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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