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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

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Got your back: A nuclear worker spends time with his family near their temporary home in Tochigi Prefecture in April 2011 when he visited there. The family had evacuated from Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture. He later quit the business and now they are together in Tochigi. KYODO

Ex-Fukushima worker's new priority: nuclear family


It was at breakfast one April morning last year, soon after the family had evacuated from their home in Fukushima Prefecture's radiation-contaminated city of Minamisoma to western Tochigi Prefecture, that anxiety started to manifest itself.

First it was the 9-year-old girl who didn't want to go to the school she had just transferred to.

When her 32-year-old mother asked why, the girl stared at the ground and said, "I was told (by the other students) to stay away."

The mother had just heard days earlier from a friend who evacuated to Tokyo in the immediate aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that children were being bullied just because they came from Fukushima, where Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant had suffered three meltdowns.

When the girl finally returned to class about 10 days later after local volunteers took the issue up with the school, the mother said she assured her daughter that she would protect her no matter what happens.

"I just kept telling myself, I must stay strong" for my daughters' sake, the mother recalled.

But she and her daughters, the other one aged 6, were physically and mentally exhausted. The girls fell ill, and the mother suffered panic attacks.

Her 31-year-old husband, who was working for a firm affiliated with Tepco, had left to go back to help contain the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

At one point during his absence, his wife told him on the phone: "I don't think I can carry on any longer."

For two months, he was torn between staying on to help end the nuclear crisis or leave the job to be with his family.

Work had always been the priority for the husband, a mechanic who inspected and maintained nuclear plant equipment, even at the sacrifice of his home life.

The job entailed long hours and a lot of traveling, and the husband sometimes was home only once or twice a year. He took pride in keeping the equipment he handled up and running, and believed it was his duty to maintain the safety of nuclear plants.

Even on March 11 last year, when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit and tsunami warnings were issued, initially he still believed the nation's nuclear plants could survive mere earthquakes or tsunami.

The family's two-story house in Minamisoma was damaged by the quake and tsunami, and as it fell within the government-designated evacuation zone, the family fled to Tochigi. It was around the time when his wife and daughters fell ill that the husband was asked by his employer to help repair equipment at the devastated Fukushima plant.

He said he felt the urge to go, and told his wife, "I want to go restore it."

Deep in her heart, his wife said she wanted to say, "Don't go and be here to protect the family." But being fully aware of the nuclear crisis, she just replied, "It's all right; do as you like."

In late May last year, realizing his family was falling apart, the husband reached a decision. It all came down to his own wedding proposal 10 years ago, when he promised to protect his wife for the rest of her life.

"I'll quit my job," he told her, and reunited with his family in Tochigi.

Now without a stable income and not knowing when, if ever, they will be able to return to Fukushima, the family still has a lot to worry about. The husband, who still dreams of working his former job, feels indebted to colleagues still working at nuclear plants.

"I was determined to live my life as a nuclear plant professional, and it is not that I have given up on that," he said. "(But) I do not regret making the decision (to quit)."

A year sped by as the family gradually settled down, even picking up some local dialect in their daily conversation.

Their three-room rented home shakes every time a truck passes and it is so cramped they have to take turns brushing their teeth at the kitchen sink.

But the former workaholic father said, "I have found what a family ought to be.

"I am not without misgivings. . . . But as long as the family stays as one, I believe we'll make it," he said.

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