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.

Follow @alextomo on Twitter and see more of his photographs from Japan on Google+.


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19 reader comments

  1. Russ Finley says:

    Riiight …there were no nuclear explosions. There were some hydrogen explosions in the structure above the containment dome.

    The mammals are not suffering from radiation illness. The levels exceed rigid health standards for people but are too low to cause harm to animals living there. Google “Experts Foresee No Detectable Health Impact from Fukushima Radiation.”

    Note that all of the damage done to the area was from the quake and tsunami, not from the power plant, which didn’t kill anyone.

    1. ChasAha says:

      It’s far too early to tout the claim that nobody had died from the radiation at Fukushima. It’s almost impossible to prove too. The nuclear nut jobs have that going for their side.

      Although I know the suffering and death from this debacle will become obvious with time. Even though we all know that anything that sheds a negative light on the Nuclear Industry will be covered up or people will be mislead.

      It’s ludicrous to assume the animals are not suffering. The smaller the creature the more susceptible it is to the affects of radiation.

      These DNA Destroying Death Machines are insidious in every way. Damaged DNA can pass from generation to generation.

      When one species is affected the entire food chain and ecosystems will also be affected. That includes people.

      The three full core meltdowns with loss of containment have been going nonstop for almost 2 1/2 YEARS. There is no end in sight and the radioactive releases to the atmosphere and sea are continuing to accumulate.

      Fallout(s) from the multiple explosions have now circled the globe 21 times. Mixing, accumulating and depositing fallout everywhere.

    2. Smeg says:

      As someone living and working an hour away from this mess I would have to say that you are sadly deluded. Just today fish were caught off the coast well south of Fukushima that contained over 1,037 Becquerel’s of cesium. Radioactive contaminants are increasing around the plant and are being washed and blown all over the surrounding prefectures. The water in the lake near my home has been declared unsafe and it is the second largest in Japan. The rivers and streams which flow southward from it are carrying the contamination to other parts of Japan. Sadly, nuclear shills like you have nothing better to do than to misrepresent what is actually happening here. Is the money really worth more to you than your honor and dignity?

    3. Mandark says:
    4. bob says:

      of course the animals are affected, everything is saturated with radiation
      the ground, water, food etc

      just becuase you cant see something doesent make it any less deadly,
      these so called “experts” are doing what officials do with any nuclear accident, playing it down to avoid causing panic in a situation were all you can do is witness the slow effects of the nuclear saturation on the area
      the rates of cancer will go through the roof in the coming years.

    5. Jon F says:

      This might be true, are you suggesting it OK to go their for a a afternoon picnic?

  2. Gwyn says:

    What an incredible insight into the aftermath of the Tsunami. This just goes to show how fragile the world we live in can be. Thanks @alextomo for yet another brilliant article

  3. Philip Edwards says:


    Just think – Blair, Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and co want to build new nuke plants in Britain.

    Which will be fine if they are built in Canary Wharf, Westminster, or in the centre of Essex or Middlesex or Surrey or Berkshire or Kent – or anywhere inside the M25.

    But…..guess what……?

  4. G.R.L. Cowan says:

    Alex Thomson speaks of “mammals presumably suffering radiation illnesses to varying degrees” — well, they have to be, don’t they.

    If they aren’t, the Japanese government’s multibillion-dollar-per-year fossil fuel tax revenue bonanza is being obtained on false pretenses. Likewise the jackpots being hit by other governments.

    Microsievert-per-hour measurements in two places: http://www.tepco.co.jp/en/nu/fukushima-np/f1/images/f1-sv2-20130307-e.pdf , http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&list=UU966ccV08PVAmZRhcC0SU8Q&v=pkdfG7XL8bs#t=99s

  5. Ray Turner says:

    This, along with Chernobyl, is one of the desolate formerly inhabited places on earth that I would be really interested in visiting. I know there’s a health-hazard and I must be mad, but its true.

