Published on 21 Jun 2013

The lost world of Fukushima

As you drive towards the coast the change becomes subtle. You notice the gardens look increasingly unkempt. There are fewer and fewer other vehicles on the road. Large weeds appear in the drives of shuttered shops. Finally, on low land at the coast itself, all this mixes with houses wrecked by the tsunami.

The tidal wave was reckoned to be around 54 feet when it hit this part of the coast, taking with it most structures on any low ground near the sea-walls which were quickly destroyed in those fateful minutes, that Friday afternoon in March, two years ago.  To visit the evacuation zone now is to enter a land  where hope has run out – the hope of return.

Some houses are wrecked by the tsunami. Others intact but ravaged by summer heat and winter snows now. Family heirlooms lie scattered around – Japanese dolls, photos, clothing, sports trophies – the ephemera of family lives shattered not just by the quake and tsunami – but what came next.

The hydrogen explosion at the nuclear plants and the meltdown of several reactors means you can visit the outer evacuation zone daily, but you have to leave by sundown.  Each afternoon comes the Tannoyed announcement echoing across deserted streets and fields gone to seed long ago:

“This is the public information department. It is four o’clock. You need to be screened for radiation levels and then leave the area.”

It ends. The silence descends again, broken only by the chirruping of frogs in brackish pools left by the inundation and recent rains of the summer wet season, and the mournful barking of crows overhead, stray feral dogs at ground level.

It is searingly hot and steamy , the grey heavy skies and dank air of the summer wet season. Creepers grow over every structure and across the edges of the roads now. You can almost hear the vegetation moving up walls, verandahs and telegraph poles bringing phone lines to ghost-houses.

Nowhere else on earth has suffered a large earthquake, tsunami and then radiation disaster. Over 150,000 remain displaced across Japan as far south as Tokyo itself and their hopes of ever coming back here are disappearing with every passing season.

Only in the past few weeks the authorities admitted 54,000 from the four ghost towns surrounding the plant will not be coming back here until at least 2017 and frankly that is a purely notional date given the plant’s clear-up is now scheduled to last at least 40 – yes 40 – years.

Ironies abound in this abandoned landscape. The garish Coca-Cola vending machine left by the seas sitting jauntily and tilted in a vast green swamp of paddy gone-to-seed. The garish JJ faded pink slot-machine hall on the empty main road through Namie, 12 miles out from the plant, with its slogan that this is a Perfect Place To Play. Inside the slot machines are still there, long-rotted fast food and spilled tokens as people ran out , terrified in the quake that went on for over a minute and a half.

The only new structures at all here? The loudspeakers to tell you to get out each day or warn of radiation alerts or  – God forbid – another tsunami. And the radiation sensors which are powered, we note, by solar panels in a world made uninhabitable by nuclear energy.

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13 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:

    Alex,

    And nuclear power is what Blair and co (which of course includes the Two Headed Boy leading the tories and the LibDems) have tried to swindle us into yet again……..all to be delivered by their paymasters among the utility companies and the crackpot military.

    Nor should we forget most nuclear plants are also bomb-making factories. Where do you think all those stockpiled nuclear warheads start out?

    This has been a truly dreadful time for the good people of Japan. May they retain all their strength for the years ahead.

    1. Stephen Cooke says:

      Ha ha ha. Philip, you are a clown.

      Modern nuclear facilities are far more robust than that a Fukushima, and last time I checked a tsunami is most unlikely in the waters off the UK. Nuclear power is the only sustainable way forward.

      Oh, and bomb factories…lets just give that the contempt it deserves shall we…?

  2. Meg Howarth says:

    Poignant piece, Alex, moving photographs – thank you. A reminder of the need for follow-up to headline news-stories. We diminish ourselves as humans if we forget the ongoing suffering caused by disasters such as Fukushima that we so frequently read about.

    Thank you again.

  3. Ray Turner says:

    Good post Alex. Your words took me to Fukushima. Thanks…!

  4. Jane Hayes says:

    Thanks for your great report Alex, esp featuring the teachers who stayed for the kids and the hopeful yet wistful endnote of the radiation detectors being powered by solar panels; if only…

  5. ewan m says:

    it will be well over 100 years if ever before the area will be lived in again.

    Winfrith was shut down in the 90’s but according to
    http://www.research-sites.com/winfrith-site-operations/site-introduction
    The decommissioning programme is scheduled for completion in 2040, with site closure by 2048.

