Three years after Japan’s nuclear disaster, residents are allowed home only once a month… and cannot stay overnight
In March 2011 the world watched in horror as a powerful earthquake rocked Japan, before a deadly tsunami swept ashore, washing away any boats, cars, homes and people unfortunate enough to be in its path.
But while the initial reports of 19,000 dead shocked viewers around the globe, that news would soon be superseded by the terrors to come from the then-unknown town of Fukushima as its nuclear power plant was overcome by floodwater before going into meltdown.
Now, nearly three years on from the natural disaster, a very unnatural catastrophe is still unfolding in the central prefecture while the villagers who used to live around the plant are still suffering.
In total 80,000 people were evacuated because of the disaster as a 12-mile ‘no go zone’ was put in place around the stricken facility. Tepco, the owner of the plant and Japan’s largest power company, insist that the situation is under control and announced in December that the plant is now in a state of ‘cold shutdown’ allowing a cleanup operation to start.
As a result of that operation exclusion zone lines may be redrawn, allowing some former residents of the towns around Fukushima to go home. In the town of Namie more than 20,000 former residents are allowed to visit their homes once a month with special permissions but are not allowed to stay overnight.
In the town of Futaba residents were once so proud of their nuclear plant that they erected a sign across the promenade saying the technology made them prosperous. Now their town lies in ruins.
But they are the lucky ones. Some other residents may have to wait five years before they will know if their houses are safe, others may have to wait a decade, and a few many never be allowed to return.
The Tepco cleanup operation involves moving 400 tonnes of uranium from a storage tank inside reactor number four of the plant to a safer location. It is expected to take a year, and is an extremely delicate process as the highly volatile fuel is prone to reigniting.
While the work has proceeded without incident so far, past leaks of contaminated water, an initial attempt to downplay the disaster, and continuing secrecy about the site have lead many to be wary of Tepco’s handling of the many problems to come from the catastrophe.
For example, within the exclusion zone hundreds of bags filled with radioactive soil lie piled up next to road and fields because opposition from those outside the zone means there is nowhere to move them to.
Across the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the US state of California is also concerned about the effect of the disaster as water contaminated with radiation is expected to start washing up soon. The exact amount is unknown, and Tepco say there is no way to accurately measure how much has leaked away.
Even after the nuclear cleanup has finished, it will be just the beginning for anyone who decides to move back, as the devastation caused by the tsunami has still not been repaired after people fled.