Fukushima. Earthquake. Tsunami. Nuclear power plant. Radiation.
On 11 March 2011, a violent earthquake shaked Japan, causing a violent tsunami that hit the Japanese coast, mainly in the prefecture of Fukushima. From that moment, the name of this almost unknown city breaks into our homes. An accident at a nuclear power plant. A new Chernobyl? The news arrives confused, fragmentary, there is little clarity about what happened and what is happening. It seems that the situation is under control, that a second Chernobyl has been avoided. But there is something wrong, people are evacuated from towns near the plant, but the information continues to be inaccurate. Is not known how long the area won’t be accessible, nor what exactly happens at the Dai-Ichi nuclear plant.
The months and the years pass and slowly the world stops worrying about the Fukushima disaster. Tourism in Japan grows, far from that area, and the name Fukushima is almost feared, whispered in a whisper….. although Fukushima is also the name of the entire prefecture that includes areas far from the coast, not affected by the tsunami, nor from nuclear risk (no more than Tokyo or other cities at least!).
Even near Fukushima power plant, however, the years pass and only a few authorized and workers can access the limited area. Little by little, the radiation decreases and in the spring of 2017 the towns of Namie and Tomioka come out of the exclusion zone and the residents get permission to come back to live here.
6 years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, life slowly starts again.
Visit Fukushima, the disaster area
Let’s start by underline that the area affected by the accident, is the coastal area of Fukushima Prefecture, not the city of Fukushima which is 60km from the coast that is always been safe. Therefore areas such as Fukushima City, Aizu Wakamatsu or Koryama have always been open, without any restrictions. The evacuated areas are those within a radius of 20 km from the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, and some areas to the north-west due to wind direction in the days following the Fukushima accident.
Since spring 2017, most of the towns within the “exclusion zone” have returned habitable, and the inhabitants have been authorized to return to live in their old homes.
At present, only the cities of Futaba and Okuma, those where the TEPCO nuclear plants are located, are included in the prohibited zone.
Except these two towns then, the area has returned to be safe, livable and accessible and Japan Wonder Travel has started organizing guided tours in the area with the intent to show the reality of these areas and contribute to the rebirth of this place.
In Namie only 800 of the 21,000 inhabitants have returned to live there in the last year, some less in Tomioka and the railway stations that are interrupted here are only used by a few dozen commuters who work in these towns. Hope however pervades this area of Fukushima and both cities have a school for elementary and junior high school students who have returned to live here with their families.
In August I was invited to participate in their Fukushima Disaster Area Tour and I could see with my own eyes the real situation of this area, verifying in person how the area has returned to be safe and ready to start again, through the reconstruction and major projects such as the construction of a robotics center in the town of Namie.
Tour in Fukushima Disaster Area
The Fukushima Disaster Area Tour leaves with a private shuttle from Tokyo station and takes the whole day, during which you make several stops in Namie and Tomioka and you cross Route 6 inside the Exclusion Zone, which can only be traveled only by car or bus and with the absolute prohibition of stopping and / or opening the windows.
Throughout the trip, we had a radiation meter available so that we could personally check the radiation levels. In addition to the portable device, along the approach road to the area and at different points, there are also measuring panels, so that the level of radioactivity can always be controlled.
Our guide Takuto, a guy who studied at the University of Sendai (in the prefecture adjacent to Fukushima) who knows very well this area, not only showed us the information about the area in a clear and complete way, but also made us as an interpreter during meetings with the locals.
The different stops allow you to see with your own eyes the situation and what are the signs and consequences of that terrible day of March 2011.
Like the coastal area of Namie, completely engulfed by the tsunami despite the barriers and skeleton of that elementary school from which fortunately all the children managed to escape once the tsunami alarm arrived. Now new barriers are being built and we are waiting to see if the area will be rebuilt as residential or not.
Or the area of the city center, near the station. That station which is terminus, the trains arrive and depart only northwards, towards Sendai. The stretch that connects it to Futaba and then Tomioka is still interrupted because it crosses the still contaminated area. Here the houses bear the signs of abandonment and the traces of wild pigs that have come in search of food in these 6 years. Many owners have given the demolition order, the material inside has not been decontaminated by the Government, but it would be up to the private ones to take care of its disposal.
The black storage bags are still piled up in various fields in the surrounding area, waiting to be transferred to the underground storages of the plant or other suitable places.
