” It may seem surreal, but as work continues to decommission damaged reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant–a project that involves 7,000 or so workers–tours of the complex by outsiders are becoming increasingly popular.
By the end of last September, or four-and-a-half years since the nuclear accident triggered by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami disaster, some 16,000 people had visited.
Initially, visitors to the stricken facility were mainly politicians and specialists. But more recently, ordinary citizens are taking part as radiation levels have fallen at the plant site.
Nineteen university students took a tour last November. The bus they rode took them past large tanks holding contaminated water as well as a massive piece of equipment attached to a reactor building to extract nuclear fuel. Throughout the visit, workers wearing protective clothing and face masks could be seen.
Nana Ohashi, a sophomore at Tokyo’s Keio University, said, “It really hit me that those in my generation will not be able to ignore the alternatives regarding what to do about nuclear energy and decommissioning the reactors.”
The tour was organized by a group called AFW, which stands for Appreciate Fukushima Workers. Led by Akihiro Yoshikawa, 35, a former employee of Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the stricken plant, the group began escorting tours by residents living along the Pacific coast of Fukushima Prefecture from 2015. A major objective of the tours is to show residents what decommissioning involves.
“If ordinary citizens abandon interest, the plant site will be further shut off from the rest of the world,” Yoshikawa said.
He said that 140 or so people had participated in the seven tours organized to date.
Iwaki resident Kaori Suganami, 39, took part in a tour last June.
She said, “It is wrong to think ‘someone else will do the work.'”
Because of the core meltdowns at the No. 1 to No. 3 reactors, high levels of radiation continue to be emitted. This makes it very difficult to approach those three reactors.
Elsewhere, though, rubble that was strewn throughout the plant grounds due to the tsunami generated by the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake has been removed, and radiation levels in many areas have dropped significantly. Ground surfaces have been paved and trees felled, which has also helped lower radiation levels.
According to TEPCO, about 900 people visited in the first year after the nuclear accident. Since then, the annual number of visitors has continued to increase. Local residents joining the tours also grew in number. About 3,700 people visited the plant in the first half of fiscal 2015. Of that number, about 250 were from Fukushima Prefecture.
Unlike workers at the plant site, visitors are not required to wear heavy protective gear. The basic getup is cotton gloves, disposable face masks and special footwear. Visitors are required to carry dosimeters. To reduce radiation exposure, visitors remain on the bus for large parts of the tour. Radiation exposure after an hour is in the range of 10 microsieverts, which is about 1 percent of the maximum additional radiation exposure of 1 millisievert established for the general population.
In April 2014, TEPCO established a visitation center at the Fukushima plant and two to three groups consisting of individuals 18 or older are allowed in daily. But not just anyone is allowed on the tours. “An overall assessment is made after considering such factors as the objective of the visit,” said a TEPCO official.
The decommissioning work is expected to take decades.
Hideaki Noro, the TEPCO official in charge of the visitation center, said: “Interest in the work serves as the core motivating factor for employees and decommissioning workers. We plan to actively allow in visitors for as long as possible.” ”
by Chikako Kawahara and Takuro Negishi