National Geographic Daily News
A photo of a woman returning to her home in Fukushima.

Kimiko Koyama, 69, returns to her home in Tamura, Japan, on Tuesday for the first time since she and other residents were evacuated due to radiation risk from the 2011 accident at the Fukushima power plant, 12 miles (20 kilometers) away.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ISSEI KATO, REUTERS

Patrick J. Kiger

for National Geographic

Published April 2, 2014

For the first time since Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power disaster three years ago, residents of a small portion of the surrounding restricted area are being allowed to return home, even though radiation levels remain elevated.

At midnight on March 31, the Japanese government officially lifted an evacuation order for a portion of the Miyakoji district of Tamura, a city about 12 miles (20 kilometers) inland from the nuclear plant. Some 360 residents are now free to return to their homes, according to the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. They were among 80,000 people from the surrounding communities who were forced to flee after the earthquake-triggered tsunami of March 11, 2011, inundated Fukushima, knocked out its crucial backup power, and set off a catastrophic accident and release of radiation. (Related:"Japan's Nuclear Refugees," and "Japan Reactor Crisis: Satellite Pictures Reveal Damage.") The vast majority of the evacuees remain barred from returning.

While precise measurements for Miyakoji weren’t available, other locations in the vicinity had radiation exposure levels as high as 80 to 170 microsieverts per hour about one week after the Fukushima accident, according to the Harvard Health Blog. (A single chest x-ray is about 100 microsieverts.)  (See related, “Is Japan Reactor Crew Exposed to Fatal Radiation?”)

Tons of Soil Removed

Before the residents were allowed to return this week, an extensive cleanup was undertaken in the Miyakoji district. (Related photos: "The Nuclear Cleanup Struggle at Fukushima")

Kathryn Higley, a professor of nuclear engineering and radiation health physics at Oregon State University, said that workers removed tons of surface soil, grasses, and plants that had been contaminated with airborne radioactivity released by the nuclear plant during the partial meltdowns and explosions. That material was packed in plastic sacks and sent to storage facilities for containment while its radioactivity decays. Additionally, the crews hosed down the exteriors of buildings and other areas where people might have contact with such contamination. Typically, such operations could reduce radiation exposure levels by 10 to 100 times, she said. (See related, “One Year After Fukushima, Japan Faces Shortages of Energy, Trust.”)

A photo of a man walking past waste containing radiated soil and debris in Fukushima.

A man wears a protective mask, gloves, and boots Tuesday as he walks near a stash of waste bags in Tamura containing contaminated soil, leaves, and debris.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ISSEI KATO, REUTERS

Even so, the radiation that remains at Miyakoji is still probably much higher than what it was before the accident, according to Kelly Classic, a health physicist for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and an expert on radiation exposure.  She said that the most recent testing at Miyakoji showed a range between 0.1 and 0.5 microsieverts per hour. On an annual basis, that means that residents are exposed to as much as 4,380 microsieverts per year, which Classic said is about ten times the normal background radiation level for the area. (Related: "Photos: Rare Look Inside Fukushima Daiichi")

These levels are far below what it would take to cause immediate illness, but the risk of long-term exposure to low-level radiation is unclear. Studies of radiotherapy patients and others indicate that there is a significant increase in cancer risk if lifetime exposure exceeds 100,000 microsieverts, according to the World Health Organization. A person exposed daily to radiation at the high end of the levels now seen at Miyakoji would reach that lifetime exposure level in fewer than 23 years.

Bid to Avoid Payments?

Classic and other experts said they were concerned that returning residents might be exposed to levels of radioactivity higher than 0.5 microsieverts per hour if they drank water from local aquifers or ate vegetables and meat grown in the area. (See related, “Fukushima’s Radioactive Water Leak: What You Should Know.”) Surface measurements by government inspectors, who walked around with hand-held radiation meters, might not have detected contamination from such sources, Classic said.

Residents have expressed mixed feelings about the lift of the evacuation order, according to published reports.

