The Return of Radioactive Man

VICE headed to Tomioka, Fukushima—just six miles south of Daiichi—to meet up with Joe Moross of Safecast Japan and to introduce him to Naoto Matsumura, the virtually lone resident of Tomioka town, who had agreed to let Safecast install a fixed geiger...

Mar 7 2014, 4:50pm

Last year, we released Radioactive Man—a story about the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. As we approach the third anniversary of the disaster, VICE Japan returned to check on the cleanup process.

On November 18, 2013, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) began the risky process of removing the spent fuel assemblies from Fukushima Daiichi’s Unit 4 and transferring them to an on-site centralized storage location. As of February 10, 308 assemblies have been successfully transferred to their new home. That leaves 1,225 more assemblies of the total 1533 to remove by the end of year.

Moving the fuel assemblies at Fukushima Daiichi.

In normal circumstances, fuel removal is a relatively safe and routine process. In the case of Fukushima Daiichi, however, it's extremely hazardous. No one knows the extent to which the racks that currently house the assemblies were damaged during the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that occurred on March 11, three years ago.

Damaged racks could mean knocked-over assemblies, or assemblies leaning on other assemblies—even a routine method of extraction runs the risk of knocking them around and playing havoc with the inner fuel rods. A broken fuel rod could lead to a severe spike in radiation, similar to that seen immediately after the explosions at Daiichi.

Safecast, the group of hackers using DIY geiger counters and crowd-sourcing to produce the world’s most accurate radiation data map, are especially interested in monitoring changes in the dead zone immediately surrounding Daiichi during the removal process. The group made a name for themselves worldwide thanks to their incredibly successful mobile bGeigie Nano Geiger counter kits, which allowed anyone to contribute local radiation readings to a global map.

Nevertheless, measuring sudden changes in the area around Daiichi during the fuel-removal process calls for fixed, permanently placed counters in stable locations. This raises a number of problems. They need a stable source of power—a rarity in many of the devastated and abandoned areas around the Fukushima plant. They need to be in safe locations, unexposed to the weather or local wildlife—another rarity. Finally, and perhaps most difficult in the area, they need at least an intermittent human presence to keep an eye for any abnormalities or interference with the hardware.

On the morning of February 12, VICE headed to Tomioka, Fukushima—just six miles south of Daiichi—to meet up with Joe Moross of Safecast Japan and to introduce him to Naoto Matsumura, the virtually lone resident of Tomioka, who had agreed to help Safecast out by having a fixed counter installed on his house.

Matsumura’s house is no longer within the exclusion zone, which was shrunken earlier in 2013, but sits just on its border. The smaller exclusion zone hasn't done anything to change the area. "Ghost town" is still the most appropriate description.

As we approached the area—hopping off the busy Joban Expressway onto the less populated Route 6, which follows the coast north to Tomioka and past Daiichi itself—we experienced the unsettling process of a million news reports and photographs coming to life around us. First is the awareness that most of the buildings and businesses we passed—though intact—were completely deserted.

A little bit farther, we started to notice a few older buildings that didn’t quite survive the impact of the earthquake. Some had missing roof tiles; others had completely collapsed. We turned down a small shopping street that leads to the unused coastal train station of Tomioka, and we witnessed firsthand the complete devastation that the tsunami wrought. Nothing was spared.

Three years later, little had changed. Cars remained stranded on rail lines or upturned and scattered—houses that were ripped open still contained objects and remnants of normal life. It was overwhelmingly sad, and anyone who has the chance should see it for himself.

Two upturned cars at Tomioka Station

A small shrine, at Tomioka Station, left for those who died in the earthquake and tsunami

Interestingly, Tomioka was crawling with police vehicles, surprising because the town is no longer in the exclusion zone and therefore open to anyone wanting to see the devastation. Shortly after arriving in front of the station, no fewer than three police vehicles and six policemen rolled up. With that unique, feigned politeness peculiar to police, they began taking down details from our entire crew—business cards, numbers, home addresses, and anything else they could think of.

In my case, they asked for information about my wife, my visa status—for which they demanded proof in the form of my Alien Registration Card—and even obtuse questions about what I had done in Japan in the seven years that I’ve lived here. As soon as another car of interested visitors turned up, they moved onto them.

