- Associated Press - Friday, March 9, 2012

FUKUSHIMA, JAPAN (AP) - Yoshiko Ota keeps her windows shut. She never hangs her laundry outdoors. Fearful of birth defects, she warns her daughters: Never have children.

This is life with radiation, nearly one year after a tsunami-hit nuclear power plant began spewing it into Ota’s neighborhood, 40 miles (60 kilometers) away. She’s so worried that she has broken out in hives.

“The government spokesman keeps saying there are no IMMEDIATE health effects,” the 48-year-old nursery school worker says. “He’s not talking about 10 years or 20 years later. He must think the people of Fukushima are fools.

“It’s not really OK to live here,” she says. “But we live here.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE _ This story previously moved March 7 ahead of the tsunami anniversary on March 11.

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Ota takes metabolism-enhancing pills in hopes of flushing radiation out of her body. To limit her exposure, she goes out of her way to buy vegetables that are not grown locally. She spends 10,000 yen ($125) a month on bottled water to avoid the tap water. She even mail-ordered a special machine to dehusk her family’s rice.

Not everyone resorts to such measures, but a sense of unease pervades the residents of Fukushima. Some have moved away. Everyone else knows they are living with an invisible enemy.

Radiation is still leaking from the now-closed Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, though at a slower pace than it did in the weeks after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. It’s not immediately fatal but could show up as cancer or other illnesses years later.

The uncertainty breeds fear. Some experts say the risks are quite low outside the 20-kilometer (12-mile) no-go zone, and people can take steps to protect themselves, such as limiting intake of locally grown food, not lingering in radiation “hot spots” such as around gutters and foliage, and periodically living outside the area. But risks are much higher for children, and no one can say for sure what level of exposure is safe.

What’s clear is Fukushima will be a test case that the world is watching for long-term exposure to low-dose radiation.

More than 280,000 people live in Fukushima city alone, though some have left, and many more live in surrounding towns, including many of the 100,000 who have been evacuated from the no-go zone.

“People are scared to death,” says Wolfgang Weiss, chairman of the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, which is studying Fukushima. “They are thinking, ‘Tell me. Is it good or bad?’ We can’t tell them. … Life is risky.”

It hasn’t helped that the government has given only the most optimistic scenarios of the risks to avoid mass panic.

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