A line dividing the no-go zone around the Fukushima nuclear plant and the area deemed safe from radiation cuts right across this coastal city but the "good" part is starting to look very much like a ghost town.
An "Off Limits" sign set up close to a no-go zone at Minami Soma
As Reuters reports, six months after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake unleashed a deadly tsunami that triggered meltdowns and radiation leaks at the Tokyo Electric Power's complex, Minami Soma, a city just a half an hour's drive away, is struggling to stay alive.
Right after the meltdown of Fukushima reactors the authorities imposed the no-go zone, slicing off part of the city. Later, they advised the elderly and children living within the 20-30 kilometer range to move away and the rest to be ready to leave.
Now nearly half of its 70,000 residents are gone, including doctors, nurses, teachers and the officials needed to run the city's basic services, and corrosive mistrust of officialdom and sheer challenges of everyday life threaten to drive even more away.
Children resting on the rail track as they make their way to a temporary shelter
Tomoyoshi Oikawa, 51, assistant director of Minami Soma municipal hospital, was born in Fukushima. He earned his degree there and is determined to "have his bones buried" in his birthplace. Not everyone is as committed. The exodus to other parts of the region and Japan is creating a vicious circle where those who stay find it increasingly hard to hang on.
Trust in the government weakens
Changes in official safety guidelines and the months it took the authorities to produce a plan for the nuclear clean-up has bred deep distrust towards the government. Official readings show radiation levels of around 0.3 microsieverts per hour are higher than before the accident or in Tokyo, 250 kms (150 miles) away, but are well within safety limits.
But few people trust official data. "We haven't let them play outside for the last six months," says Yuka Nagakawa, a teacher at an after-school club in Minami Soma located in a building now crowded with students from four other schools from the evacuated areas.
Japanese police officers wearing white suits to protect them from radiation
"You can see it in how they play. Children shake their dolls, shouting "dadadada" as if an earthquake struck, or they act like they drowned in the tsunami," says Nagakawa. "We let them carry on, because that's how they're trying to deal with the situation."
Questioning nuclear energy
The scale of the March 11 disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant, the worst since Chernobyl in 1986, has made many worry about the safety of nuclear power, with the IAEA convening a special ministerial conference earlier in June this year.
Yukiya Amano, Japanese director general of the UN atomic energy watchdog, IAEA, has also been asked for a roadmap on ways to learn from Fukushima and to propose steps to ensure that the world's some 440 nuclear reactors in 30 countries are safe.
Later this month, a global safety "action plan" in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster and growing suspicions that Iran is developing nuclear weapons will dominate a meeting of the UN atomic watchdog next week. Also in focus for the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) board of governors in Vienna will be Syria, North Korea and tentative first steps towards a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.
Editor: Manasi Gopalakrishnan