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Japanese Olympic cyclist trying to energize evacuees of quake-ravaged town

Kazunari Watanabe comes from the Japanese coastal town of Futaba, near the earthquake and tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. His fellow residents remain refugees over a year after the disaster.

Japanese professional keirin cyclist Kazunari Watanabe, whose home town of Futaba is within the 12-mile exclusion zone around the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, sits during an interview with Reuters before a training session for the London Olympics in Izu, Shizuoka prefecture, Japan, June 12.

Toru Hanai/REUTERS

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Even if Japanese track cyclist Kazunari Watanabe's longshot Olympic dream comes true in London, there will be no happy homecoming. The town no longer exists.

Watanabe's home town of Futaba sits next to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which was hit by the March 2011 earthquake and massive tsunami that followed, sparking explosions that scattered radioactive debris and forced the town to be evacuated.

Today, the coastal town remains a no-man's land, and Japan's government estimated that an exclusion order barring families from returning could remain in place for almost half of the town for another decade.

The 28-year-old, who slipped out of the town with dreams of making his fortune in Japanese professional cycling, now finds himself an unlikely spokesman for an effort to ensure that evacuees from Japan's nuclear disaster are not forgotten.

"The consequences from the devastation will continue for many more years, and it will be my life work to keep attention on the issue," said Watanabe, who missed the medal platform at the Beijing Olympics but still managed sixth in the team sprint and was feted by his home town all the same.

"I want to be power for the people in Futaba and Fukushima at this Olympics and will aim for the gold medal.

"I want to help them and bring them some light as an athlete."

When Watanabe was growing up in Futaba, most people either worked at the nuclear power plant or made a living selling things to those who did, like his father, who wove traditional tatami mats.


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