” ONCE pristine rice paddies overgrown into forests. Wild animals roaming the streets of eerie towns with an uncertain future.
That’s the scene described by Australian teacher Jessica Hellamy who recently had the chance to see inside the 20km exclusion zone created after the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Dai’ichi powerplant in 2011.
“Time had stopped. In the main part of the town the buildings are still collapsed from the earthquake. It’s kind of nuts. It was weird, like a time warp, everything is all overgrown,” she said.
“All of the rice fields are covered in forest and wild animals.”
She said the day of the earthquake schools were due to hold graduation ceremonies, with many of the preparations for celebrations still intact.
“They literally evacuated that day and were told they had to get out of town completely and since then they haven’t been able to go back,” she said.
“The kids themselves haven’t been back, adults have gone back on a daily pass to clear their house. Anyone that’s under 15 isn’t able to go on. So it’s pretty tough on them.”
It’s been nearly four years since the magnitude 9 earthquake struck 130 kilometres off Japan’s coast at 2.46pm in March 2011 triggering a tsunami that killed nearly 19,000 people and moved the entire country to the east.
While the earthquake itself and freak tsunami were devastating, it was events at Fukushima Dai’ichi powerplant that turned the city into a time warp and forced an estimated 160,000 people from their homes.
The disaster disrupted power supply and cooling to nuclear reactors at the plant, leading three of them to melt down within days. A fourth was also written off due to damage, the World Nuclear Association reports, causing the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
Since then, 160,000 people have been forced from their homes after Japan’s environment ministry labelled 11 municipalities “no-go zones”. They’ve been forced to live in temporary housing while authorities painstakingly decontaminate the area in order for them to return home.
Fukushima Update’s editor James Corbett, who lives 600 kilometres from the plant and started his website in an attempt to provide information on the disaster, said the situation is still a “huge problem” with no resolution in sight.
“The cores are still there and highly radioactive. The technology to approach the cores does not exist yet,” he told news.com.au.
“Just last week they had a typhoon and in the wake of that they found 10 times the radioactivity in the groundwater than in the week before.”
Since the disaster, Mr Corbett said clean-up operations have focused on containing groundwater that has become contaminated with radioactive material. But as more flows into the area each day from Japan’s mountains, it’s an ongoing problem that doesn’t come close to solving the real issue.
“There really isn’t the technology to even begin approaching the core of these reactors yet,’’ he said. “[They’re] the fundamental cause of the problem. That is going to go on for potentially years, potentially decades. At this stage it’s more damage control and trying to take care of things like the radioactive water.”
In the wake of the disaster the site was effectively shut down and the entire country temporarily switched off nuclear power.
A parliamentary inquiry later called the nuclear meltdown “man made” and accused operators Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) and the Japanese government of failing to uphold safety requirements despite the high risk of earthquakes, the New York Times reports.
In early September, 2013, the Japanese government approved the building of a $320 million “wall of ice” to stem the flow of radioactive water coming from Fukushima’s four damaged power plants. However for now, authorities are focused on the painstaking decontamination of sites within the 20km exclusion zone as well as storing and treating accumulated water.
Just last week, Tepco released their 172nd update on the issue, however whether anyone will actually return to the area remains to be seen. It’s now estimated the earliest repatriation efforts won’t be until 2017.
“The immediate concern is water itself and as a byproduct anything fished out of ocean. Also produce … Fukushima produce is being sold throughout Japan,” Mr Corbett said.
The disaster has also left great scars on the country socially, with an estimated 100,000 people still living in temporary housing with increased rates of depression and suicide.
There’s even a term — Genpatsu rikon — or “atomic divorce” coined to describe marriages ripped apart by the strain. Meanwhile there are plenty of tales of people being discriminated against by being banned from donating blood and asked to provide medical certificates on job applications, while farmers have had their livelihood threatened by stigma over produce.
“It’s taken a huge toll on residents of Fukushima and will probably continue for a long time to come,” Mr Corbett said.
“For generations survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had a stigma attached to them. They were often treated differently if it was known they were from that area. I know even in my area of Japan … when I was working in the public school system there were students that had been evacuated. [It would be] interesting to see if they were treated differently.”
Despite this, effects of the disaster are often not openly discussed, as “expressing strong opinions, especially ones not seen as conducive to general harmony, is not seen as acceptable in public” in Japan, Mr Corbett said.
There is also a view that authorities are “basically trying to keep it out of the headlines” in the lead up to the Tokyo Olympics.
“Their number one project is trying to keep the situation under control in order to successfully conduct the Tokyo Olympics 2020,” he said.
For Jessica Hellamy, who has been teaching English in a town called Nihonmatsu for just over a year, there is little physical evidence of the disaster in day-to-day life.
Tap water is fine to drink and she said you wouldn’t otherwise know about the radiation risks nearby were it not for nightly reports and signs labelling local produce in supermarkets.
“We have radiation checks at school on the school ground. They do daily updates on the levels of radiation. It’s like an extra add on to the weather report,” she said.
“Since I’ve been here it’s stayed at a fairly consistent level, we haven’t had any dramas. Unless you’re looking for it deliberately, life goes on.”
However it has taken a toll on students and teachers at the school with many living in a state of limbo in temporary housing, unsure if they’ll ever return to the homes where they grew up.
“It’s pretty tough on them. They have special classes on elementary school to educate them about their home town,” she said.
“Agricultural families are struggling with negative stigma attached to Fukushima produce and many towns have a question mark hanging over their future. Will they return to where they were? Who will want to move back?”
Despite the uncertainty, she said locals are working hard to overcome logistic challenges of where to rebuild their lives and any negative stigma about nuclear fallout.
“For the main part of Fukushima [Prefecture] the whole thing is blown out of proportion … The hard thing at the moment is that anyone hears the world Fukushima and they have a picture that it’s a nuclear wasteland but it’s really not,’’ she said.
“Obviously they’ve got to deal with that but they just want to move on.” ”