16 Aug 2011

Fukushima: where life stopped in an instant

Channel 4 News Asia Correspondent John Sparks visits the Fukushima exclusion zone to find all traces of human activity have been eradicated following Japan’s earthquake and tsunami.

We didn’t expect to be let in. The police cordon on the road to the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant is a formidable-looking operation, straddling the tarmac with bright flashing lights and a team of eager police officers. This immovable chunk of state authority bars the way to anyone intent of crossing into the 20 km evacuation zone.

It’s a modern-day no-man’s land, set up in the immediate aftermath of Japan’s great earthquake and tsunami on 11 March – a cataclysmic event which destroyed much of Japan’s north-eastern coastline. The tsunami also overwhelmed the sea-wall built to protect the Fukushima facility, knocking out its power supply. Without electricity, the cooling systems failed and three of the plant’s reactors “melted down”. A series of explosions followed, sending radioactive material spewing into the atmosphere.

On the evening of 12 March, the Japanese government ordered 80,000 residents living in the vicinity to get out. Everyone else was told to stay out. The evacuees weren’t told where to go however and many people travelled in the same direction as the radioactive fallout.

The wind was pushing it towards the north-west – far beyond the boundary of the evacuation zone. Information in the hands of the government and the Tokyo Energy and Power Company (TEPCO) could have prevented this – but it wasn’t passed on.

I’d suggested to our team that a couple of shots of the police barrier might prove useful for a report we were preparing on the mounting and largely hidden human costs of this disaster. The area outside the evacuation zone is littered with radioactive hot-spots yet many here say the government has failed in its responsibility to accurately measure  these radiation levels and make contaminated areas safe for those who have chosen to stay.

Our driver Yuki pulled up to the barrier with the rest of us fully expecting to be politely – or not so politely turned around. Yuki waved a few documents at the officer however and we were waved through. Quite suddenly, we were the only car on the road.

Read more: Japan to fire nuclear officials over Fukushima

Unlike the re-surfaced and well maintained highway on the other side of the barrier, we now encountered huge cracks and folds in the road. It quickly dawned on us – the fields and villages and towns that make up the 20km evacuation zone haven’t been touched. While the rest of the region is busy being cleaned and cleared up, this area was a giant time capsule.

Up ahead, we saw a motionless lorry in the middle of the road. Vines had begun to grow on the windshield. A small hamlet, then larger villages came into view. We saw clothes on hangers and beer bottles in crates round the back. There were cups on kitchen cabinets and welcome signs at front doors. Life had stopped in an instant – no time to wipe the table or put the rubbish out. What did they take with them and what did they leave behind? I wondered what I would have done in the same situation.

We drove past a “7-11” convenience shop – its shelves looked well stocked and orderly behind its perfectly preserved windows. A DIY store had bags of sand and gravel and flower pots out front – ready for business in a world with no customers.

We carried a dosimeter with us – a personal radiation device – and we kept a constant eye on it. It gave a relatively low reading as we travelled down the coast – 1.0 micro-sieverts per/hr – we’d recorded the same level earlier in the town on the other side of the boundary. As we drove closer to the plant it eventually began to rise. With 10 km to go before the plant, the number began to rise and we decided to turn back.

Back near the boundary we took a side road and stopped in front of a row of houses. We could hear the distant squawk of crows the buzz of insects – but no sound of human activity – not a bang or scrape nor a grunt or chuckle. Our species’ sonic footprint had been eradicated. In its place, nature had gone to work, swiftly reclaiming its territory. Battalions of weeds were poking through driveways and reshaping front gardens. It was eerie and uncomfortable and we soon got back into the car.

Our papers were checked on the way out. Had we taken anything with us from inside the “zone” asked an officer? Nothing physical certainly. What we took with us was this – a vivid mental impression of 80 thousand individual catastrophes. While the rest of Japan gets on with things, this place is a dead zone. The essential stuff of daily life – home, community and hopes and dreams – well they’ll never be evacuated.