Every generation it seems, lives through some life- or world-changing events in their lifetime, whether it be wars, assassinations, shootings, trials and resignations, hijackings, or terrorist attacks. For me, so far they’ve been the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, 9/11, and 3/11 (or the triple disaster of the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami, and Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster). I remember the first as we got the news sitting at the dinner table eating my birthday cake. The second I found out the next morning when I arrived at work (here in Japan) and my colleagues (who were all American) were in shock. The last I didn’t even experience as I arrived in Bhutan that day for a ten-day tour. I remember being dropped off at my hotel, turning on the TV, and basically sitting there in shock while all these incredible images rolled across the screen. Although at the time I was living in the far south of Japan, and thus didn’t have to overly worry about friends and colleagues, I was still devastated over what had happened to my adopted country.

Although the events of 3/11 are within recent memory for most people, here’s a recap of what happened:

At 14:46 on a Friday afternoon, with people at work and students finishing up the school day, the world’s fourth (and Japan’s) largest recorded earthquake struck off the coast of Tohoku, the northern region of Japan’s main island of Honshu. The 9.1 magnitude earthquake moved Honshu 2.4 m east, and shifted the world’s axis. Approximately 45 minutes later, a massive tsunami rolled in towards the Tohoku, overpowering everything it its path, which lead to the deaths of over 18,000 people (approx 2500 of these deaths are still classified as missing). When the earthquake struck, the active reactors at the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) automatically shut down. What they could have predicted, but did nothing about, was what would happen if a tsunami struck the plant. Well, we now know – the massive influx of seawater disabled the emergency generators meant to control the pumps that cool the reactors. Over the next four days, Reactors 1, 2, and 3 had a meltdown throwing radioactive particles in the air and the surrounding area (4, 5, and 6 were already shut down for refuelling). As a result of these explosions, the Fukushima disaster is the only other Level 7 disaster issued by the IAEA, the other being Chernobyl. Despite being rated at the same level as Chernobyl, the area contaminated by radioactivity is only about 10-12% of Chernobyl. However, like Chernobyl, people were evacuated in stages, and out of 470,000 evacuations (which included tsunami hit areas), 165,000 were evacuated specifically because of the nuclear accident (and not the earthquake/tsunami). Similarly, like Chernobyl, the effects of this disaster were made worse because of poor decision making, the failure of leaders to share information and/or release it to the public, the refusal of officials to use the term ‘meltdown’ publicly, and so much more. Even I remember this, watching the news from Bhutan, as newscasters from global news sites like BBC, CNN, MSNBC, and others got increasingly frustrated by the non-information they were getting from officials.

In the months following the disaster, many things affected us in Japan – from the lack of bottled water to reduced power usage, which often meant little to no air conditioning and pretty dark cities (especially Tokyo), as so many resources were needed up north. Over time I heard of people sneaking in to the exclusion zone to get photos, or had seen some from journalists, but never thought to go there myself. The idea of gawking at others misfortune while survivors struggled in emergency housing and dealing with depression and PTSD, was off-putting. But in the last year year or so I began to hear of a regulated outfit offering tours within the zone (there is only one who is legally able to do to this) and thought that this might be the time to go. Clearly with the popularity of other dark sites (like Chernobyl) and increased tourism in Japan, especially with the Rugby World Cup coming this year and the Olympics in 2020, there was a need to take control of what tourism in this area could be.

So, with that in mind, I joined two young guys from the UK in a tour of the exclusion area, with our friendly and informative tour guide, K.

To begin with, it’s important to realize that Fukushima is a large prefecture that borders the Pacific Ocean but goes quite far inland. Naturally, the area most affected by the triple disaster was the coastal area, a narrow strip running from north to south. There’s only one major road that follows the coastline, and connects the southern part of the prefecture to the north, Route 6. There are limited rail options to get around, but mostly a car is your best bet. Route 6 runs right through the exclusion zone, and you are not allowed to stop or get out of your car at any point along the way in the zone. There are only 2 gas stations left along the route, at the outer edges of the zone, the rest have all been abandoned. To actually leave Route 6 and visit the zone, you need official permission to do so, and as mentioned before, there is only one tour that has it. For any of you who saw the Netflix “Dark Tourist” episode where they visit Fukushima, you should be aware that all filming was done along Route 6, as they were not allowed anywhere else. They did leave their vehicle and entered some buildings illegally, but again, these were along that road.

We, on the other hand, did have permission to leave Route 6 and enter into the exclusion zone (our papers and passports were checked at every entry/exit point). The first place we visited was an area along the coast where a local village was completely wiped out. The only thing left there are whatever buildings survived the tsunami/earthquake, and even these are slated to be torn down soon. The entire area along this coastal area is going to be made into a large park, and many trees will be planted there (which will also act as a surge break for future tsunamis). That said, as we passed by this area, there were workers there still digging – not to prepare the ground for planting, but to see if there were any bodies there. Even now, 8 years after the disaster, people are still looking for the missing. They want to ensure that they did their best to find everyone, especially in this area, as once the trees are planted that will be it. We also saw a local Ukedo elementary school that will be turned into a memorial. Everyone made it to safety to a hill not far behind the school, but the tsunami waves made it past the second floor windows, the foam/tide line still visible to see.

Another addition to this coastal area are some “towers” that you can climb, should you be on the coast with no way to get to safety when a tsunami is coming. As for us, it provided a nice viewpoint to see the surrounding the countryside, the absolute devastation the tsunami caused, and the Daiichi NPP off in the not-too-far distance.

During our tour to this area, the one constant that we came across were the large trucks that were moving contaminated soil. Taking a page out of the Chernobyl playbook, Fukushima has also been removing the topsoil from the entire area within the exclusion zone. That soil has been double-bagged and most of it is in temporary storage. A new “permanent” storage facility has been set up and now the soil is being transferred there for safe storage. The permanent storage is for 30 years, about as long as the half-lives of cesium-137 and stontium-90. By then the soil should be clean, but in the meantime, it has to be placed somewhere. There is still a lot of controversy about it, as this is another thing the people of Fukushima have to deal with, all caused by a disaster at a power plant meant to provide power to the people of Tokyo, hundreds of kilometres away.

We then proceeded to our first location that has slightly elevated levels of radiation – a fish nursery so close to the Daiichi NPP that it used water heated by the cooling systems there. It was located right on the edge of the coast and was completely destroyed when the tsunami hit, which killed two workers there. What’s left of the fish nursery is a large collection of buildings, the largest being a barn-like structure that used to have many circular pools where the fish were kept. They are all now cracked and home to numerous weeds. I don’t know how long that building will last, but even walking around the area it was clear that it will soon be a hazard to visitors – the roof looks like it could collapse at any minute, and the steel grates that covered the floors are very bendy, rusty traps, just waiting for their first victim(s). I was almost one of them – even though I was looking where I was walking, I still overestimated the strength of what was left on one of the grates and as it gave beneath my weight I realised that I needed to be a lot more careful. There are also numerous outbuildings there, full of exposed pipes and rebar and with bits of asphalt and concrete scattered about. Most telling was some graffiti that said, “TEPCO will last 1000 years” on one of the broken walls – who wrote it I wondered, clearly a non-Japanese based on how it is written (and in English too), which made me think about how they got in there with all the so-called security. After 5 minutes there (maybe a little longer), our counter was up to 13 microsieverts an hour, still a minimal amount (but almost ten times the normal background radiation).

After visiting the nursery we headed up a nearby hillside where an old folks care facility had been located. It was really near the NPP and the elevated location provided a great viewpoint to see  the nuclear power plant up close (i.e. a couple km away), with all the robotic cranes at work. What I found more interesting was the care home. We weren’t allowed inside, nor were we allowed to take photos of the building, cars, or anything else in the area. But it looks like what I imagined Pripyat looked like after the sudden and enforced evacuation where people had to leave things behind. People’s cars were still in pretty good condition, although many of the license plates had faded completely. Clothes, papers, coffee cups, etc were left inside many a vehicle. Inside the care home you could see the computers the office staff used, the gurneys, the chairs in the waiting room…all left behind in haste.*

*The residents were told to evacuate the night of the explosion (they were safe from the tsunami because of their elevated position), but chose not to because of their fragile conditions. However, the next days buses showed up to forcibly move them to a safer area.

From there we headed to the abandoned down of Okuma, a town located near the power plant where many of the workers used to live. Of course it’s been completely evacuated since the disaster, and although former residents are allowed to return up to twelve times a year, most have not done so. The curtains are still drawn, the cars (some quite nice – BMWs and whatnot) still in the driveways – it mostly looks like the majority of the townspeople were out at work, just waiting to return home. Well, mostly like Japan if it wasn’t for the weeds and the cracks in the road. Again, we were limited by what we were allowed to photograph in this area, but we did walk through the town quite a bit. I really wish we had more time to explore here, but I think we were limited because the other guests needed to get back to Tokyo by a certain time.

Our final destination was a museum/education centre set up by TEPCO, so it was a mix of information and propaganda. It’s definitely something that is quite controversial to the local residents there, and we didn’t stay too long.

Overall I really enjoyed my time here. It was a very sobering, yet educational visit, and I really got to understand the scope of what happened here. I don’t know how much of any of this will remain as the area continues to rebuild (and possible re-locate back home as restrictions lift). Will all this still be here in 30 years, like Chernobyl? Or will it be pared back to a memorial here or there, but nothing left to really experience? Only time will tell.


Site: Fukushima exclusion zone, including the red zone where the Daiichi NPP is located, and the nearby Okuma town.

Notes: the only way to visit at the moment is with Real Fukushima, who I highly recommend. There’s only one tour a day, so options are limited.