Nuclear wasteland: Inside the ghost towns of Fukushima

Rob Gilhooly
Eight years on from the tsunami and nuclear meltdown, much of Japan’s Fukushima province remains derelict and deserted. But are the radiation fears stopping people returning misplaced?  - © 2018 Simon Townsley Ltd

There was a chilling silence in the town of Tomioka in the days after the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Shoes were left in porches, half-read newspapers lay abandoned next to cups of tea, long gone cold. As night closed in on the seaside town, lights glared out from a few bare windows, while news of the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant just six miles away drifted from a solitary radio.

Nobody was home.

Eight years on, little has changed. Before March 11, 2011 – the day the tsunami engulfed the nuclear facility, forcing the evacuation of more than 150,000 residents across the region – the town had a population of 15,960. Now, just a few hundred people have returned despite the lifting of the evacuation order in April 2017.

During the day, some residents wander around Sakura Mall, a publicly-funded shopping centre opened in the hope of jump-starting a mass repatriation. But as night falls it’s almost like going back to 2011. Just a scattering of homes have lights on. Half-drunk cups of tea litter the tables.

“Officially 835 have returned, but many are plant and other clean-up workers who are renting out abandoned houses,” says Takumi Takano, a local councillor who splits her time between Tomioka and temporary digs in Koriyama an hour’s drive away that she and her husband Kenichi have lived in since evacuating.

The swimming pool ladders at Namie Elementary School are bent at a 45 degree angle from the force of the tsunami Credit: Simon Townsley

Of the remaining locals most are either elderly, or only return during the day, she says. Most worryingly, just 14 are children. When night falls, they return to “temporary” homes elsewhere, she says. “It’s like a ghost town.”

A similar situation is found throughout the entire evacuated region, where only 12,859 of the 100,510 residents who were living in the zone before the disasters have returned, a Cabinet Office official says. Like Tomioka, many of them are clean-up workers, local residents say.

The reasons are threefold, says Kenichi, a former worker at the devastated nuclear plant

After almost eight years, residents, especially those with young families, have settled elsewhere, securing new jobs and starting new schools or moving out of Fukushima entirely, he says. Many are put off returning by the severe shortage of medical facilities in the region.

“Then there’s the radioactivity,” he says, as the couple sit outside their caravan, set up on the land of their recently demolished home, which backs on to a 130-square-mile “difficult-to-return-zone” that is still considered too highly contaminated to inhabit.

Eight years on, radioactivity levels have fallen in the reopened parts of Tomioka, though remain 20 times higher than before the disaster. “It’s much higher over there,” he says, pointing to the blockaded zone, where radiation levels exceed 3.8 microsieverts per hour – the designated threshold for issuing evacuation orders.

Tree stumps on land that has been decontaminated in Namie Town Credit: Simon Townsley

That zone is a legacy of the nuclear disaster, when multiple reactor meltdowns and explosions, triggered by a magnitude nine earthquake and towering tsunami, spread radioactive materials for hundreds of miles around.

Over the past two years the government has reopened two-thirds of the original evacuation zone – a mountainous, mostly rural area 160 miles north of Tokyo that’s about the size of Greater Manchester.

And last month the workers have begun removing nuclear fuel from one of the reactors – a job that is expected to take two years, although decommissioning the entire plant will take at least 40 years.

Yet despite clean-up operations there to reduce radiation levels below the government-set target of 0.23 microsieverts (Sv) per hour, other legacies of the disaster – the crumbling houses and shops, corroding vehicles and overgrown fields, not to mention 16.5 million containers of contaminated earth collected at some 140,000 sites around the region – are impossible to avoid.

The 0.23 Sv figure is significant in that it adds up to an annual dosage level of one millisievert (mSv) (calculated on the premise that a resident spends eight hours a day outdoors), stipulated by the International Atomic Energy Agency as being safe for members of the public.

But while maintaining that level is complicated by recontamination from surrounding woodland, some experts argue the figure says little about the true dangers, or safety, of radiation exposure. That the Japanese government raised this to 20 mSv in the aftermath of the disasters adds weight to their argument.

One of the many classrooms which lay undisturbed since the disaster Credit: Simon Townsley 

In fact, doses were reportedly nowhere near that for Fukushima residents, even in the months following the disaster, when many were below five millisieverts (mSv) a year. By comparison, according to Public Health England, the average annual exposure to naturally occurring radiation in the UK is about 2.7 mSv.

Wade Allison, an Oxford University emeritus professor of physics and founder of a group  disseminating what they say is accurate “science-based” information about radiation, argues the outcome of nuclear disasters such as Fukushima and even Chernobyl are proof that nuclear power is given a raw deal.

“Nuclear is not especially dangerous – it’s not as dangerous as fire, I’d suggest,” said Prof Allison during a presentation in Tokyo in 2014.

Indeed, reports of fatalities resulting from the Fukushima meltdowns vary, but overall their numbers appear to be low.

One TEPCO official told The Telegraph only three onsite deaths among nuclear plant workers had been registered since March 2011, none of which resulted from radiation exposure, while other sources suggest the figure could amount to “dozens.”

