Changing Planet

Five Years After the Fukushima Disaster, Residents Adapt to New Normal

Photos by Ari Beser         Koriyama City and the Ou Mountain range viewed from atop “Big I”, the city’s tallest building.

Koriyama, Fukushima – On March 11, 2011 the world all but ended for the people who live on the Tohoku coast. The North Eastern Japanese region was rocked by a 9.0 earthquake which generated a tsunami that inundated the entire shoreline, with up to 30 meters of water in some towns . The tsunami waves killed nearly 16,000 people, destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes, inflicted billions of dollars in damage, and unleashed a nuclear crisis the likes of which has not been seen since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. But life, however dark the circumstances, always finds a way. In admiration of the spirit of ganbate, or “fight on” in Japanese, the world poured in support for the survivors of the calamity. Slowly but steadily, Tohoku’s residents persevered on the long road toward recovery. Neither a nuclear scientist nor a marine biologist, I cannot address the issue of radiation levels in the ocean. Like the majority of the population of Fukushima Prefecture, I am an ordinary person with personal anxieties and concerns, but I have the opportunity to share the experience of those people who still can’t go home. I haven’t come here with an agenda or a preconceived notion. I’m not here to prove to the world that Fukushima is safe, or cry foul that we’re being misled about dangers that might persist. I’ve come here to share the agenda of those who live here, and to seek out people who wish to share their story, and to remind the world that five years on, there are still some who can’t go home because of “the disaster,” as its commonly called here.

Radiation monitoring posts placed throughout the prefecture are meant to offer peace of mind for the population anxious about radiation levels. However, the accuracy of the fixed counters has been questioned as radiation levels can vary from very small increments of distance.

For the next four months I will call Koriyama, Fukushima home. One of my first stops in the city was the “Big I,” one of the tallest buildings in the Tohoku region located right in front of Koriyama Station. From the observation deck atop the building I could see the entire city cast in the warm glow of the sun setting behind the Ou mountain range that runs through Fukushima Prefecture. From up there everything looked normal: the bullet trains zoomed through in and out the station, cars paced steadily through the streets, and people went about their daily lives. You couldn’t tell that there were thousands of stories unfolding below, stories waiting to be told, or stories that some were attempting to withhold. It’s my first week here and I feel like I have a metaphorical bird’s eye view too. I’m coming from the outside, and slowly, as the weeks unfold, I will get closer and closer to the heart of what’s going on as the fifth anniversary approaches.  

Rice from the Aizu region of Fukushima is packaged and sold. The farmer of this particular field had all of his crop scanned and tested for radiation levels, and it came back safe. Food testing has been a widely transparent process with results being posted online.

Fukushima is one of Japan’s biggest prefectures, and is split into three regions: Hamadori to the east, home to the crippled nuclear reactor, Nakadori in the central part where I live, and Aizu in the west. The accident at Fukushima Dai Ichi Nuclear Power Plant offers a picture of a world gone wrong, a picture of how humanity adapts in the face of disaster, both natural and man-made. Those who live in Fukushima seem to have found a way to adapt to the changes forced upon them by the disaster.  In the immediate aftermath everything touched by radiation emitting from Hamadori had to be decontaminated, top soil removed, buildings and facilities scrubbed clean, contaminated debris stored. Radiation monitoring posts have since been stationed throughout the entire prefecture. They give constant readings that indicate radiation can vary from street corner to street corner. Local farmers must submit their produce to radiation checks, and can only sell it if they pass muster. Fukushima used to attract tourists from all around the world, coming to Aizu to ski its world class slopes, to taste their famously delicious sake, or bath in the healing waters of their hot springs. In the aftermath of the disaster, tourism rates to the prefecture have plummeted. Out in the streets in town squares or at the local Starbucks where I am sitting writing this blog post, evacuees, like the radiation levels that prevent them from going home, are invisible. You can’t tell how people have been affected just by looking at the customers coming in and out of the coffee shop, just like you can’t see the radiation that has pervaded the region. In coming months I will discover these stories, and share what I find. I expect to meet hope, sorrow, and resilience.

Ari M. Beser  is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima.  Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His new book, “The Nuclear Family,” focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings. 
Ari M. Beser is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. Using photo essays, videos, and articles, Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His new book, “The Nuclear Family," focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings.
  • staschi

    this is how Tecpo shows thing are
    By this interesting article, still I can’t get how it really is there, today

  • Rodger Whitman

    I am a Canadian living with my wife in Fukushima for the last two years. If you have any questions about a foreigners perspective, I would be more than happy to volunteer my time. Good luck with your project.

  • Dr. Merc

    What’s fascinating about the Fukushima disaster is that it wasn’t a tsunami that caused the nuke plant to melt down.

  • Dr. Merc

    What’s fascinating about the Fukushima disaster is that it wasn’t a tsunami that did in the nuke plant.

  • James Hopf

    After reading the title of this article, as well as the first few sentences, I thought that there was a chance that it would focus on the *real* Fukushima tragedy, i.e., the earthquake and tsunami that killed ~16,000 people, as opposed to the plant meltdown that caused no deaths and is projected to have no measurable public health impact. But alas I was disappointed.

    How about a discussion on the situation with respect to recovery from the earthquake and tsunami? How is the reconstruction of coastal villages going? How many people have not been able to return for *those* reasons? How about a story about the people who actually lost loved ones (from the earthquake and tsunami, NONE being due to the plant meltdown)?

