Environment & Science

On anniversary, depression and anxiety could be Fukushima's lasting legacy from earthquake & tsunami

A road leading back to the Togawas' old home in the seaside village of Namie is closed due to radioactive contamination.
A road leading back to the Togawas' old home in the seaside village of Namie is closed due to radioactive contamination.
Geoff Brumfiel/NPR

Two years ago today, an earthquake and tsunami triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Hundreds of thousands of people living near the plant were forced to flee. The World Health Organization recently predicted a very small rise in cancer risk from radioactive material that was released. For the nuclear refugees, though, anxiety and depression could be the more persistent hazard. Correspondent Geoff Brumfiel traveled to Fukushima prefecture and met victims of the accident to see how they are coping. He sent Shots this report.

March 11, 2011, is a day that Kenichi Togawa will never forget. He was taking a break from his job at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant when the ground started to shake. "The earthquake was very big, and also very long," he says. It scattered desks like Lego bricks and brought down ceiling paneling.

After making sure co-workers were accounted for, Kenichi, like other nonessential workers at the plant, headed for home to check on his family. The Togawas lived in the seaside village of Namie, about six miles from the reactors. Kenichi left work by car, but he soon abandoned it. A tsunami sparked by the earthquake had wiped out roads near the coast, and those that remained were clogged with people hurrying home. He walked for miles, all the while unsure whether his wife and three children were OK.

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He felt "a huge relief," he says, when he arrived home to find his family safe. But the Togawas' troubles were just beginning. After a fitful night, sleeping together in their living room, they were awakened in the early morning by a siren, warning them to evacuate. When Kenichi went out to recover his abandoned car, he was greeted by soldiers in gas masks. The family threw what they could into the car and fled.

Hours later, the Unit One reactor at the nuclear plant exploded, spreading radioactivity across Fukushima. The Togawas will likely never be able to live in their old home again.

At first they lived in a gymnasium in Kawamata town, about 30 miles away. For months, they slept in an open room with many other families and shared shower facilities and eating areas. People cut in line to get food, and others got angry when the kids played too loudly. "We were just like dogs and cats without chains," says Yuka, Kenichi's wife.

That was tough, but their current situation isn't much better. All five family members live in a tiny, temporary house that's roughly 300 square feet. Sixteen-year-old Rina says she often has arguments with her younger siblings, especially when they're settling down to sleep at night. "[The room's] just so small, we hit each other by mistake," she says.

Yuka is grateful to have a roof over her family's head, but she doesn't think of it as a home. "This is temporary," she says. "We leave our house in the morning and we come home and it's temporary. It's like floating in the air." She worries about her children. For now they are healthy, but she fears they may become sick from radiation exposure.

Kenichi is also having a tough time. He is more isolated now than he was before the accident. He spends hours each day playing video games. He has put on weight and drinks more than he used to. Other evacuees are doing worse. Many don't have jobs, and some have taken up drinking and gambling, according to Hiromi Yamamoto, an English teacher from Namie who fled to nearby Iwake City.

Public health officials believe that the stress and isolation the nuclear accident has caused may be more dangerous than the radiation itself. Big disasters are very difficult to recover from, says Ronald Kessler, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School who has studied the emotional fallout from Hurricane Katrina. Over the course of years, mental health problems can get worse and worse. "If it's something that goes on for a long, long time as Katrina did, that's where you get into trouble," he says. "The Japanese situation looks like it might be a similar sort of thing."

Fortunately, life seems to slowly be getting easier for the Togawas. Kenichi has a new job, and the kids like their school. Yuka is working part time as a nurse. But what comes next for the family is far from clear. "When I think about just today, I can stay happy," Kenichi says. "But when I think about the day after tomorrow and my future, I feel like I'm in a pitch-black box."

For more, read Fallout of Fear (Nature).

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