17 Jul 2013

Inside Japan’s nuclear exclusion zone

Finally, we have direct line of sight. The sort of direct lines in which radiation travels. Shrouded in the steamy, soupy, grey of Japan‘s hot, wet season, Fukushima-Daiichi lies about 1000 metres along the beach from where we stand, stifled in brilliant white radiation suits like Clockwork Orange droogs, lost in a nuclear wilderness.

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The giant cranes, red and white, mantis-like, poised over the stricken reactors. We can see three of them. This vast place is screened by thick pine forest north, west, south; and by the Pacific to the east. Invisible and  miles from Futaba, the town where so many of its employees lived. It sits, a vast mangled beast, screened off and silent, its failed sea-walls pathetically low as so many said, so many warned…before it all.

In the past few days Tepco – the Tokyo Electric Power Company – has finally admitted that radioactive water is leaking from the site into the beautiful, hauntingly clear pacific waters here which teem with fish.

Researchers on 9 July  found levels of Caesium 134 here that were 150 times the legal limit. Levels of Caesium 137 were found to be 200 times the legal limit. These are the highest readings since the disaster and nobody knows why.

In this once delightful town on a lush plain between mountains clothed in forest and the Pacific, our radiation alarms go off regularly in “hot spots”.

In a garage forecourt overgrown with weeds – the now-familiar beeping. The ground here giving out radiation around three times that of a chest x-ray. Dangerous? Not for a short time really. But if you worked here now, or lived here? A rather different scenario.

At the charming, but now pathetic, town station the tracks are all but obscured by weeds. In the booking hall the newspapers are still on the rack from the fateful afternoon at 2.46pm on March 11th 2011 when the quake hit.

A notice at the ticket-office reads: “Apologies – we will be back soon.”

But they will not be back soon. Not the ticket-seller; not the trains; not the hospital, school, old-people’s home, school – not the town itself. The latest statistics twist the knife of fate into a small, mortally wounded, sleepy little town. After massive a earthquake, tsunami, series of nuclear explosions, consider what follows.

The bad news is that 96 per cent of Futaba will not be habitable for at least the next five years and probably far longer. The good news is that 4 per cent of the town is now considered habitable in two years time. But the bad news is all the houses in that 4 per cent area have been obliterated by the tsunami.

Nowadays vermin have the run of the place – mammals presumably suffering radiation illnesses to varying degrees. The quake-smashed houses, full of faeces left by mice, birds, feral dogs and cats.

These days, as you enter the exclusion zone to be given anti-contamination suits, masks and dosimeters for measuring your accumulation of radiation, they offer you something else – rat poison.

Over the main street you still see Futaba’s civic banner, an archway of hope at the gates of this once-prosperous town: “Nuclear Power – Our Bright Future.”

Beneath, the streets are silent, closed off by the police to stop looting. The only sound is the crows’ barking call, echoing over this dead town.

And the bright nuclear future is for a town where rats, not people, now live.

As we ponder this sign the radio we’ve been given cackles at us: “Please, this is the Tepco Power Company informing you it is time to return.”

Our five hours deemed safe for exposure in the town of the rats, is over. We must leave for the Japan beyond, where you can safely expose your skin to the world.

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