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Return to the Radioactive Zone

VICE Japan travelled to Fukushima three years after the nuclear disaster to install a Safecast monitor.

Watch the new documentary Return to the Zone, produced by VICE Japan for their YouTube channel.

Authored by Joseph George

On November 18th 2013 TEPCO began the risky process of removing the spent fuel assemblies from Fukushima Daiichi’s Unit 4 and transferring them to an onsite centralised storage location. As of February 10th 2014, 308 assemblies have been successfully transferred to their new home. That leaves 1,225 more assemblies of the total 1,533 to remove by the end of year target.


At normal circumstances fuel removal is a relatively safe routine process. In the case of Fukushima Daiichi however, it’s hazardous to say the least. 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, 2011. Damaged racks could mean knocked over assemblies or assemblies leaning on each other. Therefore even a routinely rehearsed method of extraction runs the risk of knocking them about and playing havoc with the inner fuel rods. The upshot being that a broken fuel rod could lead to severe spike in radiation similar to that seen immediately after the explosions at Daiichi.

Moving fuel assemblies at Fukushima Daiichi. Photo cortesy of TEPCO.

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. With one of these, anybody can contribute local radiation readings to the global map. However, measuring any 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 also need to be in safe locations unexposed to the weather or local wildlife. 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.


So on the morning of the 12th of February VICE Japan headed to Tomioka, Fukushima, just 10 kilometres south of Daiichi, to meet up with Joe Moross of Safecast Japan and introduce him to Naoto Matsumura, the virtually lone resident of Tomioka town. Naoto had agreed to help Safecast out by having a fixed counter installed on his house. You might remember Naoto from Alone In The Zone, which followed him as he chose to stay behind in order care for the animals abandoned in Tomioka after everyone else had escaped to other parts of Japan or been relocated in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. It’s important to mention that Naoto’s house is no longer within the exclusion zone, which was shrunken earlier in 2013. It's just on its border. This has in almost no way affected life in the area for which “ghost town” is still the most immediate description that comes to mind.

Two still upturned cars at Tomioka Station.

As you approach the area, hopping off the still busy Joban expressway onto the less populated route 6 that follows the coast north towards Tomioka and past Daiichi itself, you experience the unsettling process of a million news reports and photographs being actualised around you. First is the gradual awareness that most of the buildings and businesses you pass – though intact – are empty. A little bit further you start to notice a few older buildings that didn’t quite survive the impact of the earthquake, some with missing roof tiles, others with completely collapsed portions. A little further, in our case as we turned down the small shopping street that leads to the unused coastal train station of Tomioka, you witness firsthand the complete devastation brought by the tsunami. Nothing was spared and three years later little has changed, cars remain stranded on rail lines or upturned and scattered, houses that were ripped open still contain objects and remnants of normal life. It is overwhelmingly sad, and everyone who has the chance should see it for themselves.


A small shrine left for those who died in the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami at Tomioka Station.

When we arrived, Tomioka was crawling with police vehicles, which is surprising as the town is no longer in the exclusion zone and therefore open to anyone inclined to see the devastation for themselves. Shortly after arriving in front of the station no fewer than three police vehicles and six policemen rolled up and with that unique feigned politeness peculiar to police began taking details from each of our three-person crew. Business cards, numbers, home addresses, and anything else they could think to take down. In my case, 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, and weren’t given any realistic answers other than some rehearsed blurb about health and safety in the area. We had a small chat with Joe at the train station about the day’s project. He explained that while he didn't assume that something was going wrong with the fuel rod removal, the operation and the risks involved in general 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 is installing fixed counters close to the plant, “by having the monitoring in place, people can feel confident that if there is any change in the radiation situation we will know in minutes”. Shortly after, Naoto arrived in his tiny white utility truck. The first thing that hits you about the guy is the energy he emits, immediately welcoming, and unreserved. In our three vehicles, we travelled up the small lane that leads from the town to Naoto’s farm. Our vehicle went slow because we were traveling through some of the worst snow recorded in the area. After getting lost once, Naoto came back to find us and then led us back to his place, reversing as fast as we were going forward over the ice.


Naoto's zoo.

Once all three parties were safely at the farm Joe scouted a good location for the counter, settling on a disused house destroyed by the earthquake, adjacent to the building in which Naoto currently lives. “Nobody cares about this house anymore”, Naoto laughed. The wrecked house had in fact been Naoto's family home prior to the earthquake and was still full of the remainders of normal family life, photographs, books, and a ruined TV. Naoto's farm seems like a happy place despite its isolation. “Zoo” comes to mind when you first enter. Sadly one of his ostriches died recently but one of the famous birds still awaits visitors by the main gate, along with a dog and a pair of cats. While Joe got to installing the counter we spoke to Naoto 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 will be dead from radiation exposure.” He managed to say all this half smiling but pointedly added that, “it’s despicable.” The good news is that even having been in the zone for three years now, Naoto firmly believes there has been no deterioration in his personal health although he admitted he doesn't know what could happen over the next 10-15 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 element in the local vicinity.

Joe Moross and Naoto Matsumura.

One of the most interesting subjects we broached was Naoto becoming somewhat a media celebrity. On the day we visited his home we had been preceded by another crew and witnessed the arrival of a French journalist just as we were heading out. Naoto even tentatively mentioned an invite 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 Fukushima stories. He has become adept at entertaining the foreign media and understanding their interest in him. He also asserted that interest from the domestic media has been close to zero. When he wanted to hold a press conference he had to go through the AP and Tokyo Foreign Correspondents Club. It was a similar situation for Joe who had originally been late meeting up with us because of a sudden telephone interview request from the South China Morning Post. The previous day a German television crew had followed him. In a certain sense because information regarding TEPCO’s operations are so thin on the ground, these two have become the unofficial spokesmen both for life in the zone and hard facts post the disaster. Eventually after a lot of scurrying about and back and forth with the Tokyo Safecast office regarding the correct programming and GPS coordinates and a lot of other MIT level stuff I didn't understand, the counter was up. The counter equipped to Naoto’s wrecked house consists of an external sensor attached to the outside wall, a cable from this runs to what Joe calls “the brains”, a control box that counts the radiation pulses, a router, 3G modem, and power supply. After a series of hand-offs between servers the information arrives 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 the fuel assemblies, will register almost immediately. They will therefore be accessible to the public a long time before its announced by TEPCO, or even the mainstream media. At the end of the day before saying our goodbyes Naoto made a joke about being able to keep an eye on TEPCO from now on, “I’ll tell them I’ve got a machine set up to monitor things. And it was made by NASA”.

Previously: Radioactive Man