    One may try to argue that the meltdown is more significant in that it is having greater long-term impacts, such as people not being able to return, but I’m not sure the facts bear this out. I hear that there are also long-term refugees from the earthquake and tsunami damage, but they are much less talked about.

    I remember how neighborhoods had to be evacuated and actually condemned after the Katrina event in the US. One of the reasons is that water-logged homes and buildings were breeding grounds for pathogens and mold, etc.. As a result, the health risk of living in such areas was significant, probably greater than any threat from radiation in the Fukushima zone.

  • James Hopf

    One would think that extremely rare releases of pollution (nuclear) would be far preferable to the continuous release of massive amounts of pollution (fossil fuels). However, the implication of this article (and many others) is that the release of nuclear pollution is somehow unique, i.e., qualitatively worse, in terms of its impact. The real truth is that nuclear-related hazards/impacts are not unique, it is the *reaction* to them, by the public and governments, that is unique.

    The local people’s lives have been significantly impacted by the meltdown, but the reason is not directly from the release itself. They’ve been victims of the govts’ response to that release (and the public’s own attitudes).

    What other kinds of pollution release are such that evacuation of a local area is “required”?? Well, it wasn’t required around Fukushima either. The fact is that NO location around Fukushima (even in the “hottest” spots, now deemed as “uninhabitable”) is anywhere near as unhealthy to live in than most of the developing world’s large cities, Beijing being the most notable example. Beijing’s air pollution is a far greater health risk than radiation is anywhere around Fukushima, yet it is somehow OK for many millions of people to live in Beijing, whereas the areas around Fukushima are “uninhabitable” and it’s not OK for even a few people to live there.

    A large oil refinery (near Tokyo, I believe) burned to the ground as a result of the earthquake. Where is the outcry concerning all the pollutants that were surely released from that event? Why weren’t regions around the refinery monitored for levels of benzene, etc.., to see if they are “habitable” and evacuated if necessary? Why isn’t all food grown in the vicinity of the refinery tested, the way food around Fukushima is? I doubt any of this was even looked into, to any significant extent, given the political power of the oil/gas industry.

    In response to the meltdown, Japan as indefensibly shut down all of its reactors and replaced them with fossil fueled generation (including coal). Whereas experts agree that the meltdown will have no measurable public health impact, statistics suggest that the fossil fuels Japan as used in place of nuclear, over just the last four years, will result in thousands of Japanese deaths. That along with a huge increase in CO2 emissions (such that Japan has essentially given up on its global warming commitments). Finally, the economic cost of the additional fossil fuel imports, over just the last 4 years, has already exceeded the total eventual economic cost of the meltdown itself (plant decommissioning, land cleanup, and public compensation).

  • t grey

    James Hopf you obviously dont have a clue how dangerous exposure to the radiation, and the contaminates that were released from these plants are. for starters i recommend that you search on youtube “chernobyl children”. Helen Caldecott also offers information on the health implications of this disaster. ill add, this crap was released into our ionosphere. t

  • Geronimo

    If you still live in Fukushima right now you don’t understand, leave as far as you can buy radiation detector your live is in danger! no clean up can clean radiation

  • Gerard Pique

    Humm. I prefer KSI videos on YT. Me gusta los hombres.

  • Timothy Norris

    Nuclear power (fission) has a major drawback in comparison to other forms of energy production.

    Issue 1: In the fission process, some of the most dangerous byproducts known to mankind are generated, both from a chemical toxicity as well as a radiation hazard.

    Issue 2: To sustain a fission process, it is necessary to operate at critically, that is effectively at the threshold of a explosion.

    In view of the explosion risk (Issue 2) and the toxicity issue (Issue 1), fission nuclear power as known today is fundamentally bad technology. If the fission process were to generate only benign byproducts, it perhaps would not be so bad with the explosion risk. Conversely, with the highly toxic byproducts, it perhaps would not be so bad if there were no explosion risk. Add Issue 1 and Issue 2 together provides a truly appalling combination. Such problems are not inherent to photovoltaics, wave power, tidal power, geothermal, wind power. Hydroelectric dams can rupture, with dreadful consequences.

    Our recent work with LENR, and that of several other laboratories, clearly shows that this form of power generation is the ultimate solution as there is no risk of explosion, no dangerous byproducts and a possibility of implementing small-scale in a portable manner. Although initially rather unpredictable and difficult to reproduce, factors influencing LENR reactions are now beginning to be better understood. In the future, people will look back and wonder why we damaged the ecosystem so severely, when there were much better LENR solutions (that are also likely to be highly cost-effective in future). Problem is, with all the additional safety systems, convention fission nuclear power is simply too expensive.

  • Javale Gola

    Good morning Ari Beser
    Do YOU believe that Fukushima’rice is SAFE..?
    Do you think that 100 Bq/kg is a SAFE level ?
    I mean zero Bq/kg is safe.

  • MFB

    Are you able to tell me whether the Shinkansen train line is now the same as it was before the Fukushima explosion? Or did a length of it have to be diverted inland, away from Fukushima?

  • NickG

    I think I may visit someday to go use the hotsprings. Sounds like things are cheap, and people are overreacting to the radiation levels, living near a coal plant is worse, the uranium in the air and deaths per watt are hundreds of times higher, I would assume your government put these restrictions in place as a reaction. I don’t understand why robots weren’t digging down and placing neutron inhibiting material near the core.

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