    Thanks for taking the risk and bringing it to me so effectively Alex.

    Stay safe…!

  6. Pat says:

    Geeezus. There is not a single death recorded from radiation, and for gods sake get your head out of your Ars# and think about this……
    Hiroshima… nuclear wasteland for hundreds of years…. Oh … Wait….

    1. Mandark says:
      1. Solon says:

        “Except for this man:”

        He recalled in the interview often passing out cigarettes to workers in a heavily used smoking room beside the bunker during the disaster and once joked: “We don’t have the US army fire trucks we need but at least we have got smokes.”

        Probably a 4 pack a day man form all the stress he was under. Ya don’t perhaps think it was ciggies that did it?

    2. matt says:

      you need to learn about the different reactions in nuclear explosions and the far more deadly aftermath following a nuclear meltdown. They are not the same just because the word nuclear appears in both places. You need to develop a less retarded view of the world.

  7. daisy says:

    Poetry and fiction about unacceptable circumstances of liefe are simply out of place. This is not the way for a journalist to deal with the silence of the media on this subject.

  8. Max says:

    People can blather on about the visible effects (or not) of radiation, but it must be understood that radiation of this type is accumulative, which means no matter where you may be on this planet, you are slowly accumulating radiation from this incident, and the ‘effects’ of that radiation may not be fully seen for twenty years or more. How many of you have children? They are the ones who will suffer because of this.

    It should then also be noted that this ‘incident’ was caused by greed and stupidity – the former being the use of reactors and accompanying technology that was known to contain flaws (the reactor type was horribly out of date even as it was being installed), and the latter on not providing adequate protective measures against just such a situation, especially since the entire plant was built close to a known, active fault line – crass stupidity at the very least – try looking at who made the most money from putting the plant there, then you’ll find the culprits.

    The sooner people wake up to the fact that the lives of all men, women and children in the world are in the hands of greedy, self serving psychopaths, the sooner they can be removed entirely, along with their dangerous and mindless money making games.

  9. paul jackson says:

    its very interesting to find out a lot of film stars are selling up on the west coast of the usa and its even more interesting to find out that the contaminated sea water hits the west coast first

  10. casey says:

    What I don’t get is why haven’t they contained this mess in cement or steal instead of letting it go into the ocean and air! WTF! Just can’t slow kill everything fast enough!

  11. Greg says:

    @casey: Do you really think that some human being would drive a giant caterpillar and excavate melting plutonium & uranium to put it in a concrete & steel container like you would build a swimming pool? How much would you ask for this job? The MOX or the whole core needs to be excavated from under, how do you do this?
    Ideally, nuclear plants should be designed in a way that allows the extraction of the core from the reactor as a single piece with a crane. What could be the weight of the core filled in with water? Is there even a crane that could lift that weight? How long would it take to build a container that can hold the radiations from a melting core? Should all nuclear plants have one of these containers ready just in case? What do you do with the container after? Figure out the cost and you’ll get the answer why it’s not available ;)
    I guess/hope that newer nuclear plant designs consider these aspects. The idea would be to close all plants that do not abide by some strict security rules & counter measures. But as long as ‘errare humanum est’, would it be enough?
    Beside, men are challenging mother nature with what they cannot control totally: nuclear fission. You won’t find anywhere on earth but in a nuclear plant core such a high concentration of plutonium. E.g. the highest concentration of plutonium 239 (not 244 that is used as fuel) found on earth is 44 × 10-12, that gives you an idea on how often the fission reaction happens naturally on earth (FYI: there are fossil evidences in Oklo, Gabon that the reaction happens at a larger scale, still trillions way far from a nuclear plant, about 2 billion years ago). The natural fission occurs only in the too heavy nucleus of atoms. And nature turns these nuclei that are too heavy into 2 lighters elements, the reaction then stops. Nature is about balance. Men turned this into a chain reaction hardly manageable..

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