Fukushima: Five years on, the legacy of nuclear disaster still rules

The tsunami-devastated Shinchi town in Fukushima prefecture in March 12, 2011.
KYODO

The tsunami-devastated Shinchi town in Fukushima prefecture in March 12, 2011.

In 2011, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. The fallout turned thriving nearby villages into ghost towns, and even where it is now safe, few would ever dare to return.

On the main shopping street of Japan's nuclear ghost town, only the grass growing through the tarmac, and the rust on the parked cars, tells you the tsunami and earthquake happened five years ago, not yesterday.

Along the rest of the country's blasted east coast, the wreckage has been at least cleared away, even if little has yet been put in its place. But in Futaba, time stopped on the night of March 11, 2011, when those residents who'd survived the giant wave fled, as they thought, for their lives from something even more frightening.

The buildings which collapsed in the earthquake have simply been left - rubble, roof tiles and all. The ceremonial torii gate of the Shinto shrine is lying exactly where it fell, on its side jutting out into the street.

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The tsunami-devastated Iwaki city in Fukushima prefecture is seen in these images taken April 27, 2011 and February 14, ...
KYODO

The tsunami-devastated Iwaki city in Fukushima prefecture is seen in these images taken April 27, 2011 and February 14, 2016 (bottom).

But most of the town is physically intact. It was just abandoned, and clearly in a very great hurry.

The doors of the Pearl gents' outfitters shop stand open, and all the stock is still there, but the jackets hanging in the window have mould on them.

The local supermarket still has plenty on the shelves. In this town, sealed off since 2011, with barricades blocking the access roads, only one thing has changed. On Rikuzenhama Street, they've taken down the giant banner sign that said: "Nuclear power, energy for a bright future." Futaba is less than a mile from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, scene of perhaps the world's second worst nuclear accident. At 2.46 on the afternoon of "3/11," as the Japanese call it, the 9.0 magnitude earthquake, the worst in Japan's recorded history and the third worst in the history of the world, cut off mains power to the plant. Fifty minutes later, a 45-foot wave crashed into the building, destroying the emergency generators, too.

Without any form of power, cooling systems failed and three of the plant's six nuclear reactors started to melt down. Explosive hydrogen gas built up, blowing holes in the reactor containment buildings and allowing radioactivity to escape.

As Japan's prime minister at the time, Nato Kan, told The Dauily Telegraph yesterday, the country came within a "paper-thin margin" of a disaster requiring the evacuation of 50 million people. What did happen was bad enough. Inside the plant, a skeleton staff - the so-called "Fukushima 50" - battled to avert total catastrophe, reading emergency manuals by torchlight and at one stage asking workers to bring their car batteries to power the crippled cooling systems.

Outside, there was mass panic, with compulsory evacuation for 400,000 local residents and much of the rest of northern Japan cramming roads and railway stations to get out, too. In the end, the worst was avoided, with seawater pumped to cool the reactors and not a single immediate death from radiation exposure.

But five years on, an area 12 miles around the plant remains a dead zone, abandoned and uninhabited. You can still go there. Anyone can drive on the main road, route six, which runs through it. Even this is an eerie experience. As well as the traffic signs, route six has geiger counters above the carriageway, displaying the radiation readout in the same way that others display roadworks information.

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Most of the buildings here are wrecked or empty, too: an entire wall of the Segaworld games arcade has been ripped off, showing all the machines still inside.

The side turnings, to get into the hearts of the towns, are blocked and mostly guarded, accessible only with passes (or, as we did, by finding an unguarded one and slipping through.)

Beside the roads, heaped up in huge piles, lie half a million black plastic bags containing radioactive topsoil, scraped off the surface of the land in an effort to persuade farmers to start work here again.

Some of the dead zone will never return to life. Futaba, the closest town to the plant, will probably be turned into a radioactive waste dump. But six months ago, a few miles to the south, the authorities declared that Naraha, another town in the evacuation area, was now safe and everyone should come back. It was hailed as the first stage in the area's return to normality.

Virtually nobody is buying. Before the disaster, Naraha had a population of 7,000. But for now, poisoned as much by mistrust of the government as by radioactivity, the place remains almost as spectral as Futaba.

"Once it's dark, there's only about ten houses with lights on," said Nawasaki Yoshihiro, who was repairing the tsunami damage at his lovely traditional Japanese home opposite Tatsuma railway station.

"You see wild boar running about the streets. I'm fixing this up because my parents kept pestering me not to waste the house. But even we are only here until 6 o'clock."

Here, too, there are radiation meters in the streets. The doses they show are reassuring - 1.1 microsieverts an hour, even less than on the main road, equivalent to about 0.01 sieverts a year. That is half the annual exposure limit for nuclear workers in the UK and about a tenth of the exposure at which cancer-causing changes in blood cells can be readily observed.

However, a number of scientific studies have shown elevated levels of thyroid cancer in local children - though there is strong dispute as to whether this is linked to the accident - and there have been small mutations in local plants and insects.

The chaos of the immediate evacuation, when information about the plant meltdown and the spread of radioactivity was concealed for several days, has left deep scepticism about official figures and claims.

