Living in Fukushima Prefecture, I have found that when I tell someone that that`s where I live, I get a response along the lines of “But isn`t Japan radioactive?” Mostly from foreigners, but occasionally from Japanese people, if I meet them outside the prefecture, there`s the misconception, “Isn`t Fukushima radioactive?”
In a quick answer: Fukushima is no more radioactive than anywhere else in the world, throughout about 96% of it.
On March 11, 2011 at about 2:46pm local time, Japan was hit with an earthquake later called The Great Tohoku Earthquake, which was a level of 9, and hit the top five biggest earthquakes since earthquake strength started being recorded. (Wikipedia lists it at number 4) The shaking caused some damage, but the real damage came after, with a tsunami that reached heights of 40.5 meters (133 feet). As if that weren`t bad enough, between the tsunami and earthquake, three of the nuclear reactors at Fukushima`s Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant blew up, spreading radiation nearby.
Radiation, unfortunately, does not go away quickly, and now, seven years later, there are still `red` and `yellow` zones in the exclusion zone in Fukushima. The exclusion zone is the most radioactive part of Fukushima, the part closest to the Nuclear Power Plant. Red means that people are not allowed to stay there for longer than a few hours, at most. Yellow means that people can get permission to enter, work and perhaps even live there. The current yellow section is being planned to open up to all residents next year, as the radiation is down to a normal daily level.
How big is the exclusion zone still? Well, this is Japan:
Which I know, you knew. In all of Japan, this is Fukushima:
And this is what part of Fukushima is still radioactive 7 years later:
See? It`s a relatively small part. You can drive through it on the highway, but at every crossroad, the side areas are blocked off, and most have guards so that no one unauthorized can get in. There are also signs saying to go through that area as quickly as possible, and to leave your windows rolled up.
As part of a tour run by Real Fukushima I got permission to go not only into the red and yellow parts of the exclusion zone, but also into the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant itself, to learn more about what caused the nuclear part of the disaster seven years ago, and see the effects of it in those towns that still haven`t been cleaned.
In order to get permission, we had to sign up a month or so in advance, and make absolutely certain that the name and address we told them we had was exactly the same as what was on our IDs, or we wouldn`t be allowed in. I took Rhi and Arete with me. Arete just because, and Rhi because I had Rhi with me in Tokyo 7 years ago when the earthquake happened.
Our guide was Mr. Shuzo Sasaki, who is the director of the Real Fukushima Team. He picked us all up at our meeting place at 8:45am Monday morning in a van, and we immediately headed to the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The Power Plants in Japan are run by a company called Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO for short. While we first sat in a room and heard some information on the nuclear reactors we were about to go visit and I snapped one photo, in the actual area on-site, we weren`t allowed to bring anything with us except a pen and paper.
I should stop here for a second and explain what I know about how radiation is measured, assuming I even understand it properly, other than that big numbers are bad. It`s measured in sieverts (Sv), millisieverts (mSv) which is one thousandth of a sievert or microsieverts (µSv) which is one millionth of a sievert. Mostly, things seem to be measured in µSv. To put that in perspective, .1 µSv is what you get by eating a banana, and 5 µSv is what you would get in a dental xray. And per year, every person gets around 4 mSv (or 2,200 µSv) just in background radiation.
So to get into the Nuclear Power Plant, first they gave us visitor tags, then each of us got a mini geiger counter thing so that we could see, at the end of the tour, what our personal radiation from the tour had been, and we were told that it should only be 1 µSv.
We walked through the security gate where you had to enter a little box type thing with gates on either side. When the first side closed, you had to scan your visitor badge, type in the code they gave you, and then the other side opened. From there, we got on a bus. We were told that over 90% of the Power Plant was safe enough that people could wear regular clothes, or regular work clothes. But there were still a couple of areas where they had to wear coveralls and masks…and at the worst areas, they had to wear anorak on coveralls and a full out face mask.
We stayed on the bus. Since we couldn`t take pictures, I took a few notes instead. Where possible, I tried to write down the radiation measurement of where we were, just for fun. Surprising all of us, we drove right up next to the nuclear reactors! The highest radiation was in between reactors 2 and 3…the radiation there measured a whopping total of 313 μSv/hr!
Caf at the end there meant cafeteria…we were ending our tour by eating lunch in the workers cafeteria! I had curry yakisoba noodles. They were yummy. Then, if we`d brought money (bills, not coins) we could buy a souvenir in the form of a clear file folder that has 4 of the reactors pictured on it. (I labeled them for you)
Reactor 4 is already decommissioned, and they`re currently working on decommissioning 3 as well. Then will be 2 and 1, but those they still can`t get very close due to high radiation–it was reactor one that had the biggest meltdown of the four close to the water. And after Daiichi is decommissioned, TEPCO plans to decommission Daini Nuclear Power Plant as well. They said the reason was that they don`t want evacuees to be afraid that the same thing will happen with Daini as well. Of course, this will take time.
After visiting the Nuclear Power Plant, we went to meet an author named Yukiteru Naka. He had used to work in the power plants, and had since written a book about his experiences. He said that he warned TEPCO about things not being safe, but that they didn`t listen. And, rather than blame them completely for that, he blamed himself, and said that it was his fault, which was a little sad. There`s no way that one single person was responsible for the nuclear meltdown!
