This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
On March 11, 2011, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami smashed into the east coast of Japan, killing over 15,000 people. The epicenter of the quake was just off the coast, where the Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant sits. The subsequent 12 meter tsunami ran straight over 5.7 meter seawall shielding the plant and flooded it. Daini's operators had ignored everybody's advice about safety.
Three reactors went into meltdown, and huge plumes of steam escaped the plant blanketing the surrounding towns, villages, and farms with radioactive fallout. At least 170,000 people were evacuated on a single day, and hardly any have been able to return to the area. The melted reactor cores are still spewing out radiation.
Like everyone else, I heard about the disaster when it happened. But in the five years since, there had been very little news from Fukushima. I was already in Japan, so I decided to go see the impact of this disaster firsthand, to take a trip inside the Fukushima Exclusion Zone.
Because the Japanese government has absolutely forbidden tourism, there's basically no information online for visiting the zone. There's not even a map. But from what I could discern after speaking with some experts in Australia, there are three parts to the exclusion zone. Green, where you can go during the day and stay overnight with a permit. Orange is for day visits only, with the police clearing the area at sunset. And then there's red, where nobody is allowed.
With protective suits, gloves, masks, goggles, and booties bought from a Japanese hardware shop—with a rather convenient "disaster zone" section—we headed towards Fukushima, about a three hour drive north of Tokyo. To be honest, the suits and masks don't actually shield any radiation. You'd need a two inch lead suit for that. But we were told they do prevent radioactive dust from getting in your lungs or on your skin. I also didn't really need to hire a Porsche 911 Carrera. But, damn it, if I'm going to a nuclear fallout zone, I'm doing it in style.
Our first stop was Nahara in the green zone. The government is trying to repopulate the area but only around 15 percent of residents have returned. So we headed further north into the Orange Zone to Tomioka.
On the way, we noticed signs for the Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant (Fukushima II) and turned in. Fukushima II was closer to the epicenter than Fukushima I, the plant in meltdown, but much better protected. It survived the quake and tsunami totally intact. It's a stellar example of good nuclear design but it's still shut down as a precaution.
We drove up to the first police roadblock, expecting to be promptly turned around. The officers very politely checked our passports and waved us through, mentioning something about screening. The same thing happened at the second roadblock. I was genuinely shocked that they were actually going to let us into the plant. But then we were directed to a nuclear decontamination area.
After scanning our car, the officers decided that while we didn't actually need to be decontaminated, they also probably shouldn't let two Australian amateurs roam around a fully fueled nuclear plant. We were sent back to the main road.
Tomioka has higher readings than Nahara. People are only allowed in for short day trips once a month. Other than police, the town is completely deserted. The Japanese government is trying to decontaminate towns in the fallout zone, which basically means scrubbing every road, path and external surface of each house, and removing the top 10 to 15 centimeters of topsoil to clear the radioactive dust released after the disaster.
Huge piles of industrial garbage, bags full of contaminated soil, are stacked with typical Japanese neatness all over the town. Five years since the disaster, Tomioka remains almost untouched. Shops were abandoned, stock scattered on the floor, shelves still overturned from the earthquake.
We walked around a local elementary school. Plants had taken over, lessons were still on the board, and school bags lay untouched in classrooms. Police soon joined us in the school but, again, they just took names and were happy for us to continue walking around taking photos.
We pulled up outside an abandoned pachinko parlor, filled with Japanese-style slot machines that use ball bearings as tokens. While pulling on our protective gear, we met police for the third time. We explained what we were doing as they took our names, bowing politely as they left.
Police come from around Japan for two-week postings in Fukushima. Like all the police we met that day, they were from Nayoro in North Japan. It seemed like they'd been told very little about radiation and were pretty surprised when I suggested that they probably should be wearing masks.
The door of the pachinko parlor was wide open. It was clear nobody had been inside since the disaster struck. Half finished games lay silent, cash was still on the counter, cigarette packs lay open next to games. The calendar on the wall read March 2011.
After the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese government wasn't exactly open with radiation information. Its most recent data release comes from 2013. So a company called Safecast was formed to try and get a more accurate picture of what was happening inside the exclusion zone. Anyone can buy one of Safecast's GPS-enabled Geiger counters, called a bGeigie, to collect and submit data. All of this is information is mapped online and Safecast's Fukushima data is only a week old.
We then drove North on Highway 6, turning off for the entry road to Fukushima I. The bGeigie counter we'd put on the outside of the car was reading around 7.5µSv/h—about the equivalent of a chest x-ray every six hours—and it was climbing fast. Thankfully the counter inside the car was only reading around 2.5µSv/h. Not wanting to hang around any longer than necessary and answer more police questions, we turned around before the police checkpoint.
Futaba, the next town north is in the red zone and had the highest readings of around 1.8µSv/h outside the car. Way too hot to live. Every side road is blocked and patrolled by police, and any driveway or place you could possibly pull over is boarded up. There's no chance you could stay here, even if you wanted to.
To date, no one has died as a direct result of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The real cost is less tangible. Entire towns have been forced from their land and had to leave everything behind. They might never be able to go back. Ancestral homes have been lost, livelihoods destroyed and communities ripped apart. It's estimated more than 1,500 people died during the evacuation or living in temporary accommodation.
Even in the towns that have opened, like Nahara, most chose not to return. They've either moved on with their lives or simply want nothing to do with the area anymore. Despite the government's attempts to decontaminate and revitalize the area, it seems that people want to forget the Fukushima disaster ever happened and get as far away as possible.
It was heartbreaking to see once thriving communities decimated by one company's lax approach to safety. But Mum and Dad, don't worry—my total additional dose of radiation from the day in Fukushima? Less than the 2.7µSv dose you'd get from one hour on an international flight.