By Simon Denyer
The twin natural disasters in March 2011 killed 16,000 people, and the subsequent reactor explosions sent clouds of radioactive dust spewing over thousands of square miles of northern Japan, causing 165,000 people to flee their homes across 12 percent of the prefecture. Agriculture and fishing industries collapsed as consumers steered clear of their products, and tourists shunned the region.
Most of the evacuees have gone home across the prefecture. Less than 3 percent — an area roughly twice the size of the District of Columbia — of the prefecture remains officially off limits: in the mountainous forests and ghost towns nearest the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
Huge swaths of topsoil have been removed. Potassium has been added to soil to displace the radioactive cesium that fell from the sky and to prevent it entering plants through their roots.
Japan has set stringent limits on the amount of cesium allowed in food, 12 times stricter than the United States. And an agriculture testing center in the city of Koriyama has analyzed 210,000 samples of local produce, including peaches, rice, asparagus, strawberries and beef from the danger zone. At the Onahama fishing port, a similar effort monitors fish from every ocean catch.
Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the ill-fated plant, spent two months after the nuclear disaster denying that a meltdown had occurred. TEPCO later apologized for a “coverup” that remains the source of much bitterness among people here.
Katsunobu Sakurai, former mayor of the nearby town of Minamisoma, said TEPCO gave out little information about the disaster during a chaotic evacuation that ultimately led to the deaths of 3,700 people, including many elderly people whose medical care was interrupted.
In 2012, TEPCO was forced to admit that it had failed to heed safety warnings before the accident, or even consider the risk of a large tsunami, because it feared doing so would undermine public confidence in the industry.