The center of Namie is starting again, with the small commercial area near the Town Hall where almost all the inhabitants of the village are employed, and the construction of a school for the 80 children who have come back to live here. There is also a small souvenir shop, an important sign of hope for the re-start of the area’s economy. The people we talk to are confident, they are not afraid: what has happened is now gone, we want to make this area again a lively and innovative center, waiting to go back to walk the beautiful hiking trails in the woods nearby.
Moving instead in the countryside we meet Mr. Yoshizawa, a farmer who has been carrying out a battle for years against the nuclear plant, the TEPCO electricity company that owns the plant and the Japanese government. In his time he challenged the ban on entry into the area and fought against the extermination of his contaminated cows and the ones in neighboring farms, continuing to feed them until today, although neither milk nor meat nor calves could be more marketed because they are contaminated by both the radiation taken and the products ingested. The battle of Mr. Yoshizawa continues today and he often travels to Japan and abroad to denounce the behaviors implemented (or not implemented) by the authorities and continues to promote his message against nuclear energy and against the style of modern life and the lights of the capital that require a large amount of energy, obtained according to him by exploiting the population of the countryside.
In Tomioka town instead, we met a woman who despite having lost entirely her jewelry and watch shop, has decided to start promoting the rebirth of her town and now do guided tours in Tomioka, to tell the story of this city, the steps taken for reconstruction and what are the future ambitions, such as the return of rice fields to agriculture that brings work and people to the city, instead of seeing them occupied by the photovoltaic panels currently present.
Is dangerous visit Fukushima?
Reaffirming once again that the area affected by the Fukushima disaster is only part of the prefecture, at the present time, the areas that have been declared viable since spring 2017, are safe and stable areas.
Thanks to the radiation machine, we could always keep the values around us checked. Up to a value of 0.3mSv it is possible to live without problems, but in addition to this data we need to consider the average number of radiation to which we are subjected over the long term.
As you can imagine, in fact, a simple CT has a value that exceeds this limit, but we are exposed only for a few seconds.
The radioactivity index in front of Tokyo Station, our starting point, was 0.12mSv, absolutely safe and normal. In many of the areas visited, including the Namie coastal area, the radiation detected was even lower than the figure recorded in Tokyo. Of course, in some areas the columns and our device also detected values like 0.20mSv or 0.25mSv but in the habitable areas the value of 0.3mSv has never been exceeded.
Unfortunately, in some areas od these town, there are still houses and roads barricaded inside the Exclusion Zone, still not completely decontaminated, where the levels of radioactivity are higher. One of the symbolic points of this excruciating diversity is Tomioka’s cherry tree boulevard, which can only be traveled for a while, among the pruned plants favoring decontamination, which culminates against a barricade beyond which one can see the cherry trees on the sides of the road. Next spring, the annual festival will return to the accessible part, awaiting the definitive revival of the town, like the cherry blossoms that will flow behind the barricades.
On Route 6, which connects Namie and Tomioka, and passes from the towns of Futaba and Okuba at the closest point to the central, the values of radioactivity rise exponentially, even reaching peaks of 20mSv (when we passed we have touched the 8 , 9mSv) and it is for this reason that access to pedestrians, bicycles and motorcycles is banned and cars, buses and lorries is invited to pass as quickly as possible, without opening the windows. Access to this area is allowed only to workers, who can stay inside for a maximum of 7 hours a day for a period of 4 consecutive months, interspersed by two months of absence. Special permits may be issued to enter this area, but it seems obvious to me to underline that this shouldn’t be of interest to tourists and the curious! It is a contaminated area where the workers enter to monitor the situation and bring it back to normal, if they could not enter it I think they would be happy!
At the end of the day, the detector calculated the total radiation to which we were subjected, and the total was 0.002mSv. Be aware that in a Tokyo-New York flight a total of 0.1mSv is exposed (the radiation increases with altitude).
Therefore, visiting the area affected by the Fukushima disaster doesn’t pose any risk of contamination any more than we are subjected to on other occasions.
I find it rather an instructive excursion, which allows us to understand what is the actual current situation, without being influenced by the “hearsay” and the negative rumors put into circulation just to feed a nonexistent panic.
The general feeling that you breathe visiting the area affected by the accident of Fukushima is a feeling of great hope and desire for future redemption, many of the people who have not returned have done so mainly because in these 6 years of waiting they started a new life elsewhere, not being able to live in oblivion without knowing how long.
New projects and structures will be realized in the coming years, to bring job opportunities and therefore inhabitants into the areas. One thinks of the future, without being intimidated by the past, which is certainly clear in people’s memories and who are not limited to demonizing it, but think about how to start and improve, doing everything to prevent a similar new incident from happening in any other place of Japan.