A four-part investigative series about Fukushima’s continuing fallout airs this week on ‘America Tonight,’ Monday to Thursday at 9 p.m. ET. Producer Aaron Ernst reflects on the experience of reporting from inside the contamination zone.
When people heard that I would be traveling to Japan to report on Fukushima, the most common response was, “Will you be safe?” They assumed the radiation in and around the stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant might put our production team at an elevated risk of cancer. One acquaintance even seriously asked if I ever planned on having children. If so, he suggested, I might want to visit a sperm bank before I left.
So, when the “America Tonight” crew — consisting of correspondent Michael Okwu, director of photography Thierry Humeau and me — finally arrived in Fukushima Prefecture in a rented minivan, the specter of radiation was in the back of our minds. Spot checks with a borrowed Geiger counter outside the exclusion zone showed radiation at levels that are considered safe. But then we went inside.
A nuclear ghost town
Our destination was the cattle ranch of Masami Yoshizawa, who refused to heed the government’s evacuation order and abandon his livestock to starve after the initial hydrogen blasts at the plant. We stopped by the town hall in the city of Namie to obtain a temporary permit to enter the exclusion zone and were soon wandering through a nuclear ghost town.
I lived and worked in Japan for several years in the 1990s, and it seemed crowded wherever I went. Now we encountered empty river valleys, vast stretches of weed-choked roads, abandoned houses and an eerie silence broken only by the occasional crow or songbird. Until that point, the debate over the pros and cons of nuclear energy had, to me, been entirely theoretical. In front of us was the undeniable reality of the damage that this particular form of energy, unlike any other, could inflict if it went wrong.
We stopped in front of an abandoned elementary school to do a quick shoot with Michael. The classrooms were frozen in time at the moment of the evacuation — writing still on the chalkboard, books strewn on tables and desks. But what really got our attention was the radiation-monitoring station the government had installed. It read over 3 microsieverts (3μSv) per hour. Away from the station, our Geiger counter measured over 6 microsieverts (6μSv) per hour. The levels were 30 times higher than we’d experienced up to that point.
A psychological poison
Were we in any danger? Most experts would say no. To put those numbers in perspective, we would have had to stay at the school for four hours to be exposed to the equivalent of a chest X-ray (20 microsieverts) or 16 days to be exposed to the equivalent of an abdominal CT scan (2,000 microsieverts). We’d been exposed to about 2.5 microsieverts per hour of cosmic radiation just flying to Tokyo.
None of this information matters when you are looking down at your screeching Geiger counter, even if you know its alarm has been set at an incredibly sensitive level. We finished the shoot and quickly retreated. That night, I swear I felt unnaturally hot as I drifted off to sleep.
This is what the Japanese government is up against as it tries to convince people to return to areas in and around the exclusion zone. Because even though very low levels of radiation are being measured, its ever-present psychological presence poisons the landscape as much as the radiation itself.
We spoke to a woman named Chieko Sato in Minamisoma, a city about 16 miles north of the nuclear plant, whose house was being decontaminated by the local government. The low but measurable radiation at her house usually keeps her daughter and grandchild from visiting. When they do visit on rare occasions like New Year’s Day, Sato prepares well in advance.
“Before they arrive, I will measure radiation in each room. I make sure that my grandson stays in the room with the lowest level,” she told us. “The year of the disaster, my daughter would carry her son from the car into the house and wouldn’t let him walk outside.”
Katsunobu Sakurai, the mayor of Minamisoma, admitted that fear of radiation makes it particularly challenging to convince one group to return home.
“About 47,000 people have returned,” he told us. “But most of the 22,000 who haven’t are families with children. They evacuated to avoid exposing their children to damage from radiation.”
Will people return?
The mayor is using money from the government’s multibillion-dollar cleanup effort to painstakingly decontaminate his town, house by house, at a cost of $10,000 per building. Even he remains circumspect about whether the effort will convince refugees to return.
“Even if I say I want people to return, it is ultimately their decision, so I have no certainty they will,” Sakurai said. “The most important thing I can do is to allay the anxieties of those living here. And by showing those who evacuated that I am working hard, if they understand that, there is the possibility they will slowly return home.”
But others we spoke with doubted whether the effort was making any difference. Yoshizawa believed the cleanup was motivated mainly by politics.
“Even after decontamination, I don’t think people will return,” he said. “I think it’s a performance by the government and TEPCO because they don’t want to pay real compensation for the land and property — or a performance because they want to restart the nuclear reactors. At least that’s how I see it. It isn’t entirely meaningless, but I have many, many doubts. ”
For parents with children, the doubts are visceral enough to keep many of them away forever. A young woman we spoke to, Kaori Saito, was so convinced that her children were being exposed to dangerous radiation in Fukushima City that she divorced her husband and moved to Nagano Prefecture, hundreds of miles away.
“I don’t know which of us was right,” Saito said. “All I know was that when thinking about how to protect my children, fleeing was the best way to do that.”
The biggest revelation
Compounding the dilemma for her and the tens of thousands of other nuclear refugees is the lack of clear science about the dangers of living with low levels of background radiation. In late 2012 the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) released a report about whether low doses of radiation could lead to cancer or inheritable genetic defects. After parsing the existing literature, it says there is little evidence indicating that it does.
But UNSCEAR concluded with a caveat: “These reports remain mixed in outcome, and there is little of the coherence required of robust data that can be used confidently for risk assessment.”
To me, that was the biggest revelation from our reporting. The conflicting evidence about the dangers of radiation means that, regardless of the actual risks of nuclear energy, fear alone is enough to uproot families and communities and depopulate cities for decades to come. No other form of energy has so much potential to directly impact the environment for such a long time.
That was the lesson of Fukushima that former Prime Minister Naoto Kan told us forever changed his view of nuclear energy. A former proponent, he turned against nuclear energy a week into the crisis when experts told him that he might need to evacuate a 250-square-kilometer area that included Tokyo, uprooting 50 million people.
“Nearly one-third of Japan would have had to evacuate from their communities.” Kan said. “I came to believe that we should halt further operation of nuclear energy that entailed such huge risks.”
The haunting testimony of the Fukushima exclusion zone makes it a hard argument to oppose.