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Driving Fukushima: The 3/11 nuclear disaster 12 years later

See the first part of this travelogue on Iwate and the tsunami

The open highway under a blue sky. A road sign indicated the current count of radiation. The numbers are not visible in the picture, but at the time displayed 0.100 microsieverts per hour

Speeding along the highway along the gently curving coast of the Sendai plain, we enter the more hilly Fukushima Prefecture from its northernmost border. Immediately we are greeted with a new road sign: a sensor displaying the amount of radiation in microsieverts per hour. The number shows 0.100 μSv/h, or about the equivalent of the radioactive isotopes that are released when you eat one banana.NOTE One banana an hour does not seem that bad, right? There was a low-level of unease, but we were only planning on spending the day driving through the prefecture. In fact, you can’t stay overnight in Futaba, our first destination. It is prohibited. Futaba was the last municipality to have its evacuation order lifted way back in… summer of 2022.

One year later we found ourselves winding through green hills and overgrown abandoned rice paddies into the outskirts of Futaba. The signs indicated 0.400 μSv/h – 4 bananas an hour. A big jump. Driving down out of the hills into the flats we could see evidence of the cleanup that has taken place over the past dozen years. Futaba was hit by the tsunami like the rest of the northeast Japanese coast, but it was what happened at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant that caused the devastation that was still being cleaned up.

Our first stop was The Great East Japan Earthquake and Nuclear Disaster Memorial Museum 東日本大震災・原子力災害伝承館 where we will learn more about how the 3/11 earthquake-induced tsunami overwhelmed the high protective seawalls of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, causing it to explode and release toxic gas all over the countryside.

As we entered town limits the road was lined with what looked like junkyards or landfills filled full of debris from the tsunami. Many other towns also went through this process, but for Futaba it was extra difficult due to the rubble being irradiated. The rubble could have been part of a building that first needed to be sprayed carefully with decontaminant. Then the parts would be broken up and hauled here, likely to be sprayed again and broken down. From there, I am not sure if they are buried or just sit here forever. Each junkyard was obscured by 8 to 10 foot tall white walls. Guards were posted at the entrance. Above the walls you could see the moving booms of excavators at work.

Meanwhile, the road in front of us was also undergoing work: new roads, a new bridge, and a new JR station. There was construction in this town despite not fully completing cleanup. 7,100 people used to live here before the disaster. Now just 60 people have returned. The government had taken the responsibility to clean everything and return it to normal, but has since walked back that promise, concentrating decontamination efforts on land of people who expressly plan to return – a tough decision for evacuees who have likely begun new lives elsewhere in the past decade.

Today the downtown are of Futaba sits silent, walls decorated with murals meant to inspire solidarity, but nobody around.

At least this part is drivable. There are still many areas that are restricted. Plastic orange flagging tape, yellow and black rope, and other barriers are occasionally broken up by an entrance which in turn is blocked by a guard. Last summer over 80% of the municipality, by acreage, remains designated as “difficult-to-return” zones. The highway is fairly busy, but these drivers are all passing through. Behind the orange tape are abandoned gas stations, pachinko parlours, crumbling houses with rusted cars still in the driveway. Many are overtaken by vines. One iconic clothing store still had all the stock on the shelves and in the windows, contaminated and abandoned for a decade. A nearly completed big box electronics store. Abandoned. A brand new family home. Abandoned. The one thing that looked active were all the rental excavators lined up pretty much wherever there was a decontaminated parking lot they could use.

A book and video store and 7-11 with destroyed signs and overgrown with weeds

We made our way to the seashore where the The Great East Japan Earthquake and Nuclear Disaster Memorial Museum stands. Similar to Rikuzentakata as covered in my last post there is a sort of no-man’s land between the town as it lies now, and the brand new seawall installed at the shore, blocking the traditional ocean view of what used to be a fishing town. This flat area is a sort of industrial zone, split into large grid-like plots by freshly laid asphalt roads. There are a few buildings including the museum and the five storey Futaba Business Incubation and Community Center. From the roof of that building you can get a good view of the ocean over the seawall. Today was a hot and bright summer’s day, with thin clouds stretched across the sky. From high up the ocean waves sparkled in the sun as far as I could see. A lot of water.

We lunched in the canteen at a fried foods shop called Penguin which was the subject of a documentary I saw earlier this year on NHK. As I munched on a fish burger uniformed construction workers and suited office workers trickled in for lunch at the handful of shops in the canteen. Most of the people we saw were uniformed. Although there was a high school bus tour, and another bus tour of seniors, we were one of only a handful of cars parked in the lot.

Exterior photo of the curving Great East Japan Earthquake and Nuclear Disaster Memorial Museum with a clean and well trimmed front lawn.

The Memorial Museum is really well put together. A large theatre presented a short film showing the disaster, describing the timeline of events. When the earthquake happened the power station was shut down and cooling started as per disaster response procedures. Then the power went out. Backup diesel generators fired up as they are supposed to in this kind of emergency. However, the massive tsunami that had been triggered by the fourth most powerful earthquake recorded since 1900 made it over the power station’s protective seawall (which had been criticized in previous years for being too small), flooding the exposed diesel generators, and cutting off the backup power. Without cooling, the nuclear fuel burned through the reactor vessel, creating a hydrogen gas buildup which ended up exploding three of the six nuclear reactors on the site. The released nuclear gas triggered the evacuation of 300,000 people from the wider region.

The museum had very informative displays demonstrating the overconfidence of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) in its management of the power station. For example the emergency off-site building, which is supposed to be the front-line in case of disaster, was located just 5km from the station, within the eventual evacuation zone of 30kms. Furthermore, the Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant, a second plant just down the road from the first, weathered the tsunami successfully because they housed their backup generators inside the building and away from the elements, so despite the tsunami they were able to keep their fuel cool and prevent a meltdown and explosion.

