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What Recovery Looks Like In Japan Almost A Decade After Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It took less than one hour for the tsunami that devastated Japan in 2011 to reach shore. It took days for the damage to trigger multiple explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, sending radioactive material into the air and forcing more than 100,000 people to evacuate their homes. Recovery will take decades. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf went to Japan earlier this year to see how that recovery is going. Her stories will air later this week. And she joins us now to tell us what she found.

Hey, Kat.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So it has been almost 10 years since this earthquake, this deadly tsunami and this nuclear disaster hit Japan all at once. You spent a lot of time in Fukushima. Can you just tell us - what does life look like now in the areas that were affected?

LONSDORF: Well, life has returned there, to some extent. I mean, radiation levels have decreased. And the Japanese government has poured billions of dollars into cleanup there and started to reopen some towns. But it's very far from normal. Very few people have come back - less than 15%, and that's probably generous. And there are still accordion gates up everywhere to keep the public out of the areas where the radiation levels are still high. And if you peek through those gates, you see just a lot of crumbling buildings and rotting houses. And also, nature has taken over the space 'cause people were gone for years. So plants are overgrowing everything, and there's wild boar running in the street. Monkeys have taken over neighborhoods. It is not the same place that people left.

CHANG: Well, given all these concerns, I mean, who are the people coming back?

LONSDORF: It's mostly elderly people, to be honest, basically to live out their final days. They're just less concerned about the long-term effects of radiation. I met one man, Maasato Saki, in this planned community of new houses that's been built for people in one of these towns that's reopened. He's 98 years old. And he's living in this new house, not his old home. But he grew up in this part of Fukushima. His family lived here for generations. Here's what he had to say.

MAASATO SAKI: (Through interpreter) I can't go back to my old house. It's rotting behind gates, with wild animals running through it. I'm old. I'll be going up to heaven soon. So this is the closest I could get to home.

LONSDORF: He lived in several temporary shelters for years until he could finally get back here. His wife's grave is nearby. And he said he's just too old to restart life somewhere else. But I want to say it's not just doom and gloom there. One of my overwhelming takeaways during my time there was just how resilient people are, the people who, you know, told me that they wanted to bring joy back to the area because it was really the only way to start a community there again.

CHANG: Well, I am curious - how does Japan view nuclear power now? I mean, has what happened in Fukushima shifted people's views on it?

LONSDORF: Yeah. A lot of people in Japan are just against nuclear power now. They just don't trust that it's safe, and they think the risks are too great. I mean, Japan got nearly a third of its energy from nuclear power before this disaster. And now only 9 of its 54 nuclear reactors are back online. So Japan is facing a real energy conundrum. They've been importing a lot of coal and natural gas to make up the difference, which, you know, has climate scientists worried. It's not the right direction to go for reducing greenhouse gases.

And I think a lot of the tensions that are playing out in Japan right now in terms of power and the real costs of energy are things that the entire world is grappling with and will be even more so as climate change becomes a bigger and bigger threat. You know, we're all going to have to make some tough decisions about the best ways to power the planet going forward. And it's important that we understand what those decisions entail and what the risks are. I think Fukushima is just one example of that.

CHANG: That is NPR's Kat Lonsdorf. She was the NPR Above the Fray fellow this year. And all this week, she'll be bringing us her reporting from Fukushima, Japan.

Thank you, Kat.

LONSDORF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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