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Beyond Japan's Fukushima exclusion zone, shuttered shops speak to radiation doubts

As Japan's Tokyo Electric and Power Company tries to recycle the highly contaminated water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, people just outside the exclusion zone won't let children play outside and worry about food contamination.

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The small town of Itate, Japan, is a ghost town on June 20, 2011. It is within the 20-to-30-kilometer zone from the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor that started leaking radiation into the surrounding area after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami damaged the plant. Radiation levels in the town are much higher than surrounding areas. Evacuation was initially voluntary, but soon will be mandatory.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

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Ichiro Monakata sits at a small table in his cramped and dusty village store and swats flies all day. Sometimes, for a change, he goes into a backroom to watch the daytime soaps on his television.

“You can see nobody comes here,” he laughs ruefully. “I’m alone.”

Mr. Monakata is one of the very few people still living in the bucolic countryside just outside the 12.5-mile radius exclusion zone surrounding the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where three reactors exploded after the March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. But fears of radiation have spread far beyond the hills around this hamlet.

The government says it is safe to live here, but with the invisible threat of radioactivity hanging over the area, hardly anybody wants to.

The dead, brown stalks of last year’s rice harvest poke from untilled paddy fields that at this time of year should be vivid green with a fresh crop. In village after deserted village, shops are shuttered, homes are locked and abandoned, mailboxes are empty.

Monakata says he is untroubled by the potential danger of the radiation that has leaked from the Fukushima plant to hang in the air and contaminate the soil. But few others in Fukushima prefecture are so insouciant.

What about the children?

In the small city of Date, 35 miles from the plant, the anxiety is palpable – especially among parents of young children.

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