FUKUSHIMA - People worried that the residents from Fukushima would be discriminated against. And indeed, weddings were cancelled because the bride was from the nuclear evacuation zone, plant workers were denied apartments, friendships were broken.

The phenomenon doesn’t seem to be widely spread, but it does exists. It is one of the reasons why evacuees are still hesitant to come back to their homes in this contaminated region, even after part of the evacuation zone has been reopened.

“For me, I’m ready to come home,” says Junkichi Nagasaka, 62, who is currently living in temporary housing in Minamisoma, a city in northeastern Japan that suffered major damage from the March 11 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

[Temporary housing near Fukushima - Photo: Les Amis du Tohoku]

Nagasaka’s house is in a field that until July 2012 was in the 20-kilometer exclusion zone around the Fukushima nuclear plant. The contamination risk doesn’t really worry him. “But my wife doesn’t want to come home, though.”

Toshiyuki Takeuchi of the Janic organization, which helps victims of the Fukushima disaster, says couples have been torn apart in the aftermath of the disaster. “The father works in Fukushima and wants to come back. The mother is worried about her children’s health so she refuses. This could definitely lead to divorce.”

Age has nothing to do with it. Fusai Kuroki, 76, lives in Minamisoma and refuses to go back to her house, where radioactive levels reach 1.5 micro Sievert per hour. “I’m too frightened.”

[Fukushima in 2013 - Photo: jetalone]

These different perceptions show how hard it is to evaluate the sanitary risks of radioactive contamination. “Every child below the age of 18 has had a thyroid test,” says Hiroyuki Chubachi from the Beans Fukushima children’s organization. “A lot of them presented anomalies, cysts or nodules, but since it is the first time such testing has been done, we cannot really say if it’s linked to the nuclear disaster or not.”

Chernobyl comparisons

Tomoyoshi Oikawa, assistant director of the Minamisoma Hospital, agrees. “In Chernobyl, the problems linked to the nuclear meltdown only appeared four or five years later.”

The authorities are doing everything to minimize the danger. In a Feb 2013 report, the World Health Organization said there was an increased cancer risk in the regions closest to the Fukushima nuclear Plant. The report said there was a 70% increased thyroid cancer risk for females exposed as infants. The Japanese government responded by saying the report overestimated the risks and was unnecessarily stoking fears.

Those who stayed in the region are starting a new life despite the invisible danger. “Today, children are hesitant to play with snow or sand and they know they can’t go in the woods,” says Chubachi. But schools are progressively starting to lift the ban on outside play during recess. “This had to be done, because kindergarten teachers were starting to notice a rise in obesity, stress and a slowdown in the children’s development.”

In the village of Iitate, a village that was evacuated after the nuclear disaster, the town hall has been giving talks on contamination in primary schools and middle schools. Every food produced in the region is strictly controlled and banned if it is over 100 Becquerels per kilogram. No one here drinks tap water.