Edwin Lyman, a physicist and a senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he was concerned that the Japanese government was reopening Miyakoji and other restricted areas before they were fully cleaned up, out of a desire to stop paying compensation to evacuees. According to Asahi Shimbun, the government’s Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund has lent Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the utility that operated the stricken plant, 1.5 trillion yen ($14.63 billion) so far to pay compensation to people in restricted areas. Lifting the evacuation orders would hasten the end of those payments.

“People should not be forced to make a choice between losing their homes and not being compensated, and moving back to a region that’s still more radioactive than it was before the accident,” Lyman said.

Asahi Shimbun also reported that the government plans to lift the evacuation order for a portion of the village of Kawauchi inhabited by 276 people in late July. Other communities with evacuation orders that may soon be lifted include Katsurao, Nahara, Iitate, Minami-Soma, and Kawamata.

Other communities, such as Okuma and Tutaba, closer to where the plant is located, are unlikely to see their restrictions lifted anytime soon, because the radiation levels still remain too high, the Japanese paper reported.

17 comments
Barry Cohen
Barry Cohen

The radiation levels vary depending on the wind, weather and ocean currents. Make no mistake, because of Fukushima the radiation levels have been growing higher often to unsafe levels! Other power plants in the USA are also leaking radiation into our environment! Anyone that is concerned about being radiated from the nuclear power plants in the area they're living in or from eating Pacific Ocean fish and seafood should think about doing a radiation detox with the natural mineral called zeolite that has been proven to safely remove both radiation and heavy metals from the body while doing it much better then any plant or clay based detox products! Zeolite is without question the best choice for removing radiation from the body!

Barry Cohen
Barry Cohen

The people that run TEPCO should be thrown in prison for crimes against humanity! Instead they are being given more Nuclear Weapons in the name of energy to screw up again! Just after Fukushima started its meltdowns an American internet company offered both TEPCO and the Japanese Government a 100 percent FREE shipping container filled with the radiation and heavy metal detox mineral called Zeolite! This FREE zeolite would have been able to remove radiation from thousands and thousands of radiated peoples bodies! GUESS WHAT? Both TEPCO and the Japanese Government refused the FREE Zeolite! These people are not responsible enough to operate nuclear power plants! They wont even take care of the people that they have already damaged when they contaminated them with radiation! I for one have absolutely NO desire to suffer because of TEPCO's Gross Negligence !

Justin Case
Justin Case

Look, I don't have any affiliation with the nuclear industry or utilities, but if I did, I would be tarred and feathered for saying anything in defense of TEPCO or the government. People would assume some agenda or profit motive or whatever.


But time and again, articles will cite the Union of Concerned Scientists, who have a longstanding policy against nuclear power and who are willing to provide all kinds of information and soundbites that are biased. Why is that? And Asahi Shimbun, which is heavily cited here, actually sponsored a "fact finding commission" that was heavily biased against the government, did not even interview TEPCO , and which was led by the Asahi editor in chief.


None of these people live here! 


These people in Fukushima want to go home. Somebody tells the government to be afraid, so the government makes everyone wait a little longer, and this has been going on for three years now. If a person has a 1% chance of getting cancer from radiation, and that is significantly increased (DOUBLED!) to 2%, is that going to affect their quality of life? If that occurs over 23 years, well, what does that mean to a 50 year old? A 70 year old? Are they better off just killing themselves?


Because of my status in this country, I cannot advise civil disobedience, but knowing what I know, if I had been evacuated from most areas in Fukushima, I would have moved back long ago, legal or not. The radiation in 90% or more of Fukushima is not bad enough to warrant staying away.

Justin Case
Justin Case

I live in this area, and for about three years now, I have seen this story reported by people who don't know the area, the event, or the people much at all. I really want to make sure that we have the narrative straight:


"forced from their homes"

After the strongest earthquake ever reported in Japan, and a huge tsunami, the government ordered the orderly evacuation of all residents within a 20 km radius of Fukushima Daiichi. That was done with no injury or disorder. The government advised all residents from 20 km to 30 km to remain indoors to avoid unnecessary exposure.

These decisions were strongly criticized at the time by the US government and many others, who, in their panic, thought that evacuation out to 80 km was the prudent course. 

Cooler heads prevailed, fortunately, and I have not lived the last three years as a refugee. 


