RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It was two years ago today that an earthquake and tsunami sparked a meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Hundreds of thousands of people living around the plant were forced to flee the radioactivity. The World Health Organization recently predicted a very small rise in cancer risk for those who are nearest the plant. Some experts are talking about a different risk - predicting anxiety and depression among nuclear refugees could be more dangerous than the exposure to radiation. Reporter Geoff Brumfiel traveled to Fukushima to talk to people there about coping.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Kenichi Togawa was taking a smoke break from his job at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant when the ground started to shake.
KENICHI TOGAWA: (Through translator) We ran out of the smoking room. The inside of the building was heavily damaged. Desks and shelfs had fallen over. Papers were scattered everywhere. The ceiling had collapsed. We couldn't get out easily.
BRUMFIEL: After checking to see his co-workers were safe, he tried to get home to his family. But the traffic was too heavy.
KENICHI TOGAWA: (Through translator) My car was not moving at all so I gave up. I left it in the parking lot of the hospital about one mile from the power plant and I went on foot. I set my sights on home. As I went, the road had collapsed so I was climbing and jumping over things.
BRUMFIEL: When he finally got there, he found his wife and kids were safe.
KENICHI TOGAWA: (Through translator) I was really relieved. I wanted to get home quickly but I had been afraid of seeing the house. What if it was flattened or someone had died?
BRUMFIEL: But that was just the start of the Togawa's troubles. Early the next morning evacuation sirens blared across their seaside town. Kenichi went back, got his car, and the family fled. As they drove, he got a text from a colleague in Tokyo.
KENICHI TOGAWA: (Through translator) Traffic had stopped in front of the school and then I got a message that said the plant had exploded. I was surprised, but then I realized there was no choice. We had to keep going forward. We couldn't go back.
BRUMFIEL: Today the Togawa's live 30 miles away in one about half a dozen, slate-grey temporary buildings. They're lined up like boxcars. And they all look identical. Sorry, I didn't know which one you were in.
KENICHI TOGAWA: Welcome.
BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Inside one apartment lives Kenichi, his wife, and three children. The youngest daughter, Kei, gives me the grand tour.
KEI TOGAWA: (Speaking Japanese)
BRUMFIEL: It doesn't take long. Three rooms, totaling around 300 square feet in all. Kei, her brother and sister sleep together in one tiny room, while mom and dad sleep in the other. That leaves just one room for everything else, which is mainly video games.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME)
BRUMFIEL: But it's not the kids playing this fantasy game, it's their father, Kenichi. Before the accident, Kenichi was athletic. He rode his bike and practiced judo. But today things are different.
KENICHI TOGAWA: (Through translator) My environment has changed, my judo group is finished, my bike is back at my flat, my friends are all scattered around. So video games are something I can do at home without moving much. I used to spend more time with people. I was more active, but not any more.
BRUMFIEL: Kenichi is isolated in the evacuation housing. Every night while he plays his video game, he drinks four glasses of shochu, a strong Japanese liquor. And he's put on weight - almost twenty pounds since the family got here. Other evacuees are doing worse. Hiromi Yamamoto is an English teacher from the same town as the Togawas. After the accident she relocated to a city south of the nuclear plant. Hiromi says that many evacuees here are out of work.
HIROMI YAMAMOTO: They are nothing to do so they always, always go to Pachinko place, gambling and pay for a lot of moneys, and driving and sometimes drinking alcohol.
BRUMFIEL: One of her own friends has slipped deep into depression.
YAMAMOTO: Before big earthquake they lived in big house, big families, maybe grandmothers, maybe great-grandmothers, maybe friends around here. But now, she live just alone in the big city, nobody talk to her. I sometimes calls her, I said are you OK? Are you all right? She's sometimes crying. But I say, it's OK, it's OK. That's what I says.
BRUMFIEL: Yuriko Suzuki is with Japan's National Institute of Mental Health and has been working with Fukushima evacuees.
YURIKO SUZUKI: We have a lot of stories that people are distressed.
BRUMFIEL: Several months after the accident, she and her colleagues conducted a survey with some alarming results. One in five scored high on a PTSD checklist. That rate is the same as for workers at the sight of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. Many of the nuclear evacuees are continuing to show signs of anxiety and depression.
SUZUKI: It's about uncertainty about their life, or if they can come back to home town, and also they cannot have plan how do they live their life in the future.
BRUMFIEL: And then there's the radiation. Kenichi Togawa's wife Yuka has learned a lot about radiation exposure in the last two years. Her kids are part of a government health survey. They wear radiation badges everywhere they go now, and they travel to Fukushima City every few months for blood tests and thyroid screenings.
YUKA TOGAWA: (Through translator) So far they're OK, but that maybe in a few years they might have some problems with their health. So it might be tomorrow, maybe it never happens, or maybe in a few years' time.
BRUMFIEL: Yuka is really worried about her kids' health. Experts are trying to reassure Fukushima evacuees and a recent report by the World Health Organization suggests only a small rise in cancer risk for those living nearest the plant. But the insidious thing about radiation is that it sews seeds of doubt in a parent's mind. That doubt can last for years.
Studies in mothers after Chernobyl found that psychological problems have lingered for nearly two decades. Gerry Thomas, a radiation health expert at Imperial College in London believes that anxiety, depression, and substance abuse may be Fukushima's greatest legacy.
GERRY THOMAS: I think the psychological health problems that will ensure from Fukushima will be far worse than any physical problems that have come from the direct interaction of tissues with radiation.
BRUMFIEL: Psychiatrists in Japan are aware of these problems and they want to help, but they're not sure how. They can't afford one-on-one therapy for all 210,000 people affected. Mental health expert Yuriko Suzuki says there's no proven therapy for victims of a disaster on this scale. But, she says, evidence from other disasters shows that overcoming social isolation is key.
SUZUKI: So I think some effort to try to get people together or have more sense that they are connected, I think that would be one way to intervene.
BRUMFIEL: Efforts are now under way to reach out to the worst affected evacuees by phone, and to set up mental health clinics throughout Fukushima. Life is also slowly getting better for the Togawas. Their kids like their new school; Kenichi has found a job with the local government, and Yuka is working part-time as a nurse. But Kenichi Togawa still doesn't like to talk about the accident or the future.
KENICHI TOGAWA: (Through translator) When I think about today I can stay happy but when I think about tomorrow, the future, I feel like I'm stuck in a pitch black box. So I try not to think about it, because it's too depressing to think about.
BRUMFIEL: And Kenichi is still sitting at home playing video games. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.