On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, the magnitude 9.0 Tohoku earthquake knocked out the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station’s external power supply.
The following tsunami, measuring 15 meters at the plant, drowned its backup generators—some of which were inexplicably located in a basement. Without power, the reactors’ water-based cooling system no longer functioned. Although workers scrambled to restore power and pump water into the reactors, they could not prevent the radioactive cores in Units 1-3 from melting down.
Radiation was released into the atmosphere when workers vented the reactors in order to prevent hydrogen explosions, and when, despite the venting, explosions occurred anyway. Evacuation orders for a three-, then 10-, then 20-kilometer radius from the plant were issued on March 11 and 12.
But radioactive fallout does not disperse in a neat circle, it goes with the wind. By late April the evacuation zone began to take on its current oblong shape. Evacuees numbered around 160,000 and were living both inside and outside Fukushima Prefecture by 2012.
But radioactive fallout does not disperse in a neat circle, it goes with the wind.
Although some areas of the original evacuation zone have reopened, around 43,000 citizens still live as evacuees due to the triple disaster.
Fukushima draws visitors looking to get off the beaten track
Managed by the Fukushima Prefectural Government, since November 2017 Real Fukushima has offered English-speaking visitors an unbiased look at the disaster and recovery efforts. On the day I visited, in addition to myself and the guide, Karin Taira, four tourists joined the tour. Two of them, Germans, said it was their second time visiting the country.
Although radiation stigma presents a serious challenge to tourism in Fukushima Prefecture, the industry is bouncing back thanks to the targeted promotion of non-nuclear-related sites, as well as fear of radiation gradually melting to curiosity about the disaster.
Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters even had to put up English signs to prevent foreigners from poking around inside the evacuation zone.
Foreign hotel stays more than doubled from 2018 to 2019, and the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters even had to put up English signs to prevent foreigners from poking around inside the evacuation zone.
Into the red zone — putting radiation in context
A red zone, designated “difficult to return,” stretches over 20 kilometers northwest from the plant. Entry is prohibited in most cases, but Real Fukushima takes tour participants into the red zone with official permission from the prefectural government to offer a clear picture of the nuclear disaster’s impact. The Fukushima Daiichi plant, currently being decommissioned, is off-limits.
Throughout the tour, Karin had a Geiger counter that sent live radiation readings to an app on her phone. Of course, we never went anywhere with dangerous levels of radiation. However, readings varied as we passed through the red zone, even along the already decontaminated Route 6—one of the red zone’s only open roads.
We came across random hotspots in inconspicuous places, such as the beginning of a blocked-off street next to the highway or a patch of grass near the coast. Spiking Geiger counter readings in these unassuming locations brought home the invisible threat of radiation, as well as why, despite decontamination efforts, the area is called “difficult to return.”
In addition to the Geiger counter, Karin had handed each of us a small dosimeter that measured in microsieverts (µSv) the accumulated radiation we were exposed to throughout the five-hour tour. I accumulated 4 µSv. Though we never spent more than 20 minutes walking around any one location in the red zone, dosimeter readings varied throughout the group, including 2, 3, and, surprisingly, 11.
Karin put microsieverts in context for us: A person is exposed to 5-10 μSv by a single dental x-ray and more than 50 μSv on a one-way flight from Tokyo to New York.
The Geiger counter, our dosimeters and the knowledge that we had exposed ourselves to much more radiation just by flying to Japan helped put the radiation in the exclusion zone into context.
Clean-up efforts with an unclear future
The road through the red zone, Route 6, was flanked by abandoned buildings and cars. All the streets leading off it were barred by metal fences, often with a security guard keeping watch.
Further east inside the red zone, residential neighborhoods quickly turned to fields, some of which contained rows and rows of huge plastic bags—apparently 16 million total—full of contaminated soil waiting to be processed.
In addition to hosing down roads and demolishing buildings, decontamination efforts mainly involve removing and compressing the top five centimeters of topsoil throughout the affected area. Once the soil is compressed, it will be buried in 30-year storage sites near the plant.
I asked whether the 30-year specification was because the half-life of cesium-137, one kind of radioactive particle emitted in the accident and which collects on the surface of the ground, is 30 years.
But Karin replied that more than any single scientific reason, the 30-year moniker was to show that the radioactive soil would not be buried in this community forever. It would eventually be taken somewhere else, but that somewhere is still to be determined.
Nuclear power’s dramatic effect on the local economy and population
Decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi is expected to take 30 to 40 years. The total cost of decontamination efforts is currently estimated to be 4 trillion yen.
Before the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) opened Fukushima Daiichi, the area had been relatively poor, but nuclear jobs transformed it into one of the richest in the prefecture.