The museum tracks the disaster recovery efforts, the movements of evacuees, and how the reputation of Fukushima suffered in Japan (and the world), including shunning of local products and bullying of children evacuees that picked up lives elsewhere in Japan. There are so many stories, but we had just a short time since we were due for an appointment in Tomioka to the south.

Driving the highway was a grim experience as we were armed with more knowledge and passed abandoned building after abandoned building. The radiation signs creeped up to 0.69 μSv/h as we neared the turnoff to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant which lay between us and our next destination. Once we hit the turnoff, the sign displayed 1.2 μSv/h.

Entrance sign to the Fukushima Dalichi Nuclear Power Station

Now, I know that Banana Equivalent Dose is not an accurate analogy to being exposed to radiation from an exploded nuclear reactor, but I think everyone can understand that eating 12 bananas an hour is not healthy. Still, I must remind you that we were in the main corridor of the region, the 3% of the area that it is deemed safe to travel through. Looking at the Fukushima Prefecture Radioactivity measurement map I can see sensors in restricted areas that are reading 12.3 μSv/hone hundred and twenty three bananas an hour! Broken analogy or not, I think anyone can draw the conclusion that is not a good amount of bananas to consume.

Anyways, back to the story. Other than high radiation signals, the other rare thing we saw at the turn off to the nuclear power plant was police. In the very short time that we spent passing by we saw three patrol cars. I had been driving for days since Aomori and not once seen a cop until now. I kept my hands at 10 and 2, eyes forward, and we continued on to the town of Tomioka and the TEPCO Decommissioning Archive where we were due for our tour at 1PM.

Originally built as a sort of amusement park to deliver TEPCO’s vision of a wonderful future powered by nuclear energy, in 2017 the center was converted into a carefully crafted PR message to communicate TEPCO’s deep regret, and thoughtful plan for cleaning up the mess.

Semi-European looking buildings in bright colours

Our guide, a PR lady, no doubt a sub-contractor of the TEPCO marketing department, looked like a kokeshi doll with bangs cut to an nearly atomic level of tolerance. She delivered a well-memorized and clipped speech, moving us from one apologetic display to another throughout the two floors of a museum entirely devoid of other guests. (With her practiced and robotic delivery she could have been speaking to the empty museum.) It was just us and the story. No, the data. The facts:

  1. ALPS treatment removes over 60 nuclides from the contaminated water used to cool the reactor, or captured rainfall that passed through the facility.
  2. Tritium occurs naturally.
  3. That which will be released into the ocean (subject to the federal government’s approval backed by the analysis of the International Atomic Energy Agency) will be one-fortieth the concentration allowed by regulation.

She presented select videos, warning each time that I was prohibited to photograph or record them. I tried to sneak some photos, and was largely unsuccessful. I especially regret not being able to grab a shot of one slide that said something to the effect of “Tritium cannot be separated” with a big fat asterisk. In the footer it said “in a commercially viable way” which tells you all you need to know. The archive bombarded us with data, demonstrating the microscopic degree to which TEPCO self-examined its processes and performance up to, during, and in the intervening dozen years. We were there for just over an hour. Despite the facts and figures flashing by it seemed to really be about feelings. At one point stock footage of the smoking towers on 9/11. How can I report on what I could not record? We were only left with feelings… and free coffee. After the tour lady said goodbye and before we left the building we spotted a back room where we availed ourselves of the complimentary coffee (no doubt paid for from the marketing budget) and chalky powdered creamer. This whole place left a bad taste in my mouth.

Blurred image with the text "Arrogance and Overconfidence in Safety". Below is a visible sign prohibiting photographs.

If you are interested, this article from Nippon.com covers the interior of the archive with some detail. The second to last para is worth quoting:

The Decommissioning Archive Center only shows the perspective of TEPCO, which was responsible for the lack of preparations that enabled the accident, and its decommissioning efforts. Many who suffered as a result of the nuclear accident and those still forced to live in evacuation accommodation likely have a very different view of the events.

The final leg of our Fukushima journey was driving to the southern city of Iwaki where we would catch a train out of the prefecture. This southernmost part of Fukushima was outside the nuclear radiation evacuation zone, and the destination of a lot of evacuees. The further south we drove the busier the roads got and we were stuck in traffic for quite a while until we got into the city. Although the city has suffered the typical depopulation of a lot of countryside communities in Japan over the past thirty years, it had a surprising amount of construction around the main station and it felt like there were a lot of people here. Especially young people. We saw tons of happy high schoolers hanging around the station, a stark contrast to Tomioka and Futaba, where we mostly only saw the booted and hard-helmeted middle-aged male employees of TEPCO.

As we took the escalator up to the train which would whisk us away to Tokyo, I took a photo over my shoulder of a small group of people singing in the station square. What a way to end our day in Fukushima.

Four people standing on the edge of a plaza with a loudspeaker and stereo singing. To the left there is a large sign saying NO NUKES


This is known as BED, or Banana Equivalent Dose, which is not a true measure of being exposed to radiation since radioactive potassium goes away very quickly and does not cumulate like the radiation from an exploded nuclear power station. It is helpful to give you a sense of the size of the dose. So let’s keep this in mind as a measure of exposure and not a measure of risk. As we travel further south, the number will get bigger. Return ⤴ 


One response to “Driving Fukushima: The 3/11 nuclear disaster 12 years later”

  1. […] After renting a new car at Sendai Station, we drove Fukushima top to bottom. The highlight of this was learning about the nuclear disaster in 2011. […]