the dosimeter ticked at 4 microsieverts an hour, more than 100 times the average monitored in-air radiation in Tokyo. That’s not immediately life-threatening but it makes Onoda feel uncomfortable because of worries that cancer or other sicknesses may surface years later.

Before the disaster, the government had set the safe annual radiation dosage level at 1 millisievert. Afterward, it has adopted the 20 millisievert recommendation of the International Commission on Radiation Protection set for emergencies, and 1 millisievert became a long-term goal.

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Tests with volunteers who wore dosimeters for two weeks in the town of Naraha found average radiation exposure to be at a rate of 1.12 millsieverts a year.

Government official Yuji Ishizaki, who is overseeing the lifting of evacuation orders, says he is merely following policy.

“There is no clear boundary for what is safe or not safe for radiation,” he said. “Even 1 millisievert might not be absolutely safe.”

Fukushima Medical University, the main academic body studying the health effects of the nuclear disaster, says no sickness linked to radiation has been detected so far, although sickness from lack of exercise, poor diet and mental stress has been observed.

The more than 100 cases of thyroid cancer found among the 370,000 people 18 years old and younger at the time of the disaster the university calls “a screening effect,” or a result of more rigorous testing.

Some scientists say that is unusually high, given that thyroid cancer among children is rare at two or three in a million. Thyroid cancers among the young surged in the Ukraine and Belarus after the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe.

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