Japan's radiation dilemma: Leave or live in fear

Baby screened for radiation
A toddler gets screened for radiation at an evacuation center in Fukushima, Japan March 18, 2011, as fears of radiation leaks continued at the quake-hit Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.
Kyodo via AP Images

FUKUSHIMA - For ten years, Akiko Murakami has lived a suburban dream -- growing flowers, as she raised four sons, in a leafy corner of Fukushima city. But now she wonders if it's safe to stay here. CBS News reporter Lucy Craft brought a Geiger counter, which measures radiation, to her house.

The home she and her husband built for their kids, ages 12 to 21, is surrounded by pockets of radiation -- known as hotspots.

"I'm always worried about my kids," she said. "I'm always thinking about whether I should leave here or not. I'm always thinking about that."

The government has lowered radiation exposure standards in the Fukushima region to 20 millisieverts a year. That's about the same amount as 50 mammograms. Fukushima City is 40 miles from the nuclear plant, the source of the radiation, but Japan is telling its residents that there's no additional risk. Many international experts and even the prime minister's own nuclear advisor disagree. They claim that Fukushima is no longer safe - particularly for children.

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Residents travelled to Tokyo to protest after the government loosened safety limits -- despite the fact that the long-term impact of low-dose radiation is unknown. The uncertainty has especially affected students.

Watari Junior High School has always stood out for its sports and academic achievements. But now it has a more dubious distinction - one of the most contaminated schools in Fukushima City.

Radiation fears have turned students into shut-ins with windows firmly shut. Girls sweat through kendo (sword-fighting) practice. Meanwhile, what used to be outdoor drills are now held indoors. In the school gym, the soccer team can barely squeeze in games, sharing cramped quarters with the track and field squad.

"My job is to watch over these kids and help them thrive," said Yoshinori Saito, principal of the school. "But under these conditions, I can't do my job properly. I'm angry and frustrated that there's nothing I can do."

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The government is trying to do something. Cesium-laden topsoil is now being removed from playgrounds. But in a city of 300,000, it's simply impossible to get rid of it all. So parents who can are voting with their feet.

At the Soramame daycare center, there are just a few kids left. Most of the children have moved out of town with their parents. The founder, Sadako Monma, told me she vows to carry on. But she can't pay her rent anymore.

"The rest of the world must be thinking, "What on earth is wrong with Japan? Where's the sense of crisis?'" she said "Why isn't our government protecting us?"

Akiko Murakami, meanwhile, is losing sleep over the worst-case scenario.

"My biggest fear is my children's health," she said. "I'm worried that after 10 years or 20 years, something would happen to their health; they would come down with cancer or I don't know what. And if that happens, I would be the person responsible."

And those fears are moving the family closer toward leaving their home behind.