On March 11, those riches disappeared in an instant. Rebuilding the shattered communities has been a slow process.
On March 11, those riches disappeared in an instant. Rebuilding the shattered communities has been a slow process.
Even after parts of the evacuation zone reopen, former residents do not always return. For example, Odaka town, where our tour began, reopened in 2016 but now has only 3,500 of its former 13,000 residents. Most returnees are elderly: They are less hampered by the lack of local jobs and concern over radiation. Another factor contributing to low return rates is that many evacuees have permanently settled elsewhere by the time their area reopens.
Farewell to old Okuma
While still in the red zone, we visited the abandoned Okuma town center, on the west side of Route 6. The little town had a population of 11,000 before the disaster, and its main street was lined with cafes, beauty parlors, and various shops.
Through a clothing store’s open door, I saw shirts and dresses still draped from their hangers.
Karin told us that the whole town center is to be demolished; a few buildings had already been removed. After we left the red zone, she showed us a brand new city hall and rows of houses for returnees and TEPCO employees located just outside the evacuation zone border—the transplanted Okuma town.
Toward the beginning of the tour, Karin took us to an elementary school building that had been ravaged by the tsunami, and which was designated to be left as a memento to the disaster.
But unlike the inundated school, it seems the abandoned town center will not be left as a reminder of the nuclear accident. Instead, everything will be wiped clean.
Downplaying the disaster
As Karin drove us back to Haranomachi Station where we would catch the return train to Sendai, she pointed out in passing when we crossed the 20-kilometer boundary of the evacuation order. It felt like we had only been driving for a few minutes, and I was struck by how quickly we left behind the area directly impacted by the disaster. In fact, evacuation-designated zones cover only 2.7% of the prefecture in its entirety.
At the time there was no guarantee that only the area near the plant would be affected by radiation
Yet I was immediately troubled by my impression that anything related to the nuclear disaster could be seen as small-scale. To the people who lost everything and to those shouldering the burden of recovery, there is nothing small about it.
We now look back on the events of 2011 with relative composure, at the time there was no guarantee that only the area near the plant would be affected by radiation. As workers struggled to get the meltdown under control, the Japanese government secretly confronted worst-case scenarios that involved evacuating Tokyo.
[….] the Japanese government secretly confronted worst-case scenarios that involved evacuating Tokyo.
Fukushima shook the world in 2011, but it is in danger of becoming just one in a long line of unheeded nuclear disasters. Japan is pushing its recovery narrative ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics: The Olympic torch is planned to be carried through the reopened part of Okuma town, and the pre-games training website calls Fukushima “fully revitalized.”
But when the bags of soil are hidden underground and the buildings demolished, will the disaster still feel real to us? If we can’t walk through a ghost town, can we imagine being severed from home but always bound to a persistent fear for our health?
The choice to use nuclear power and the many choices made while managing it are calculated risks. Profit is weighed against potential harm to workers, locals, and the environment. Without concrete examples of that harm, the chance of another miscalculation increases.
Power generation post-Fukushima
Following 3.11, all of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors were taken offline, but by mid-2018 nine were operating again after meeting new safety standards. The government plans for nuclear energy to supply roughly 20% of Japan’s power by 2030, not a significant decrease from pre-2011’s 30%.
Fukushima Prefecture, on the other hand, has committed to using 100% non-nuclear, renewable energy by 2040.
As our appetite for energy grows and the lessons of Fukushima slip from memory, it will only become easier to forget what happened in this little corner of Japan. But as long as we use nuclear power, it is our duty to take an honest look at what happened here—to bear witness to the real Fukushima.
Real Fukushima was formed to combat the negative rumors, discrimination, and sensationalism that the communities near the evacuation zone face. The group aims to show what really happened in the area during and since the 2011 nuclear accident, as well as what its future looks like.
“We want to let more people come to see this area with their own eyes and let them think about the disaster themselves,” Karin said.
Since tours began in 2017, Real Fukushima has guided nearly 1,000 visitors from over 50 countries. Participants are usually individual tourists with an interest in learning about the disaster, as well as university groups. Tours normally max out at five people, and the small group size makes it easy to talk with the guide and other participants.
Like the rest of Japan, Real Fukushima is conscious of the increase in foreign visitors that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will bring. For those who come to Fukushima, the group hopes their tour will provide a good learning experience about the disaster and its effect on the area.
“We would also like to encourage people to stay one or two nights in the reopened area before or after the tour to have more direct experiences from this area, meet local people who have returned home after a long evacuation (five to eight years), and eat nice local food. The radiation levels of local food are all monitored, so they are safe to eat,” Karin said.
“We welcome people from all around the world to join our tours, especially those who are eager to learn and show respect for this area.”
Find out more at Real Fukushima.com