"Hardly anyone has come back," says Ishi Hasegawa, 82, out for a walk with her puppy, the only full-time resident we found in Naraha. "People with families don't want to, because of the radiation - they only come back to visit their ancestors' graves. It's meant to be safe, but most people don't feel comfortable about that."

Across the street from Mr Yoshihiro, the station has reopened. It must be the only one in the country with a geiger counter above the ticket office.

It's a terminus now, with the signals covered over and the northbound tracks disappearing into a sea of weeds and grass. But though the trains come, almost nobody ever gets off. The 16.51 from Iwaki, eight carriages long, arrives as we walk in, bringing a total of one passenger. Japan's celebrated "pushers," the white-gloved officials who shove commuters into crammed railway carriages, will not be needed here for a while.

"We have maybe 10 passengers a day who live in Naraha," says the stationmaster, Mr Komatsu. "There were 250 a day before the disaster. Most of our customers are people who come in to the town to work on the reconstruction. There are maybe 70 a day of them." Was the service being run to meet a real transport need? The station staff laugh at the question. "There's no profit in it, but it's important for prestige," says Mr Komatsu. "Tell people about us. We need the publicity."

The tsunami came right through here - you can still see traces of seawater on the defunct vending machines. The whole neighbourhood east of the railway track was destroyed by it, and is now a flat expanse of gravel with diggers moving to and fro. Plans for the new "model town" to be built are on show in the booking office, but it looks a little close to the sea.

In the station car park, dozens of commuters' bikes suggest normality. But look closer, and their chains are rusty, their tyres flat. "They have been there since 2011," says Mr Yoshihiro. "The owners are probably dead."

Up the street, there are lights in a supermarket, a bright plastic sign above the door. But go up to the door, and you realise that the place is some sort of government office, not a supermarket. It's the perfect symbol of this nuclear Potemkin village.

Twenty miles further to the south, in the provincial centre of Iwaki, we find the reason why so few want to return. It's the twice-yearly "update session" for residents of one of the temporary resettlement camps where much of Naraha's population - and at least 20,000 other people from the radiation area alone - still live, five years on.

Yukiei Matsumoto, Naraha's mayor, and 12 of his staff are trying to persuade the gathering that it is time to come back. "By next year we will have basic infrastructure back to normal," he tells them. "People do have a willingness to return, which is very uplifting and encouraging for us, but we do have lots of things to do to get the infrastructure going." More than 200 houses will be reoccupied by next spring, he says.

Other officials talk of security patrols, help with decontaminating homes, and bring out coloured charts showing big falls in radiation. Later, however, they admit that only 40 per cent say they will return, even if conditions improve, and 1,300 families have applied to demolish their houses. And there's a sting in the tail, an indication that if promises don't work, other methods may be tried: "Until next March, you will keep this temporary housing," says the mayor. "Beyond then, things will be under consideration." From the audience, Yoshitaka Matsumoto, a local farmer, is politely angry: "You should fight the government, stop them bullying people," he tells the mayor. Afterwards, he tells us that contamination of the water is people's main concern. "The water comes from the taps, but it comes from a reservoir which has radioactive mud at the bottom," he says. "The people who are back in Naraha now, they buy their drinking water from the shop, but they still have to wash in the tapwater." Mr Matsumoto's farmhouse was washed away in the tsunami. "I tell my friends, I should move to Hawaii, because that's where my house is now," he says. He shows us his new farm, a short row of plants by a fence. His cattle had to be slaughtered because they had been eating contaminated food. "They recognised me as their master but I had to kill them. I still think about that at night," he said.

"There is nothing left for me in Naraha. This temporary housing is the seventh place I've lived since it happened. It's a bit small, I have to stand up when my wife and son want to pass me, but I finally got to settle down - I just want to stay here as long as I can." Outside Naraha, the evacuees can return to their homes to visit, with passes to get through the checkpoints, and must be out of the closed zone by 3pm. That will not change very much, or very soon. Though thousands of workers are now being bussed in to the cleanup effort at the power station, the radioactive fuel rods which melted down are all still there. Even after five years, radiation levels inside the reactor buildings are still too high for workers to enter, making it hard to even plan the task that needs to be done, let alone carry it out.

Around 300 to 400 tons of contaminated water is generated every day as groundwater flows into the plant filled with radioactive debris. To contain the tainted water, TEPCO, the plant's operator, pumps up the water and stores it in tanks, adding a new tank every three to four days. There are now 1,000 tanks, containing 750,000 tons of contaminated water. "If I may put this in terms of mountain climbing, we've just passed the first waystation on a mountain of 10 stations," said Akira Ono, head of the Fukushima plant, last month. The full cleanup, he admitted, may take as long as 40 years.

Back in Futaba, a banner has been erected protesting against the removal of the "nuclear power, our bright future" sign. "Save the sign, remember our folly," it says. "Preserve it as a negative legacy." In truth, in Japan's radioactive disaster zone, the reminders of the folly and the memorials of the disaster are everywhere inescapable

 - The Telegraph, London

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