While Japan’s health ministry would not divulge any data on fatalities, to date only one death, that of a man in who worked at the Fukushima plant for more than 30 years, has been recognised by the government as being directly related to radiation exposure.

Meanwhile, as of September last year, 17 cancers among plant workers had been confirmed.

Cancers are among the long-term consequences of the disaster most widely debated, largely because of uncertain health effects of low-dose radiation exposure.

An abandoned lunch box shop in Okuma, Fukushima Credit: Simon Townsley

Others, such as Dr Jun Shigemura, a psychiatrist at Japan’s National Defence Medical University, believe dose levels to have been too low to cause the malignant disorders suffered by plant workers.

“After Chernobyl, people thought cancer and other malignant disorders would be the main long-term health issue and some children did develop thyroid cancers, but for other cancers there was no evidence of increase in the rates,” said Dr Shigemura, who conducted a post-disaster study of Fukushima plant workers’ mental health.

“In fact, in the end the biggest issue was mental health problems (among) clean-up workers and mothers of young children. The Fukushima workers, too, are at very high risk of developing long-term mental health issues.”

Gerry Thomas, a cancer specialist in the department of molecular pathology, Imperial College, London says: “What we need is more evidence-based, measured discussions about the real health effects of energy generation.”

Prof Thomas is equally skeptical of other reported health issues, among them the 202 confirmed and suspected thyroid cancers detected among 380,000 schoolchildren.

She believes it unlikely these cancers were connected to radiation because the levels of exposure were too low and, unlike after Chernobyl in 1986, Japan managed to successfully prevent the spread of contaminated food.

“This [the cancer numbers] is not surprising,” says Prof Thomas. “But it’s not due to radiation, it’s due to finding incidences of thyroid cancer that are in the population anyway. Because of the screening they find them much earlier than they would normally.”

Noriko Tanaka has her thyroid checked by Misao Fujita Credit: Simon Townsley

Many tumours found are too small – and low risk – to require the treatment they almost certainly will get, she adds.

However, Misao Fujita, a doctor who performs thyroid scans at a clinic in Iwaki, about 30 miles south of the nuclear plant, says a connection between the cancers and radiation exposure cannot be ruled out and the screening effect is no reason to disregard the examinations.

“What we do know is that after Chernobyl, many children developed thyroid cancer, and if you take that into account and consider the high risk that Fukushima children were exposed to radiation then I think we should carry out such tests,” Dr Fujita says, adding that thyroid cancer normally occurs in one in one million children.

Noriko Tanaka, whose son is one of Dr Fujita’s patients, says exams revealing cysts in her son’s thyroid are a concern, not least because iodine-131 – a substance that causes thyroid cancer – was contained in the plume released by the Fukushima plant that landed on Iwaki after the disasters. At the time, she was pregnant with her son. “I worry because nobody knows for sure what the future holds,” she says.

Such uncertainty about the future has been shown to be a major cause of psychological stress among Fukushima residents, especially the tens of thousands stuck in temporary housing.

One 2018 study undertaken by researchers at Hirosaki University showed stress levels of evacuees increased with the length of time spent in interim accommodation while also indicating that “evacuees in radiation disasters have different stressors from other natural disasters, which may accelerate mental and physical stress.”

A yacht lies in the backyard of an abandoned home inside the contamination zone Credit: Simon Townsley

Profs Allison and Thomas believe it is for this reason that residents should have been allowed to return home within weeks of the disaster, but excessively strict regulations prevented this from happening.

Those tough regulations are also found in the monitoring of Fukushima produce, and official tests at Fukushima’s Revitalization Station in Koriyama have come up with surprising results.

According to facility head Kenji Kusano, only six of the 13,765 items scanned in 2018 exceeded standard limits, which are tens and even hundreds of times stricter in Japan than the European Union.

Last year Fukushima Governor Masao Uchibori visited the UK to convince consumers Fukushima’s produce is safe. In a show of solidarity, Boris Johnson, then Foreign Secretary, even drank a can of Fukushima peach juice. And yet, embargoes on Fukushima produce persist in dozens of countries, including South Korea and Hong Kong. And there is scepticism among many consumers in Japan itself.

The issue of the one million tons of contaminated water being stored at the stricken nuclear plant is another worry for residents. After receiving assurances from Fukushima plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO ) that the water had been successfully treated and stripped of all but one radioactive material, tritium, the government announced in 2017 it would start releasing the water into the ocean, despite protests, especially from local fisheries.

TEPCO released convoluted data to demonstrate the water’s safety, but was forced to backtrack last September when further tests showed the sums didn’t add up and 80 per cent of the water was in fact up to 20,000 times higher than the official safe threshold. Furthermore, it contained harmful radionuclides such as iodine, caesium and strontium.

Kaori Suzuki, manager of NPO Tarachine, casts a bucket into the sea about a mile from Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant to collect samples for analysis Credit: Simon Townsley

Moreover, while the initial suggestion was that tritium was relatively harmless some studies have shown it to be a cause of infant leukaemia, says Ayumi Iida of NPO Tarachine, which independently analyses seawater samples taken from the ocean near Fukushima’s two nuclear plants.

