Frustration grows as Japan’s nuclear evacuees wait and hope

By David Dolan

FUKUSHIMA CITY, Japan (Reuters) – With all the stoicism of a character out of Hemingway — one of his favorite writers — Mitsuharu Watanobe sits on a gymnasium floor in the city of Fukushima, and waits.

The retired school teacher was unlucky enough to be living just 25 km (15 miles) from the nuclear power plant that was smashed up by Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami, triggering the world’s most dangerous atomic crisis in 25 years.

Like thousands of others fearing that the crippled coastal facility could spew radiation into the atmosphere around their homes, Watanobe hurried inland to Fukushima City where he settled in at a sports complex now shared by 1,300 people.

“I lived through World War Two, when there was nothing to eat and no clothes to wear. I’ll live through this,” Watanobe said, sitting cross-legged on a blanket.

For all his stoicism, though, Watanobe’s patience is wearing thin.

Cushioned by blankets and using cardboard boxes as tables, he and his fellow evacuees read newspapers and watch television, seizing on scraps of good news to feed their hope of returning home and getting fed up with a government they say has been less than forthright about the nuclear crisis.

“The scary thing is the radiation,” Watanobe said. “There is a gap between what the newspapers write and what the government is saying. I want the government to tell the truth more.”

More than 70,000 people have already been evacuated from a largely rural area within 20 km (12 miles) of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, where engineers are working around the clock to avert a catastrophic meltdown of nuclear fuel rods.

The Asahi newspaper said that at least 60 people have ignored the order to leave the 20 km-zone, many of them staying to look after cattle or simply refusing to contemplate life in an evacuation center.

Another 130,000 people are within a zone extending a further 10 km in which residents are recommended to stay indoors. They have been encouraged — but not ordered — to leave, though they too may have leave their homes if the evacuation is extended due to worsening radiation levels.

There has been no clear progress in the operation to stabilize the reactors at the plant for days now, but authorities say the crisis is not getting any worse.

“We’re not told anything, we have to read the newspaper to find out what is going on, and I don’t know what has happened back in my village,” said 62-year-old evacuee Akira Mita, who is

living with his wife and three children in a narrow space cordoned off by cardboard boxes at the sports complex.

Mita, whose home is just a few kilometers from the wrecked plant, fled with his family at the first warning after the accident at the power plant.

Others, who lived further away, said they were initially led to believe they would be fine, but were later told to get out, increasing their frustration.

Tatsuya Ara, a 36-year-old who left his home with his wife and two small children, said he was initially unsure whether he had to leave his home, which is more than 20 km (12 miles) from the plant.

“The government should have been clearer,” he said, criticizing the authorities for ambiguous directions on what areas needed to be evacuated.

Watanobe said he was beginning to believe the government had been “too optimistic” about the crisis all along.

“The experts seem to be saying that this is much worse than we thought. You can’t just dismiss that as biased.”

(Additional reporting by Saoshiro Shinichi; Editing by Robert Birsel and John Chalmers)

Frustration grows as Japan’s nuclear evacuees wait and hope