We are still not sure what this was all about. The only answer we got was some rehearsed blurb about health and safety in the area.

We spoke to Moross a little at the station about the day’s project. He explained that, while he didn't assume that something was going to go wrong with the fuel-rod removal, the operation and the risks involved weren’t known well enough to the public. "We feel that a vacuum of information is more upsetting to people than even bad news."

This statement is in line with Safecast’s general initiative of creating a platform for transparent and relevant radiation data, the latest step in which was installing fixed counters close to the plant. "By having the monitoring in place," they said, "people can feel confident that if there is any change in the radiation situation, we will know in minutes."

Shortly after, Matsumura arrived in his tiny white utility truck. The first thing that hits you about the guy is his energy—immediately welcoming and unreserved. Our three vehicles traveled up the small lane that led from the town to Matsumura’s farm. It was slow going because we were traveling through some of the worst snow on record in the area. After getting lost once, Matsumura came back to find us and lead us back to his place.

Once all three parties were safely at the farm, Moross scouted a good location for the counter, settling on a disused house destroyed by the earthquake, adjacent to the building in which Matsumura currently lives. "Nobody cares about this house anymore," Matsumura laughed.

The wrecked house had, in fact, been the Matsumura family home prior to the earthquake and was still full of the remainders of normal family life—photographs, books, and a ruined TV. In last year’s Radioactive Man, Matsumura spoke of how his family had been turned away by other relatives and the full evacuation centers: "I had no choice but to stay behind."

Matsumura Zoo

In general, his farm seemed like a happy place, despite its isolation. It felt like a zoo. Sadly, one of his ostriches had recently died, but one of the famous birds still awaited visitors by the main gate, along with a dog and a pair of cats. While Moross got to working installing the counter, we spoke to Matsumura about the fuel removal.

"If they screw up, we’re all in big trouble. I imagine they’ll put the fuel in containers inside the pool and then pull those out. If they drop one of those and there’s a leak, then everyone here’ll be dead from radiation exposure."

He managed to say all this half-smiling, but he pointedly added that "it’s despicable." The good news was that, even having been in the zone for three years now, Matsumura firmly believed there has been no deterioration in his personal health—although he admitted he didn't know what could happen over the next 10 to 15 years. One of the dangers of a broken fuel rod at this point would be a very sudden release of krypton-85, a cancer-causing isotope in the local vicinity.

Matsumura is becoming something of a celebrity. On the day we visited his home, we were preceded by another crew and met a French journalist just as we were heading out. Matsumura even tentatively mentioned an invitation to Europe to give a talk about his experiences in the zone.

Of course, this was less than a month before the anniversary, so news crews were all over the area, scrambling to get their 3/11 stories. He has become adept at entertaining the foreign media and understands their interest in him. He also pointed out that the interest from the domestic media has been close to zero. When he wanted to hold a press conference, he had to do so by going through the AP and the Tokyo Foreign Correspondents' Club.

It was a similar situation for Moross, who was late meeting up with us because of a sudden request from the South China Morning Morning Post for a telephone interview. The previous day, a German television crew had followed him. Because information regarding Tepco’s operations is so thin on the ground, these two have become the unofficial spokesmen for life in the zone and for hard facts post-meltdown.

Eventually, after a lot of back and forth with the Tokyo Safecast office regarding the correct programming and GPS coordinates and other MIT-level stuff I didn't understand, the counter was up.

The counter equipped to Matsumura’s wrecked house consisted of an external sensor attached to the outside wall, a cable running from this to what Moross called "the brains," a control box that counts the radiation pulses, a router, a 3G modem, and a power supply. After a series of hand-offs between servers, the information arrived at Safecast, where it can then be graphed.

Because the information is sent in bursts of five-second intervals, any sudden changes in radiation levels—potentially caused by accidents during the removal of the fuel assemblies—will register almost immediately. The news will be accessible to the public long before it's announced by Tepco, or even the mainstream media.

At the end of the day, before saying our goodbyes, Matsumura made a joke about being able to keep an eye on Tepco. "I’ll tell them I’ve got a machine set up to monitor things," he said. "And that it was made by NASA."

Joe Moross and Naoto Matsumura

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