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11th March marks 8 years since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami wreaked devastation in Japan, including the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Ruth from our Bristol office recently met up with a community-based tourism initiative for a very special tour inside the Fukushima nuclear exclusion zone.
“The sad thing is my mother-in-law passed away before she could move back home,” Kogata-san is recounting the story of her evacuation. For more than five years her family lived in exile in Fukushima City having been ordered to leave their homes in the shadow of the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
We’re standing in the soba shop that Kogata-san now runs with her husband. They are among the 3,000 people who have returned to Odaka Town since the evacuation order was lifted in July 2016. Pre-disaster the population was 13,000.
“The reopening of small businesses like this soba shop is great for the recovery of Odaka,” says my guide, Karin Taira, “but it will take a long time for the community to truly heal”.
Karin is one of the founding members of a tourism initiative based in Odaka; it endeavours to show international visitors Fukushima while relaying the story of the triple disaster – earthquake, tsunami and nuclear explosion – that devastated the region.
As Karin drives me around the area, she recounts the sequence of events on 11th March 2011.
“First, the earthquake struck at 2.45pm, it was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan. 50 minutes later the tsunami came in two giant waves measuring more than 14 metres high”.
In Namie Town we stop outside the shell of Udeko Elementary School, 200m from the Pacific Ocean. The building is shaped like the hull of a ship, reflecting what used to be the town’s main industry. When the earthquake hit, the teachers moved fast and led all 80 children to safety on Ohirayama Hill, 2km away, before the water swept in. The hands on the playground clock are frozen at the moment the tsunami struck.
Many of the children’s family members were not so lucky. The school is in an eerie wasteland where 400 houses once stood. Today only the husks of a few buildings remain. We peer inside one and see the remnants of a life: a rusting kettle, a radio, decaying shoes lined up in a rack. Nearby, gravestones lie scattered in disarray.
Our only company in the area are the diggers and cranes constructing a sea defence wall. “Many local people have turned their backs on the sea. They no longer want to come here and see the ocean”, says Karin.
Inside the exclusion zone
We get back in Karin’s car and head south along Route 6. After passing a man in a uniform who waves us forward with a baton and little ceremony, we drive into the exclusion zone.
While the evacuation order has been lifted in outlying areas, the red zone still covers 371 square kilometres. Route 6 runs north to south through the zone and is open to public traffic.
At first it feels like we could be on any road in semi-rural Japan: white on blue road signs, traffic lights, advertising billboards. But Karin points out the fencing blocking every little side path from the road. And soon we pass buildings. A dilapidated pachinko parlour. Decaying convenience stores. Rusting cars with ‘for sale’ signs outside a dealership.
It’s busy inside the zone though. Traffic thunders along the highway, mostly construction workers and the thousands of people involved in decommissioning the power plant.
“After the waves receded, it did not take long for the workers at the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant to realise there were problems”. The tsunami disabled the plant’s back-up diesel generator that should have powered the pumps to cool the reactors.
The government soon issued the evacuation order. 160,000 people in a 20km radius around the plant, plus a greater area to the north-west where the wind was blowing, had just hours to get out.
“The people had no time to look for missing relatives. They couldn’t go back to their tsunami damaged homes. They just had to go”.
The Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
Thanks to Karin’s contacts, we have authorisation to deviate from Route 6 and explore further. She pulls off the main road and we show our permission slips and identification to an official. Then we drive back towards the sea, past the tsunami ruins of a fishery, and stop atop a hill. Beneath us, just 1km away, is the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
“24 hours after the tsunami, the first hydrogen explosion happened at reactor 1. In the following three days there were further explosions at reactors 3 and 4,” explains Karin. After this, units 1,2 and 3 went into meltdown. Eventually, power was restored to the cooling pumps and the situation was brought under control.
It’s strange to stand in the winter sunshine so close to the source of a humanitarian disaster. To our right is the Sunlight Okuma home for the elderly. I peer through the window and see trolleys and wheelchairs flipped on their sides, while the wall calendar hangs open on March 2011. A shortage of caretakers and suitable vehicles made the evacuation a horrendous ordeal for elderly people – some died in the move.
Karin’s tour continues, and she shows me where a mid-term storage unit is being built to store hundreds of thousands of black sacks of contaminated top-soil from across Fukushima.
Controversially, the energy produced by the Daiichi Power Plant and its sister station 10km away went to Tokyo. The residents of Fukushima Prefecture didn’t receive any of the power. And yet these are the people dealing with the fallout.
But there are two sides to every story, of course. While many rural areas across Japan suffer depopulation as young people move to the big cities to find work, this region thrived thanks to mass employment at the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) power plants. Considerable loyalty for the employer remains.
A ghost town
We turn inland and get out of the car in what was once the main high street in Okuma Town. Here it’s really quiet, just the two of us and a few policemen keeping watch.
The shops have been given over to nature. Rubble and decay, shattered glass, plants growing out of cracks in the brick work. A stack of soggy newspapers outside a print shop. Vending machines turning to rust. Broken crockery, and rails of clothes upended. Abandoned homes and shattered lives.
Is it safe?
The only equipment we’re wearing as we walk through Okuma in the centre of the red zone is a small radiation monitor. No special suits. Not even a face mask.
And that’s because the radiation we receive this afternoon is tiny. Karin explains that the accumulated dose for the 4-5-hour tour will be under 5 microsieverts (µSv). By comparison a dental x-ray is 5-10 µSv, and I’ve had plenty of those without giving them much thought.
My flight from the UK to Japan would have been around the 50 µSv mark. The world average radiation dose from background radiation per year is 2,400 µSv.
This is the route we drove, and the radiation recorded along the way.
Signs of hope
There are many signs of positivity inside and outside the exclusion zone. Fukushima Prefecture announced it will switch its entire output to renewable energy by 2040, and we see rice paddies given over to wind turbines and solar panels.
Fields of sunflowers remind me of southern France, and the oil harvested is now sold across Japan. Behind the sea wall, a nature reserve is in the planning.
A new town centre is being built for Okuma including a city hall, library and shopping centre in a corner of the red zone where the evacuation order will soon be lifted. The JR train line that bisects the zone will reopen in 2020.
In Odaka, we visit a stable recently opened by a rancher who was forced to abandon his cattle in the evacuation. Horses have long played an important role in the region; many locals descend from the Soma samurai clan who were renowned for their horseback archery.
A new town hall in Odaka has a small farmer’s market, the locally grown produce displayed next to certificates verifying it is radiation free. There are surf boards for hire here and community events in the pipeline.
And then there’s Karin and her business partner Shuzo Sasaki, on a personal mission to make sure international visitors to Japan learn what happened here. Their guided tours epitomise the local community’s determination to remember, recover and rebuild.
If you would like to join Karin or Shuzo on a guided tour in and around the Fukushima nuclear exclusion zone, do get in touch with our Japan travel experts; we can include this on any tailormade Japan holiday.