The human guinea pig defying the Fukushima leak

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The power lines that bisect the hills surrounding Nobuyoshi Ito's paddy fields lead directly to the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant.

While he works, Ito does not wear a face mask or protective clothing

Destroyed six months ago by the magnitude-9 earthquake and the tsunami that it triggered, the reactors have since been leaking radiation the length of this peaceful valley.

And while virtually all his neighbours in the village of Iitate hurriedly left, Ito says he is staying.

"I'm officially registered as living in a shelter in Iino because I was supposed to have been evacuated there, but I've never stayed," says Ito with a shrug. "It's about 30km (18.6 miles) from here and I only go to collect my post because they won't deliver here any more."

He surveys the paddy fields and plastic-roofed greenhouses of the agricultural research centre that he manages; raising rice, potatoes, peanuts, beans, cucumbers, aubergine and sunflowers. It is also his home. Dragonflies criss-cross the heads of the rice crop and, as night falls, the croaking of frogs echoes off the forested hillsides. But just 20 miles to the southeast, the three damaged reactors at the nuclear plant continue to emit radiation into the atmosphere.

Iitate may be just outside the mandatory exclusion zone that the government has imposed, but the geography of this district and the prevailing winds have made the village a hot spot. Of this sprawling community's 6,200 residents before March 11, only nine have stayed.

"There are people who are opposed to nuclear power who will tell you that even a small amount of radiation is very dangerous to human health," says Ito. "There are others who say that exposure to small levels of radiation is not a dangerous thing. I'm 67 years old and they say that the impact of exposure can only be seen after 15 or 20 years … I'm prepared to become a human guinea pig."
Ito has spent much of the day cutting down foliage that is encroaching on the narrow lane that runs down the valley to his farm. While he works, he does not wear a face mask or protective clothing. Medical examinations to date have found no signs of abnormalities, he says.

The first official radiation readings for Iitate village were released on March 15, three days after the tsunami struck the reactor and two days after the first hydrogen explosion at the plant. Over the next two days, similar explosions ripped through the power station. "They took the official readings by the village hall and it was 44.7 microsieverts on the first day, but it was 89.4 here," says Ito. The Japanese government has set the safe exposure limit at 1 millisievert per year but Ito's valley is likely to surpass 20 millisieverts by the time of the first anniversary of the disaster. His monitors indicate he had surpassed the 10 millisievert level by the end of June.

"My children live in Niigata Prefecture with their families and they are always telling me to leave and go to stay with them, but I keep telling them that I want to be here because there are things that I want to do and things that I have to do," he said. "I don't agree that it is frightening," he adds. "This is the only way to find out, one way or the other."

Nearly all Ito's neighbours are less willing to take the risk. Weeds are pushing through the pavements along the village's main streets, the barber's pole has stopped revolving and the gates of the local agricultural co-operative are padlocked. The post office and village store are both tightly shuttered and while the traffic lights are still operating, there is virtually no traffic to heed them.
The only cars that come here now are local people who operate mobile patrols to deter looters and residents returning to salvage what they can.

Mieko Takahashi, 63, said: "We come back here once a week to see how things are, but we never stay long. Two or three hours, at the most.". Her husband, Masayuki, 64, used to grow vegetables and rice, but they have realised that it will be years before they will be able to harvest a crop again.
"We're very worried about the radiation and there's no way I would bring our grandchildren back here," she said. "We can't sell our crops any more and it will be the same next year. I don't know how long it will be before we can come home again because we're not being told very much."
A couple of miles away, Shigeru Kanoh is checking the doors of an abandoned farmhouse. He wears a bright orange vest and a green armband indicating he is a part of the village security patrol. "I was a farmer before March 11, but we can't do anything here now," he said.

"Two years ago, Iitate village was voted the most beautiful in all of Japan. The situation is very different now," Kanoh adds.
"This place has gone from being the most beautiful village in Japan to the filthiest in the country," he says. "It will never go back to how it was before. I don't want to think about it."