One photographer had the opportunity to get a rare look inside the abandoned radioactive towns of Fukushima, Japan four years after two natural disasters triggered a meltdown at the nuclear plant.
Arkadiusz Podniesiński, 44, is a Polish photographer and filmmaker who received special permits to visit the towns in Fukushima affected by radiation from the infamous nuclear accident of 2011. The sights he witnessed tell a tragic story of the people who were forced to leave their homes following the nearby power plant meltdown.
More than four years after the disaster, some of the abandoned houses, schools and buildings can be found in the same condition they were left in.
A number of the evacuated Fukushima residents are still living in temporary housing and some have given up hope of ever returning back home.
“In Fukushima, the disaster remains seared into the memories of residents, the evacuation order still in force, and the total lack of tourists mean that everything is in the same place as it was four years ago.
“Toys, electronic devices, musical instruments, and even money have been left behind. Only a tragedy on this scale can produce such depressing scenes.”
Podniesiński is known for his work documenting the aftermath of such disasters and conducting interviews with clean-up workers and evacuated residents.
He has visited Fukushima on four different occasions and captured these photos in July 2015.
“Abandoned vehicles. They can’t be removed until the owners give their consent.”
The devastation began on March 11, 2011 when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit offshore the city of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture. The quake lasted for about three minutes and cause sizable damage to the region, but the ripple effect was far worse.
The World Nuclear Association reported:
“An area of the seafloor extending 650 kilometers north-south moved typically 10 to 20 meters horizontally. Japan moved a few meters east and the local coastline subsided half a meter.”
The result was a 15 meter tsunami that submerged 560 square kilometers of land and led to a human death toll of 19,000. The tsunami disabled the emergency generators for the cooling system of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, which caused explosions categorized as a Level 7 nuclear accident.
The classification by the International Nuclear Event Scale was based on its high levels of radioactive releases in the days after.
The city’s investigation commission discovered that the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), had failed to meet basic safety requirements including risk assessment and emergency preparation plans.
“In the vicinity of the red zone I happen to notice an abandoned car. It is hard to make it out from a distance, it is almost completely overgrown with green creepers.”
In 2012, TEPCO admitted its failure was in part due to fear that the public would protest against its operations. Podniesiński wrote:
“The report produced by the Japanese parliamentary committee investigating the disaster leaves no doubt about this. The disaster could have been foreseen and prevented.”
Over 160,000 people were evacuated from homes within the 20 kilometer exclusion zone. The area was divided up into zones by the levels of contamination and the likelihood that residents would be able to return in the coming years.
“Four years after the accident more than 120,000 people are still not able to return to their homes, and many of them are still living in temporary accommodation specially built for them.”
Changes in the boundaries of the zone between the years 2011 and 2015
Red zones are areas with the highest levels of contamination and entry is strictly prohibited unless a special permit is granted. No decontamination work is carried out there as the area is beyond repair and it is unlikely that residents will ever be able to go back.
“Local nuclear energy guarantees a lively future.”
Orange zones have less contamination than red zones, but the area is still uninhabitable. Clean up crews can be seen working here and residents are able to visit their houses for a limited amount of time. Green zones have the least amount of radiation and residents are more likely to be able to return to their former residences in the future.
By hand, the roofs of all the buildings are cleaned one by one.
“Towns and villages are being cleaned as well, methodically, street by street and house by house. The walls and roofs of all the buildings are sprayed and scrubbed. The scale of the undertaking and the speed of work have to be admired.”
One of thousands of dump sites with sacks of radioactive soil.
According to Podniesiński, the first thing anyone will notice upon entering the zone is the decontamination work that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of black bags filled with radioactive soil.
In order to save space, the workers stack the bags in layers one on top of the other.
“It is still not clear where the contaminated waste will end up, especially as the residents protest against long-term dump sites being located near their homes. They are not willing to sell or lease their land for this purpose. They do not believe the government’s assurances that in 30 years from now the sacks containing the radioactive waste will be gone. They are worried that the radioactive waste will be there forever.”
“Twenty thousand workers are painstakingly cleaning every piece of soil. They are removing the top, most contaminated layer of soil and putting it into sacks, to be taken to one of several thousand dump sites. The sacks are everywhere. They are becoming a permanent part of the Fukushima landscape.”
Unfortunately, it seems that the government hasn’t figured out where to dispose of the contaminated waste. The bags are transported out of town, but not beyond the outskirts and not nearly far enough from residents’ homes. Podniesiński lamented:
“This expensive operation is only the shifting of the problem from one place to another, just so long as it is outside of the town to which residents are soon to return.”
Houses, buildings, streets and roads are part of the decontamination project, but mountainous areas and thick forests pose a different challenge.
“When I get up closer I notice that there are more vehicles, neatly organised in several rows. I guess that the cars became contaminated and then were abandoned by the residents. A moment later the beep of the dosimeter confirms this.”
Scientists and residents are concerned that rainfall may wash radioactive isotopes from these regions into the towns.
In addition, forest fires with strong winds may also re-contaminate the area and undo the cleanup work that has taken years to accomplished.
Podniesiński visited the orange and red zones where contamination levels were highest.
Access to these areas is extremely exclusive and permits are granted to a select few who have legitimate or official reasons for being there.
“The checkpoint in front of the Fukushima II power station. In the background a building of one of the reactors.”
With the help of colleagues who connected him to the right people, Podniesiński was granted entry into some of the abandoned radioactive towns.
While in an orange zone, Podniesiński encountered a farmer, Naoto Matsumura.
Matsumara illegally returned to his residence when it was still designated a red zone in order to care for the abandoned animals.
“Matsumura also takes care of abandoned ostriches”
“He gives the reasons for returning, saying that he could not bear to see the whole herds of cattle wandering aimlessly in the empty streets when their owners had fled the radiation. He tells of how they were starving to death or were being killed and used for recycling by the authorities.”