Dead Space: Minamisomas Evacuated Zone
On March 11th, 2011, Japan suffered the biggest earthquake in its history. The tsunami that followed was to create the worst crisis Japan had faced since the end of WWII. One of the aftermaths of the tsunami was the Fukushima nuclear plant incident, a series of equipment failures that led to the worst nuclear disaster since Chernoyl.
The explosion and escape of nuclear waste into the sea and surrounding area four days later, on March 15th, forced the evacuation and creation of a 20 kilometre no-go-zone around the plant. The surrounding area, still damaged from the earthquake and tsunami, was polluted by radiation and not suitable for habitation. It was even recommended by the government that a zone of 30 km around the reactor should be evacuated. This is a story about Minamisoma, deep into the 20 kilometre zone.
Arriving at Fukushima city is normal, a bullet train from Tokyo drops you off at the station in the centre of town in less than three hours. Everything seems normal in this modest and not very big Japanese northern town, 92 kilometres by car from the wrecked nuclear reactor . But walk a couple of meters and you will notice a small solar powered radiation metering station,displaying radiation levels in a eerie red counter, making the reactor feel much closer than before. Although Fukushima was affected by the fallout, the levels are, according to the government, still acceptable for living. Lay, a student from Malaysia living in Fukushima helps me explore the city. She herself worked with NGO's cleaning up the mess left behind by the tsunami. She tells me that children are not allowed to play on playgrounds and must do al theirl activities inside the schools, for fear of thyroid cancer; that the water and food are most likely to be contaminated; and that you can find citizens measuring stations down town. The sudden realization is that the contamination left by the reactor is severe, permanent and, even worse, its effects not treatable by any means, is hard to digest. Far worse, many people think that the way the situation is been handled by official sources is too obscure, and that the incident is still not over and many other measures have to be taken regarding the reactors. The 20 kilometre no-go-zone is, for example, too small for the experts and they have advocated that it should be made bigger. If it were, a major city like Fukushima could be forced to evacuate...
After wandering the city we finally find the temporary housing we have been told about in the citizens measuring station, almost on the outskirts of the city. The houses look small but decently built; they seem even to have satellite dishes and air conditioning. The houses were built by the government when they realized that the Fukushima power plant had contaminated a large part of the coast of the Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, and certain villages had to be evacuated and marked as uninhabitable until such level of radiation decreased. Most of the people living in these houses are elderly, their entire life having been washed away by a tsunami and the chance to return closed off by the radiation. The feeling of intruding into a place where people might feel vulnerable because of the situation they are going through is off- putting , but once they see Lay and me, they greet us and come out of the houses. They tell us that the houses are fine and they are happy the government is taking care of them, but that the feeling of never been able to return to their own homes, is terrible, that many of them are unhappy and welcome some interest in their situation. One of the residents explains how the radiation levels were more than six times the recommended levels when he had to be moved out of his house. The language barrier is substantial, but you can feel the sadness in his voice when says he has been living here for almost two years and he wont be able to go back to his village for at least another four.
Kári, a local English teacher at the northern part of Minamisoma and a good friend of Lay's, agreed to drive me down to the no-go zone a week later. The roads up to Minamisoma from Fukushima are winding, so as we travel Kári and I talk about how the autumn transforms the region and its forests into a great sight. Kári tells me stories of how the region has evolved after the tsunami and how the people have learned to deal with the no-go zone. The road is open to cars and people are allowed to cross the zone, work or clean the debris still remaining from the tsunami and to try and repair the houses that are still standing. There are almost no restrictions or controls when entering the contaminated zone, only a sign with red flashing lights and a warning written in Japanese. "Who would go to a contaminated zone?" Kári asks. The sight of the place is heartbreaking, from the road and stretching almost two kilometres to the coast there is nothing but a plain where previously houses stood. Some of them still stand along with wrecked cars and some electricity poles that managed to survive the wave. Kári drives off to work and I'm left alone in the road. I'll just walk back out of the zone and back to Fukushima. The silence is absolute, only disturbed by an occasional car driving down the road.
The walk is unsettling, and makes you feel the impact of what has happened to the region. Some of the houses are empty, very possibly because the owners survived the tsunami and took their belongings with them, never to return. Others seem just as they would have been when the water hit. Time has stopped for these places, and here and there you find reminders that the houses were once alive and full of people: a picture of a kendo team rests on a dirty shelf, a rusty statue of Buddha left behind on the entrance of a house along with other boxes, clothes hanging inside a destroyed living room... Human presence, but without any real humans, it's a weird and sombre sensation.
Along with the feeling of emptiness there's a feeling in the back of your head that tells you that the zone is dangerous: the soil, the water... everything that surrounds you is potentially toxic. The flimsy raincoat and the throwaway mask suddenly seem a bit useless, and although a short stay in the area is not even enough for a human to suffer any physical danger the danger is present.
Although signposted as a toxic place which is out of bounds, you can find people inside the restricted zone. Strolling along the road I find two elderly workers taking a rest from cleaning plants that grow on the highway, not wearing any protection or masks unlike me or the drivers I have seen. The language barrier is too big to have a decent conversation, but the men say hello and go back to work. I can't help but imagine they are locals, returning to do the best they can for their home. Other people return to clean their houses and try to salvage what they can, possibly awaiting the zone to be re-opened. If it weren't for the fact that the zone is patrolled by police it would seem that some of the houses near the beginning of the no-go zone are occupied, not too wild an idea when you think that these houses are possibly the only home some people have.
I continue to push north, trudging out of the zone. Around three hours inside have been enough, dawn arrives early in Japan and, thinking about the situation in the area, the tingling sensation of the radiation has been there all the time and it's telling me to get the hell out. My thoughts wander to how will it be before the zone is safe for living again. I try to relate to Chernobyl, suddenly realising that it was 26 years ago and it's still a quarantined zone. As I walk past the bridge that marks the beginning of the exclusion zone I realize that there are plants sitting on the side of the road, their plastic pots marked with date;, confused for a moment I can only but guess these are used to keep trace of the radiation levels. I guess time will cure the region, a time that may turn into too long for many.