“Tritiated water is easily absorbed and hazardous when inhaled or ingested via food or water,” she says. “There’s already data indicating infant leukaemia rates are higher near to nuclear plants, and tritium is known to cause DNA damage, so while there are claims that tritium is harmless, there are counterclaims it can adversely affect health, especially among young children.”

Some TEPCO advisors, such as Lake Barrett, who previously worked as a nuclear waste management specialist during the cleanup of the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the United States, have argued that discharging tritiated water is of “small public health significance” and the alternative of continuing to store the ever-increasing buildup of contaminated water onsite is potentially much more hazardous, especially considering Japan’s susceptibility to strong quakes and tsunami.

Shaun Burnie, a nuclear expert with Greenpeace, disagrees, saying discharging the water into the ocean is “the worst option” available, and one whose main consideration is economic.

“The only viable option, and it’s not without risks, is the long-term storage of the water in robust steel tanks over at least the next century, and the parallel development of water processing technology,” he says.

The initial water discharge plan was touted by the Japanese government’s Tritiated Water Task Force as the cheapest (between US$15 million to US$30 million) and quickest (between 52 and 88 months) of five water treatment scenarios, which also included underground burial and injecting the water into the geosphere, 2,500m underground.

However, a number of proposals to strip tritium from the water were submitted to the same task force by nuclear companies, with estimated costs ranging from US$2 billion to $180 billion, depending on the technology used. All of those proposals were dismissed as being impracticable.

“The reality is there is no end to the water crisis at Fukushima, a crisis compounded by poor decision-making by both TEPCO and the government,” says Mr Burnie.

A spatula of substances taken from seawater near the Fukushima No. 2 Nuclear Power Plant is readied for analysis Credit: Simon Townsley

Among more pressing issues, Mr Burnie says, is 400,000 cubic meters of sludge being stored within the Fukushima plant grounds that contains high concentrations of strontium – known as a “bone-seeker” because, if introduced into the body, it can accumulate in the bones in the same way as calcium does.

With the plant still generating waste, this sludge is expected to nearly double over the next 10 years, he adds.

Strontium releases into the environment from the plant were relatively small following the 2011 disaster, but significantly greater 30 months later, when in 2013 a large strontium-laced plume contaminated land as far away as Minamisoma – a city about 20 km from the plant, Mr Burnie says. Such an event could re-occur, he says.

“Is it a good idea to lift the evacuation orders? Absolutely not. The public are right to be concerned about the possibility of further offsite releases.”

They can also be forgiven for being sceptical over official reassurances that foodstuffs are safe, says Ms Iida of Tarachine, which also runs a produce-testing laboratory and has found “plenty” of items with levels of contamination exceeding the safe limits.

Meanwhile tests on samples of soil – which has no official safe threshold in Japan – have also revealed high levels of radiation in the area, she adds.

Namie’s Obori district, about six miles northwest of the nuclear plant and within the difficult-to-return-zone, is one place where soil radiation levels remain high. In woodland backing the pretty hamlet, which is famed for its pottery but has slowly surrendered to nature, the Telegraph recorded up to 127 Sv per hour – over 350 times the IAEA’s safe threshold.

Ceramic artist Keiko Onoda holds up one of her husband Kanjiro's pottery works inside their atelier in Namie, The Onodas fled to Tokyo over radiation fears and have remained there since, occasionally returning to collect their belongings Credit: Simon Townsley

Residents have contrasting views on the levels and the health implications. Keiko Onoda, a ceramics artist now living in Tokyo who had returned to Obori with her family to retrieve pieces of her husband’s pottery from their crumbling atelier inside the zone, says she is heartbroken at not being able to return permanently.

“We were told to evacuate to avoid getting sick, and in so doing we became sick with worry,” she says, tears running down her cheeks. “One of my sons once visited Chernobyl and said one day we might face a similar situation. Just thinking about his words makes me well up.”

Her other son, who works at the stricken nuclear plant, says his parents are victims of the harmful rumours that are the biggest health fallout of the Fukushima disasters. “They were so frightened (of radiation) that they evacuated to Tokyo,” says Hiroyuki, who eschews mask and other protective clothing as he wonders through the workshop and quake-wrecked family home he grew up in.

“Radioactive materials did fall on this village, but they don’t understand that you no longer need all that protective clothing... The fear is disproportionate to the actual risk.”

Prof Thomas says that such an “irrational” fear of radiation and the misleading claims regarding its impact on health are blinding society to the benefits of nuclear power, a much cleaner alternative to fossil fuels.

“Without scientific evidence to back up these claims, this can lead to unwise political decisions that have huge societal impact,” she says – Japan’s closure of all its 54 nuclear reactors and its increasing reliance on coal-powered plants after the disasters being a case in point.

“We have become focused on a single risk that is, in comparison with others, tiny and in doing this we have considerably increased other risks to society,” she says.

 

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