Japan nuclear refugees confused by policy shifts

IITATE, Japan - After nearly two weeks of uncertainty, the recommendation finally came on Monday: Evacuate.

Officials in Iitate had insisted as recently as last week that the village of 6,200 was safe, even as they advised pregnant women and children under 3 to move to hotels farther from Japan's radiation-leaking nuclear power plant.

Now the central government, citing long-term exposure risks, is urging everyone to leave Iitate and four other communities that lie outside an earlier 12-mile evacuation zone.

The constant shifts in direction underscore two hallmarks of Japan's nuclear crisis: The flood of confusing government pronouncements that people both depend on and are increasingly questioning and the fact that even experts can't agree on what's safe when it comes to radiation.

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When the March 11 tsunami surged into the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, disabling cooling systems, the government was quick to declare an evacuation area around the complex. In the ensuing days, it steadily expanded the zone to keep residents away from the radiation and distance them from a possible meltdown.

Today, virtually everyone within the 12-mile radius has evacuated. Those in another six-mile ring beyond that are under instructions to stay indoors, and many of them have left too.

But the government's decision to recommend — not order — residents to leave, and its more recent waffling on whether it should endorse people returning for brief visits, has fueled confusion about the severity of the risk.

"I don't understand what they are trying to tell us," said Kayoko Iga, a 27-year-old part-time worker who lives within the 12-mile (20-kilometer) zone. "If it's dangerous, they should order people out and not let anyone in. But if they order people to leave, then someone will have to pay compensation. I think this is all about money, not safety."

The truth may lie somewhere in between. Fukushima officials say the zones reflect both safety and pragmatic concerns: Even the limited areas they cover have created a huge exodus and a logistical nightmare. Roughly 85,000 people have evacuated from affected areas in Fukushima, which is Japan's third largest state and fourth largest producer of rice.

Iitate Mayor Norio Kanno said that safety is the foremost concern, but acknowledges there are other factors.

"It's planting season," he notes. "This couldn't have happened at a worse time for us. We live off the soil. What are we supposed to do?"

Shortly after the tsunami, the United States warned all Americans to stay at least 50 miles away from the Fukushima plant, four times farther than Japan's evacuation zone.

Iitate, nestled in misty mountains about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the reactors, first attracted attention on March 21, when the Health Ministry advised residents not to drink tap water because of elevated levels of iodine.

Then on March 31 the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that radiation substantially higher than levels at which the U.N. nuclear agency would recommend evacuations had been recorded in Iitate, creating further concern.

Iitate's experience shows that radiation does not emanate in neat circles from a central point: It travels on winds and in rains and rivers. The strongest wind around the damaged Fukushima plant now blows to the northwest, in the direction of Iitate.

"They have learned from the example of Chernobyl," said Kunihiko Takeda, a professor of natural resources at Chubu University, noting that particles blew up to 500 kilometers (310 miles) from that plant.

The confusion affects people differently. For some, without a firm order to stay away, the desire for a return to normalcy sets in.

An increasing number are heading back to the evacuation zone to check on their homes, gather valuables or rescue pets. There is little to stop them: Few roadblocks prevent traffic from going toward the reactor site, and most of those mainly mark impassable roads ruined by the quake. Occupied with the search for bodies, police do not turn back the few cars that venture in.

"We are farmers. This is the land of our ancestors. Our family graves are here," said Yoshishige Suzuki, the head of the local agricultural cooperative. "We can't just up and leave."

Others feel betrayed and worry if they'll ever be able to return.

"The earthquake and tsunami were acts of god," said Chohei Sato, head of the Iitate village assembly. "This nuclear crisis was man-made. We have no future if we can't sell our dairy products, our vegetables, our persimmons. We cannot let this situation drag on."

Hideo Hayashi, a 48-year-old subcontractor whose home is just two miles (three kilometers) from the nuclear facility, said he believes the government's evacuation policy has been suspect.

"I worked at the plant, so unlike most people around here I know something about radioactivity," he said, saying the evacuation zone should be 30 to 60 miles (50 to 100 kilometers). "I think the government has been way too optimistic because they don't want people to panic."

He added: "I am pretty sure I will never be able to live near there again."