    It shows you just how long and how costly cleanup is and that is wihout meltdown hence 100+ years.

    Despite this, EDF Energy is still planning to build four new reactors at two sites, with public consultation completed and initial groundwork beginning on the first two reactors, sited at Hinkley Point in Somerset.

    Do what I do and boycott EDF Energy and any others planning nuclear expansion.

    Germany has the right idea!

  6. Elizabeth says:

    I really find your term “ghost town” incredibly senseless. our writing, and others similar to it, are hurtful to people like me, who live in Fukushima. You have no idea what is it like to live in a town like Namie, to be an English teacher in schools, and to lose some of your pupils to the tsunami. Fukushima is not a “lost world”. How dare you visit to make a profit and then write such misleading information.

    1. Frances Mannion says:

      Hallo Elizabeth, having been a Channel 4 news follower for years, can vouch for Alex’s professionalism. If the article is misleading, I’m sure he’d be happy to reconsider a wider view of the post disaster recovery.

      Please can you share more of your view of the situation there with Channel 4 news? Its noticeable from news coverage that they are compassionate educated journalists who work on the Channel 4 news, they don’t go for a sensationalist view on any issue. If you have access to Skype, dare say Alex will let you speak on the programme too. Please can you tell us what its like to call this area home? And how you are coping?

      1. Meg Howarth says:

        Thank you, Frances, and David below. Was about to ask Elizabeth to post her comments here for us to share. Only C4News and Alex are covering this very important issue. Hope you’re able to do so, Elizabeth. Hearing from you, and particularly from your students, would be a great public service. Best.

  7. Dave Schouweiler says:

    Thanks for the story. I find it curious that Elizabeth, a teacher in Fukushima who posted above, takes a different stand which is worth consideration. Elizabeth, perhaps you could write your story and share with us? It sounds like you have something to say, and many are listening.

    I worry that the nuclear power industry may be designed to make huge profits during the life of a reactor, and when it is time for the reactor to be decommissioned the owners strategically sell off the bits and pieces to insufficiently-funded parties who are well compensated to take temporary legal ownership before abandoning it, with the end goal that the retired nuclear plant goes bankrupt while protecting the original profits. The government and future generations are then left with plant decommissioning, nuclear waste storage, and security costs.

    Corporations come and go, but nuclear waste is forever.

  8. Hugh Gilbert says:

    Thanks for reporting on this Alex. You brought awareness of an issue that has been given scant attention, particularly considering the continued and increasing radiation still flowing into the air, land and water … there should be a global initiative to help solve this problem, as it almost certainly wont be the last we face. Whether we think of the areas as Ghost Towns or not is not the real issue and certainly other perspectives should be entertained. What are the government doing to resettle the refugees still living in emergency locations is, I feel, more to the point.
    Once again my thanks Alex.

  9. Ed C says:

    We should not forget that the people of Japan have suffered so much from this terrible natural disaster. Whole towns have been wiped from the map. It is of course unfortunate that the tsunami clean up operation has been hampered in the region around Fukushima, as the authorities deal with what is undoubtedly a worst-case scenario for nuclear power. There are still owever, I do not think that the experiences of the people living in the vicinity of Fukushima should lead us to the sort of knee-jerk reaction as that displayed by the German government (Their decision to phase out nuclear power). We have difficult decisions to make if we are to preserve the delicate balance of life on this planet. We need affordable, secure energy supplies to live in our modern, technologically advanced world. What should we do, burn more coal or pump chemicals into our water supply to get every last scrap of oil and gas out of the ground? We should remember that every time we burn fossil fuels we add more CO2 to the atmosphere. This increases the chances of more natural disasters causing widespread destruction and loss of life, such as Hurricane Katrina. Then there is also the potential for widespread pollution and destruction of livelihoods following masive oil spills such as that in the Gulf of Mexico. These events may also have long lasting health effects for people in the worst hit areas.
    The following interesting article discusses the relative damage to people and property caused by both Katrina and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico:

    http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/the-avenue/posts/2010/06/04-new-orleans-liu-plyer

    We have to make informed choices about our choice of energy if we want to protect our planet, or failing that, turn the power off!

  10. Meg Howarth says:

    A poignant footnote to the above – from the excellent @GlobalVoices website: Death of Former Fukushima Plant Manager http://bit.ly/171LTfQ – “If the plant was left all by itself, more radiation would leak”.

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