"are being allowed back"

The Japanese government has been hounded ceaselessly to guarantee safety in every form to all people wishing to return to their homes. No measures seem sufficient to please everyone. No data are trustworthy enough apparently. People outside of Japan continue to create fear, uncertainty, and doubt related to the process of letting these people return to their homes. 

Every time people seem set to return, some new report from an international agency warns that all radiation is dangerous, and the whole process has to start again. 37 people have committed suicide as a result of the stress of being away from their homes. Politically, it is easier for the government to let them die homeless than to fight a PR battle with Greenpeace. That is what has happened. 


"wonder if they are safe"

Ah yes. We wish these people well, but let's make a spectacle of their fears and insecurities to further our own agendas. 

As I said, these people are killing themselves in droves by stress-induced suicide. Most are far beyond reproductive age, face miniscule risks of cancer, and yet if 99 out of 100 wanted to go home again, they would be prevented by government order if 1 insisted on a written guarantee that they won't get cancer some time in their life. 


In short, these people are prisoners of fear. Given the choice to live their own lives as they see fit, they would return to their homes. The government has prevented ALL of them from doing so because SOME of them are, in my opinion, irrationally fearful of the radiation levels prevailing in many areas. These people deserve the CHOICE of deciding where they want to live. They don't have that.


Christian Gonzalez
Christian Gonzalez

Nuclear power plants should all be closed down. Another one of these accidents is bound to happen in the next ten years if somebody is not careful. Also, please don't give me a whole lecture on how they should not be. I know the reasons they are built, I just think there should be alternatives.

James Save
James Save

The science magazine "Newton" 2014 April, gives detailed explanations about the disaster. How reactors stopped and why melt-downed. The rods that prevent fission was designed to rise up from bottom of the rod room. and it was operated by power from supply buildings. after tsunami, all power supply and other alternative power devices' stopped. so the rods were not functioned. in the magazine, you can see the inner structure of the reactor, so you can understand why the disaster happened, how the reactor's unsafely designed considering it nuclear that can twists human and all species' fundamental element DNA.

Stuart Davies
Stuart Davies

Et tu, National Geographic? Should we be surprised to see you participating in the massive corporate governmental/media propaganda campaign to whitewash the truth about Fukushima in hundreds of ways?


You say that residents are being "allowed" to return to their homes. But you don't mention that the government is refusing to continue giving them any financial assistance to live anywhere else, yet will provide them with a stipend if they return to live in the contamination. Most of these people have mortgage payments they must make regardless of whether they live there or not, and of course will receive no compensation for their contaminated property, nor can they hope to sell it. A hell of a choice, isn't it?


And you fail to mention the fact that the government has just recently done a radiation survey in these areas, which turned up much higher radiation levels that were expected, and much higher than you report here. Data which the government is still not releasing, and instead is "adjusting" their calculations, by reducing the estimated amount of time a resident would spend outside on a daily basis.


How about the fact that the Japanese government has recently imposed harsh penalties for journalists who publish information relating to the Fukushima disaster that the government has set off limits, or anyone who leaks such information? Or the fact that journalists and academics are being placed under tremendous pressure not to investigate such things as radiation levels and health effects of radiation?

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

I still don't understand how a nuclear reactor, Which makes electricity, Can lose power when it is still operating and making power! I also fully understand how reactors work having been in the Navy aboard a Nuclear powered submarine. I also know that the reactors operate completely in different ways. HOWEVER, All reactors are controlled by the control rods which prevent the reaction from getting out of control. Why is it so difficult to design a reactor with a fail safe gravity operated control rod device that would automatically drop the control rods into the reactor in case of power loss by simplely letting then drop down by gravity. It seems like a simple solenoid that is held in place when power is on and retracts if power is lost, Letting the rods to drop down and stop the reaction!?

Justin Case
Justin Case

@Barry Cohen  

Zeolite is clay. Japan produces a lot of its own zeolite, and it is "free", as in "dirt cheap." Zeolite is useful for storing nuclear waste, and it expands when wet, but it was not particularly useful for what the Japanese people needed at that time, certainly, but they produce plenty, and had plenty. I am sure they refused politely. 


To my knowledge, eating it has no beneficial effects. 