He gave us little pamphlet booklets he`d had made, of various people`s recollections of the earthquake, tsunami, and aftermath, with English translation as well, albeit not a professional one.
From his house, you could see the Daini power plant. It was a little hard to see, because of the rain and fog, but the outline was clear enough. And on the roof of his house was a little lion-dog decoration/protector.
After that visit, we went into the exclusion zone. That is, the area that we all had to show our IDs to enter, where the radiation is still mostly too high to live there everyday. There was also the fact that the exclusion zone gates, even to those with permission, are only open 9-5.
The first place we visited was a tsunami damaged fish hatchery. It was raining, but we all got out to look around and take pictures anyway. And by tsunami damaged, it is referring to the tsunami seven years ago, not a more recent one.
From there, we went to see an abandoned nursing home. There was a meter here, so I took a picture to show the radiation. We were told that everyone had gotten out of this nursing home safely, but the cars were the abandoned cars of people who had worked there.
After that, we went to one of Okuma`s abandoned elementary schools. This school hadn`t been hit by the tsunami, only the earthquake and radiation. It was a little odd, seeing all the abandoned backpacks and books and even a winter coat or two out in the hallway that I could see from the window.
Tour done for the day, we headed towards a hotel. Before we could leave though, we had to stop somewhere and have our shoes checked for radiation, since we`d been walking around. Everyone`s shoes measured 200 ( μSv? I don`t know what they were measuring with) and I had them check the dolls too, since they`d also been standing on the ground. The dolls too measured 200, and the guy measuring seemed pretty surprised that they did!
After that, we stopped by a convenient store quickly, and on the suggestion of someone else, I tried almond milk. It was super sweet, and not bad, but I probably won`t buy it again. xD
It was a traditionalish hotel, where shoes went off at the door, and you could use the slippers provided. Those slippers always annoy me, since my feet are small and slip around in them a lot. Anyway, we didn`t get our own rooms, but were doubled up, and this was the hotel and rooms looked like:
After dinner, we hung out with the high school kids who were also staying at the hotel, in the name of English practice. Each of us was paired with two of them. I ended up talking to two boys. Both of them want to go to college. One liked anime, the other liked golf. The One wants to go to Switzerland, the other to Los Angeles. We talked about random things like that. During our talks, we got to try black sugar candy, which had been given to us by Mr. Naka earlier. It tasted sorta like molasses.
By the time all the conversation was done, it was after 9pm, so most people headed to bed. Oh, and one of the teachers there with them gave us pamphlets about their school.
The next morning, we were out by 9, to continue the tour. But not before eating a breakfast provided by the hotel! I couldn`t eat it all though.
Today, we visited Futaba Town Center, so back into the exclusion zone. The more I saw, the odder it seemed, that we were seeing all this, and yet the disaster that had caused it was a full seven years ago. Also, it was raining again today.
One of the ALTs with us had been in Futaba when the tsunami and earthquake happened. She still had an apartment there, and a car. Or had…she had officially abandoned the car (and apartment?) so that it could be cleaned up to make way for new stuff and reopening the town. We saw her car and apartment building, but couldn`t see into the apartment because she`d forgotten to bring the key.
A couple of random things along the way…
…and then we got to the beach. We were told that the building used to be a beach house, a public one. That is, it had places to sit inside and bathrooms, and stuff like that. At the time of the tsunami, there were three people known to be in the area…two they found, alive. One is still missing.
Then we took a break from the exclusion zone. First to see Namie station (and drop someone off). Namie is the town that opened last year. They just opened their schools again this year…and elementary to junior high they have a grand total of 8 kids. The kindergarten has 15 kids though. Near the station, they also had a plaque telling about a musician and composer who was born in Namie.
Then we visited a lost and found for things from the tsunami, from the evacuees in an area of Futaba. Some of the things they kept, that are waiting for owners are interesting, some so torn apart you wonder why they bothered. But the items are kept, in this building with someone in charge so that if your item is there, you can come pick it up. They said of the items they`d found, about 600 had been picked up.
Now we visited Okuma town center. The town symbol was a bear. They`re currently starting to demolish everything and start building a new town from scratch. But the area we saw they hadn`t started tearing down yet. The Eneos (gas station) with the clock? We were told that that`s the only working clock in the red zone, since unlike all the others it has a solar panel.
We stopped by a TEPCO cafeteria for lunch, and then it was time to go home.
It was very interesting hearing all the information about the tsunami, earthquake and nuclear meltdown. It was sad to see all the abandoned buildings and things, and to hear about people that didn`t make it. It seemed a hopeful sign that flowers were blooming, even under those adverse conditions. And really, for seven years, the plants didn`t take over as much as one would have thought… (though that could be because of the radiation).
In an odd way, seeing Okuma town, my thought was that I want to live there when it`s fixed up. Which is a little silly, since I don`t know exactly when that will be or where I will be at that time. And too, the town will look completely different.
And…I don`t really know what else to say. Mother Nature can be quite aggressive, but now that the biggest danger of radiation is going away, rebuilding is starting.
I guess my main point is that no, Fukushima is not radioactive. In my town, I get less radiation per day than someone who lives in Paris. (I forget the exact numbers, but I did learn that at one point.) Stay out of the exclusion zone, stay away from nuclear reactors and you still have the whole rest of beautiful Fukushima to explore and enjoy.
I love Japan.