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.
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.
“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 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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”
Residents in the orange zones are only allowed to visit their old homes during the daytime.
However, Podniesiński says that there are few signs of life as many people don’t come back.
There’s not much to come back to and most of the younger residents have left Fukushima in pursuit of a better life in bigger towns and cities like Tokyo.
The older residents, who have grown attached to their homes that they’ve lived in for decades, choose to live nearby.
Podniesiński was invited into one of the temporary housing buildings that belonged to a Fukushima resident affected by the disaster, Youku Nozawa.
The temporary built housing typically consists of two small rooms, a kitchen and a hall.
Some evacuees previously stayed with relatives, but they eventually returned to the temporary housing for fear of being a burden to their family members.
While in the red zone city of Namie, he encountered an eerie sight of forsaken buildings and empty streets.
The town was devoid of life except for the patrols who guard the area to make sure no one is there who shouldn’t be.
“Although the town is completely deserted, the traffic lights still work, and the street lamps come on in the evening. Now and again a police patrol also drives by, stopping at every red light despite the area being completely empty.”
There he met Masami Yoshizawa, who like the other farmer Podniesiński met in the orange zone, returned to his ranch not long after the disaster to care for his herd of cattle.
Shortly after the accident, Yoshizawa discovered mysterious white spots on his cows’ skin, which he suspects is a result of the animals feeding on radioactive grass.
Though Yoshizawa has tried bringing the issue to the attention of the Japanese parliament, he has been unsuccessful in getting them to provide financial funds to support further testing and research.
In the town of Futaba, visitors are given protective clothing, masks and dosimeters to measure ionizing radiation exposure.
Futaba is the town with the highest level of contamination as it borders the power station.
No attempts have been taken to clean up the radiation here.
Podniesiński comes across deserted street signs with slogans promoting nuclear energy. The signs read:
“Nuclear energy is the energy of a bright future,” and “Local nuclear energy guarantees a lively future.”
A married couple in their seventies, Mitsuru and Kikuyo Tani, showed him the house they used to live in.
The Tanis are allowed to visit the house once a month for only a few hours at a time.
They lost hope of ever returning a long time ago, but they return for sentimental reasons.
“Photographs of this kind give a very good illustration of the human and highly personal dimension of the tragedy. They also make us aware of what the residents of Fukushima lost and the very short time they had for the evacuation.”
Buildings were destroyed along the coastal areas where the tsunami hit. Clean-up is still on going, but most of the damage has been cleared. One concrete building that survived the tsunami is a concrete school building.
“The primary school building that survived is situated a mere 300 meters from the ocean. On the tower, as in all of the classrooms, there are clocks which stopped at the moment the tsunami came at the time the power went off.”
The classrooms, gymnasium and music rooms are left empty in a state of disarray.
In one of the classrooms on the first floor of a school, a water mark below a blackboard shows the flood level of the tsunami wave.
“On the blackboard in the classroom are words written by former residents, schoolchildren and workers in an attempt to keep up the morale of all of the victims: we will be reborn / we can do it, Fukushima! / stupid TEPCO / we were rivals in softball, but always united in our hearts! / We will definitely be back! / Despite everything now is precisely the beginning of our rebirth / I am proud to have graduated from the Ukedo primary school / Fukushima is strong / Don’t give up, live on! / Ukedo primary school, you can do it! / if only we could return to our life by the sea / it’s been two years now and Ukedo primary school is the same as it was on 11 March 2011, this is the beginning of a rebirth.”