Youth of Fukushima wonder whether to stay or leave

FUKUSHIMA, Japan — Ko Saito is in his final year of high school in Fukushima and sees a bleak future for his native province.

“I am very scared of the radiation,” the 18-year-old said while waiting with friends near the city’s train station. They discussed whether to stay or leave a region devastated by the meltdown of a nuclear power plant that was crippled by a killer tsunami six months ago. “I want to be tested [for radiation levels] to know more about my true physical condition, but they are not doing that yet,” he said. “I want to go to Sendai, because I fear radiation levels in Fukushima are higher than they are saying.”

Mr. Saito reflects the fears of teenagers throughout Fukushima. They want to know more about the real risks of radiation in their home province and don’t always believe official statements about the situation at the reactors. Given the shadow hanging over her native region, Natsumi Hirano, 17, wants to go to Italy to study Italian cooking and to get away from radiation fears that likely will concern her generation for years to come. “Maybe the future is better there,” she said of Italy. “I don’t want to think about radiation my whole life.”

Yui Sato, 18, also wants to be tested for radiation levels, but she plans to stay near her family and friends in Fukushima city, about 40 miles from the nuclear reactors damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. She hopes to study political science and law at a university there. “I am very scared, too, but I want to stay because there is nothing I can do about it, and all my friends are here, too,” she said.

Government officials, however, have sent out conflicting messages about when, if ever, residents will be allowed to resettle in homes within the 12-mile “no-go” zone around the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. Many people who fled their homes have relocated to other parts of the country.

Officials in Fukushima province said that 227 evacuees from the town of Kawauchi were allowed to go to their homes inside the danger zone this week to get winter clothes and other belongings and to clean up ancestral grave sites. Many who had to take buses the last time drove their own cars this time. Staff at a local athletic center tested radiation levels in tires and other parts of the vehicles; they reported no cases of cars needing decontamination. Many parents, teachers and school administrators across Fukushima, however, fear contamination levels are higher and more hazardous than officially reported.

Schools have canceled many autumn sports festivals, normally held outdoors on school playgrounds and athletic fields. Some schools that forbid students to eat or play outside held events indoors in the gym. Schools outside Fukushima province also have canceled events. The board of education in Kashiwa, in Chiba province neighboring Tokyo, has advised schools to shorten practice hours outside and eat lunch in gyms and classrooms rather than outdoors.

Goshi Hosono, the minister in charge of the nuclear crisis, told a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna last week that a “cold” shutdown of the stricken reactors could be reached by late December, a few weeks ahead of schedule. “We are steadily bringing the postaccident situation under control,” Mr. Hosono said.

To achieve cold shutdown, the government said temperatures must remain below 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Tokyo Electric Power officials said temperatures Sept. 20 were under that at two of the damaged reactors and slightly higher at a third. The students interviewed in Fukushima city say they are sick of how radiation fears have tainted what should be the most cherished times of their lives. They also are worried about job prospects in an area where the economy and real estate values are likely to be in decline for years.

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