Japan was offered a lot of things after 3/11. There was a lot of snake oil from Russia, and dosimeters that did not work. It even got a lot of advice and backseat driving from a lot of people, only some was well intended.


These people should be allowed to go home. The government is being overly cautious because of the kind of rumor mongering we see here.

Deb Daniel
Deb Daniel

What if you are wrong? What if the radiation today is worse and "they" are lying to avert economic disaster for their greed?

Justin Case
Justin Case

@James Save  The magazine shows that the reactors SCRAMMED correctly. Unfortunately, even though the reactors were in an OFF condition, they were still not cooled properly. 


If you look at the magazine carefully, they explain that the earthquake was not the proximate cause. The tsunami swamped the generators and no other generation was available. The quake wrecked transportation to the plant AND the tsunami swamped the generators AND the entire grid for the whole region went off line. If any one of those had not been true, there would have been no meltdown.


If you think that the 9.0 quake was the cause, then how do you explain Onagawa? It was much closer to the quake and on the coast. It has the same design as the Fukushima reactors. There was no meltdown. Reasons 1 and 2 above did not occur.

Justin Case
Justin Case

@Stuart Davies  

Ah yes. Secret data that the government is not releasing!

I read a Japanese daily paper that has had radiation readings for the entire region every single day since Mar. 14 or so. It looks like a Southern California surf report. Denver has higher radiation levels than most of Fukushima. 


If there were any secrets, believe me, they would have been reported. The media have been relentless searching for radiation, cancers.... anything to make things look worse. The scientific community is eager to find something and catch someone in a lie. The truth, alas, is very boring. All I get is surf reports and reports of suicides caused by stress from rumors.


I am not aware of any harsh penalties for journalists of any kind. I am in favor of full public disclosure of any related information. News media nationwide are critical. I don't see the problem.

Justin Case
Justin Case

@Dwayne LaGrou  

Dwayne, they were designed to stop generating power in the event of an earthquake. They did just that. It is called SCRAMMING and all reactors in the region did so successfully. 

As you might know, the rods and environment remain extremely hot. When their coolant water boils away, it all gets even hotter. 


One last thing. The entire region lost electrical power after the quake. I was without power for three days, and I live about 60 km away. For that reason, the grid could not supply power to cool the plant. 


It might seem odd to you that "nothing worked right," but it was a horrendous quake, a 1000 year tsunami, and it overwhelmed THREE backup systems. Just for perspective, 20000 people died that day, which is the number of Americans who died on 9/11, and in Iraq, and in Afghanistan..... DOUBLED. Not one of them died from radiation.

James Dykes
James Dykes

These types of reactors have been designed and tested, but the projects were shut down (can't remember the reason why, but I know it was political...) The Daiichi reactor was based on a 1960s model reactor. I highly recommend watching "Pandora's Promise", it was a very enlightening film about the history and misconceptions of nuclear power.

Deb Daniel
Deb Daniel

Never mind, I see you know everything

Justin Case
Justin Case

@Stuart Davies  

I have read that paper daily since BEFORE Mar. 14, 2011, but it has run the map with radiation levels every day since that day. 


I looked at it today again just now. Near the plant (about 20 km), levels are still generally 3 to 4 times higher than background levels in most places. There are a few worse places, but not many, and they are not large areas. Most of the map of several prefectures shows background or near background levels. 


Hysteria prevents these people from getting back to normal life, tending fields and orchards and taking care of their communities. This loose talk of deceit and death is harmful to these people and it should be stopped. They have been through enough and they just want to go home. 

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

I understand what you are saying completely, my only question is that nobody thought that having the control rods rise up from the bottom of the reactor instead of lowering down from the top could make it difficult to shut it down in a worse case scenario. It just seems like common sense to have a fail safe way of having the rods inserted to keep anything like this from happening. I realize that it would change the design, but it just makes common sense to have the ability to do it without power.

Recent Energy News

See More at The Great Energy Challenge »

The Big Energy Question

Share Your Opinion »

The Great Energy Challenge

The Great Energy Challenge is an important National Geographic initiative designed to help all of us better understand the breadth and depth of our current energy situation.

Energy News, Blog and Interactive Features »

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »