By Massimo Burbi
Fukushima is not a city, it’s a Japanese prefecture in the Tōhoku region where nearly two million people live. Fukushima city is its administrative capital, but the name is synonymous with disaster because of what happened about 60 km away from it, where Japan borders with the Pacific Ocean to the east.
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred off the Japanese coast, It was the most powerful ever recorded in Japan and the fourth most powerful in the world since 1900.
Magnitude 9.0 might just sound like a number until you have something to compare it to. Italy still remembers the devastation brought by the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila: 309 deaths, 65000 evacuees. That was a magnitude 5.9 (Richter) quake. Logarithmic scale might give the impression the two events were not so different after all, but a difference in magnitude of 3.0 is equivalent to a factor of roughly 30000 in the energy released .
And to make matters worse, the earthquake triggered a massive tsunami, with waves in excess of 10 meters that traveled at 700 km/h for up to 10 km inland resulting in 16000 deaths, 6000 injured, 2500 people missing (searches still continue for them, albeit with little hope to cling to), 120000 buildings completely collapsed, entire towns obliterated and 340000 evacuees.
The Fukushima Daiichi (meaning number one) Nuclear Power Plant was built on that coast, it withstood the earthquake and automatically shut down. It was the electricity supply that failed because of the quake, leaving the coolant system entirely dependent on the emergency diesel generators.
A 2008 study (ignored by Tepco, the company running the power plant) warned that a massive tsunami with waves in excess of 10 meters high could occur in that area. In March 2011 the plant’s seawall was just little more than half that height. When a 14 meters high tsunami wave hit the coast it easily overwhelmed the seawall and completely flooded the emergency diesel generators room (culpably located in the basement). This resulted in a total loss of power in the plant, causing the coolant system to become inoperative which started the chain of events leading in the next days to the (chemical, not nuclear) explosions in reactors 1-3 and in the reactor 4’s building, which in turn triggered the release of radioactive material in the atmosphere and into the sea.
The next day more than 150000 people living within 20 km from the nuclear power plant were evacuated .
Arrival in Namie Town
It’s 11 o’clock in the morning when we arrive in Namie. It’s been more than eight and half years since the earthquake, but in many ways time seems to have stopped here.
Namie town was among the places most affected by the release of radioactive material from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which is just 8 km away as the crow flies. For six years Namie has been a ghost town, only in the spring of 2017 people were allowed to come back, but only few of them did. “20000 people used to live here, only about 5% returned” explains Fumie, from Fukushima City, who acts as a guide and translator for the day.
The evacuation zone was progressively reduced overtime, right now it extends for 2.7% of the area of the Prefecture and about 30000 people still live as evacuees outside its border .
We step down the car near the railway station. Trains only go north from here, but works are in progress to restore the railway to Tomioka Town, some 20 km to the south. A cafe has just opened by the station, a taxi service has recently been resumed, and not far away from where we stand the dentist is back. Tentative signs of reconstruction, both material and human, in a scenario full of uncertainties.
Walking the streets of the town radioactivity is extremely low, rarely exceeding 0.15 µSv/h, less than in many areas of Italy. You can measure 0.30 µSv/h in Rome, and here and there in Orvieto city center readings in the region of 0.70 µSv/h are not uncommon.
But in spite of radioactivity being low fear is still very much an issue here, and it should not be taken for granted that people who spent years settling elsewhere would be willing to go through another difficult transition to return to their native towns.
No radiation-induced deaths have been recorded in Fukushima so far , a study estimated the external dose in the first four months after the accident (when the exposure was at its highest) for nearly half a million residents and reported it was below 3 mSv for 99.4% of them . The Italian per capita average dose is about 4.5 mSv per year .
However, about 2000 residents still died in a disorganized evacuation, where people were rushed out of hospitals suffering interruption of medical care and evacuation and relocation stress caused depression, alcoholism and suicides .
Fear, anxiety and lack of information on radiation killed more people than the tsunami in the prefecture .
Some are of the opinion that evacuation lasted for too long anyway. Shunichi Yamashita (Nagasaki University) who spent two years at the head of Fukushima prefecture’s survey to understand the health effects of the accident on population, claims people could have returned after a month .
In Namie the earthquake caused such severe damage that many buildings still standing had to be demolished. Several others will be soon. You can tell them by a small red sticker on the windows.
We keep on walking until we reach the local school, all but abandoned now. Poignantly from one of the windows we see a shoe rack, with dozens of shoes neatly put in it.
“They belong to the school’s kids” Fumie tells me “they took them off in the morning as they always did, and when the earthquake struck, in the early afternoon, they ran away and left them behind”.
The town was evacuated the very next day. Eight and a half years later and they are still there.
In the streets of the city center we walk by a number of buildings looking reasonably good from a distance, but a closer inspection through the broken windows reveals the desolation and the destruction brought by a monster earthquake followed by years of neglect.
So far we didn’t encounter any pedestrian, only cars. A few hundred meters down the road the picture suddenly changes: gazebos, tables, there’s a small festival going on. Apparently this happens every second Saturday of the month to cheer up those who came back. The entertainment doesn’t look exactly memorable, but people seem to enjoy it. The dose rate is less than 0.10 µSv/h.
The area is surrounded by small temporary stores, about to be moved elsewhere in the town. As soon as we enter one of them we are offered tea and biscuits. All products for sale are local and people don’t miss a chance to tell you that. It’s the same in every store we go.
You can tell that those who came back strongly wants to rebuild their communities. Farmers want to farm and sell their products, but it’s easier said than done. People here have very little trust in the government, which didn’t do a particularly good job in dealing with the emergency and the aftermath. Taking it upon themselves schools, markets and local communities independently started to test for radioactivity in meat, fish, vegetables and all sort of food you can put on the table. Probably nowhere else in the world is food as closely monitored as here, and local people know they are not running radiation-related risks by eating it. Some resident goes as far as saying he wouldn’t buy food from anywhere else, not being as tested as the one from Fukushima.
But even if food meets the standard limit of 100 Bq/kg of Cesium (which is more strict than standards in both the EU and the USA ), elsewhere in Japan, as well as in foreign countries, many people are too afraid of contamination to eat food from this region, despite there being no real danger.
The stigma from the name “Fukushima” is among the biggest obstacles to this battered region’s recovery.
“It happens with people too” Fumie tells me. “Local people who went to live outside the Prefecture are often discriminated against for fear of contamination”. Being exposed to radioactivity doesn’t make you radioactive. Radioactivity is not contagious, but fear, particularly when combined with lack of information, is.
We leave Namie Town heading north west.
In the process of decontaminating the area, 5-10 cm of weakly radioactive superficial soil have been removed and put into plastic bags. But what to do with them is yet to be decided, since nobody takes the responsibility. So for the time being they stay where they are. We see hundreds of them along the road. You wonder what happens to them in the typhoon season.
We take a country road. Immediately after the accident at the Nuclear Power Plant the government ordered to kill cattle in the evacuation zone, but here there’s a man who disregarded the order. We arrive at his ranch at lunch time, he’s waiting for us. He tells us his cows can no longer be sold, therefore they’ll die of old age. “They are fat and happy” he adds.
As he tells us his story it doesn’t take long for his anger against the government and Tepco to become apparent, a state of mind that made him very critical of nuclear power. The debate on the matter ends before it even starts, time is ticking away and we still have many stops ahead of us, we must go.
Leaving the farm the dosimeter and the spectrometer come alive for the first time. At the roadside I measure a dose rate of 0.70-0.80 µSv/h, far from worrying, but enough to take the first significant measurement of the day.
I therefore decide to stop in order to record a gamma spectrum to check that what I am detecting is Cesium released from the Power Plant. Gamma spectroscopy is based on the fact that when a radionuclide undergoes alpha or beta decay, its nucleus is left in an excited state, and can only reach its ground state by emitting a gamma ray.
Every different radionuclide emits gamma-rays of a specific energy which become its signature. Analysing a gamma spectrum allows you not just to tell how much radioactivity there is, but what causes it as well.
The gamma spectrum confirms the presence of Cesium 137 and Cesium 134, the two main radionuclides released in the atmosphere after the accident, together with Iodine 131, the most aggressive of the three in the short term, but long gone by now, its half-life time being just 8 days, and therefore becoming harmless in a month or so.
Cesium 134 halved four times since 2011, and it’s reduced to roughly 6% of its original activity, while Cesium 137, having a 30 years half-life, will take much longer to decay away.
Ukedo and the No-Go Zone
We head towards the ocean and to a place called Ukedo, where formerly about 2000 people lived. The tsunami wiped it all out, killing one in ten people. The few remaining buildings were so damaged, they were torn down soon after. Looking around it’s hard to believe there used to be a small town here.
Nothing remained, the only exception being the elementary school. Its clock hasn’t run since the day of the earthquake, it’s still stuck at the time the tsunami hit the coast. About 80 kids were in the school that day, among so much destruction they were all saved by their teachers who took them to the nearby hills after the tsunami warning was issued. From there they watched the town where they lived being erased from existence, together with the lives of many of their parents.
From here we are about 6 km away from the nuclear power plant and, looking south, we can clearly see it. The dose rate is the lowest so far, below 0.05 µSv/h.
We leave the coast and take the National Route n.6, which goes through the No-Go Zone, where you can drive but you are not allowed to stop or even open the window, let alone stepping down.
The dose rate goes up, but keeps pretty low: for a second or two I read 0.50 µSv/h, but it quickly goes down to 0.30 µSv/h and stays there.
We stop at a gas station. We are still well into the No-Go Zone but inside the service area you can get out of the car without anybody complaining about it. I take the chance to record another gamma spectrum. Our stop is longer than it typically takes to fill the tank, I accumulate data for little more than 15 minutes.
“How’s the radioactivity here?” Fumie asks me. I tell her we’re slightly above 0.30 µSv/h, lower than what you get in Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City. The signature is still the same: Cesium 137 and Cesium 134.
We go back in the car and we move south on the National Route n.6 in the Futaba area. At our closest approach to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant we are about 2 km away from it. We stop on a side street. The power plant is right in front of us but we can’t get any closer than that and we don’t have much time to look around, after a couple of minutes a policeman tells us, kindly but firmly, that we need to move on. The dose rate is below 0.30 µSv/h.
Continuing South, we run into the only real hot spot of the day. I read 3-4 µSv/h, but it’s short-lived, a minute later the dose rate is already reduced by more than a half and it keeps on going down. In order to record a clear spectrum I need more time where radiation is higher (the level is not dangerous) so I ask to turn around and go back north.
You cannot stop the car inside the No-Go Zone, but nothing prevents you from going back and forth. I am not sure the driver understands why we are doing this but he doesn’t complain, we go back towards the power plant.
I accumulate data for little less than 20 minutes. Unsurprisingly it’s the smoothest spectrum of the day, but as expected the result doesn’t change: Cesium 137 and Cesium 134. Average dose rate 1.29 µSv/h.
Tomioka Town, divided city.
With a good spectrum finally under the belt we turn around again and we head to Tomioka Town, about 10 km to the south. The city is cut in two by a road which currently is the boundary of the No-Go Zone and this makes for a pretty surreal view: people can live on one side of the road but can’t even set a food on the opposite side. You look to your left and you see a reasonable normality, but if you look to your right there’s nothing but tall grass and total neglect.
“I don’t understand why they left the cars behind” Fumie tells me pointing at the cars permanently parked in front of the abandoned houses. “Now they all have broken windows and flat tyres, but a year ago they still looked perfect”.
We go ahead on foot from here. Right in front of the no trespassing fence the dose rate measured by the instruments is in the region of 0.35 µSv/h. A sign not far from there tells us inside the No-Go Zone it’s 0.48 µSv/h, slightly higher but far from dangerous, and elsewhere in the town it’s much lower than that. Still, fear of radiation is among the main reasons why many people didn’t come back.
It’s getting darker as we enter Tomioka’s railway station. “Everything’s being rebuilt from scratch here” explains Fumie, “the tsunami washed out everything away”. Just like in Namie, works are in progress to restore the railway connecting the two towns.
Looking up we see a sign reading “Tomioka will never die!”. We don’t know who put it there. We stare at it for a moment without saying a word. Then I look at my dosimeter, the dose rate is less than 0.10 µSv/h.
The sun has already set and a strong wind is blowing when we reach the coast for the last stop of the day. The other nuclear power plant of Fukushima, the number 2 (Daini), is a km away from where we stand.
We skipped lunch, and Tokyo is more than three hours away. A supermarket just reopened at Tomioka and we decide that having dinner there is the best thing to do.
The supermarket is not exactly crowded, but it works, the shelves are full of products and people have a place in town where they can find what they need. Rebuilding is not just about bricks, it’s about a social and economic fabric that was torn apart.
At the dinner table I take my laptop out and download the GPS map with all the datapoints recorded. We look at it as we finally eat, it’s a way to go through our journey again.
Total accumulated dose during more than seven hours spent in the Fukushima Prefecture, including a couple of stops inside the No-Go Zone: 1.60 µSv. “It means the average dose rate was 0.22 µSv/h, less than what you get walking the streets of Rome’s city center” I say while me and Fumie enjoy a very good sushi.
And now it’s time to go back. 250 km later we are under the Yasukuni Dori’s lights in Tokyo (Shinjuku). In the long journey from Tomioka to Tokyo we talked about many things, but when we finally say goodbye Fumie has one last request: “share what you saw with your friends and family. Your action will support Fukushima people”.
Information is the best antidote to irrational panic and fear.
Five days later I take off from Tokyo to go back to Europe. In little more than 11 hours of flight my dosimeter records an accumulated dose of 44.49 µSv, with a peak dose rate of 10 µSv/h and an average dose rate at cruise altitude between 4 and 5 µSv/h.
This is likely an underestimation , the dosimeter is designed for terrestrial gamma rays and the cosmic rays you find at 10-12 km altitude are mostly out of its range, but even believing the numbers I read in the display, as I step down the plane, I cannot help wondering how many of the people who shared that flight with me would have been too afraid of radiation to follow me and Fumie for a day in Fukushima, where they would have been exposed to a dose nearly 30 times lower.
The instruments measure and record the dose and dose rate for external exposure which, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), was “by far the dominant pathway contributing to effective dose” in the most affected regions of Fukushima prefecture.
Units mentioned are µSv (microsievert) e mSv (millisievert) which measure the equivalent and effective dose, the biological effect of ionizing radiation. 1 millisievert corresponds to 1000 microsieverts.
The margin of error is in the region of 10-20%.
- Spetcrometer: Mirion PDS 100G
- Dosimeter: Tracerco PED+
- Geiger Counter: SE International Radiation Alert Ranger
The dosimeter can be used in “personal dose” mode and in “survey meter” handheld mode. While accumulating the personal dose it’s been worn on the upper body for most of the time.
References and Suggestions for Further Readings
The first, and so far only, deaths that could be radiation-related was recorded in 2018.