Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant/Terasa Younker



Thousands of neatly-stacked plastic bags filled with radioactive soil

On Thursday, June 15 I had the rare opportunity to visit the Fukushima No 1 nuclear power plant, site of the infamous 2011 nuclear meltdown disaster.

Consequences from the fallout were visible long before reaching the plant. Soon after crossing the border into Fukushima Prefecture massive radiation meters appear on the side of the highway, with figures gradually ticking up as we approach ground zero. What were once fertile rice paddies are now massive landfills, stacked deep with black plastic trash bags filled with contaminated soil. Soon the radiation meters are accompanied by warning signs forbidding motorcycles and pedestrian traffic and urging travelers to move through the area as quickly as possible. Within a few miles of the plant we pass through the eerie ghost town of Okuma, where abandoned homes and businesses lie in varying stages of dilapidation. Through the filthy cracked windows of a Shimamura, a discount apparel chain, one can see the spring fashions of 2011 still clinging to dusty hangers.

The post‐apocalyptic scenery is made all the more incongruent by disturbingly heavy motor traffic ‐vans of cleanup workers and trucks loaded with the black plastic bags zoom past the remains of restaurants, pachinko parlors, electronic stores, and hotels. There are even sight‐seeing buses filled with disaster tourists eagerly snapping photos of the ghostly landscape.

Things only get stranger after reaching the plant. Next to the official entrance is a sleek, newly built office building and an impressively large helipad. The facade of the security entrance building is decorated with the clean‐cut logos of the dozens of subtracting companies engaged in the cleanup. In my mind had imagined the plant as a sort of creepy abandoned lab operating on a skeleton crew a la Marvel's Weapon X. I could not have been more wrong ‐ the plant is more akin to Grand Central Station, with over 5,000 workers bustling through state‐of‐the‐art equipment, a cafeteria, and even a convenience store. We arrived at around 9:30 am and found a steady stream of plant workers ‐ all men ‐ entering and exiting the plant, walking nonchalantly past posters warning the people next to them may be terrorists. Our guide told me that this time of day is relatively empty ‐ most workers arrive in the early morning so they can finish work during the cool part of the day. I handed over my passport to the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) security team and then lined up to pass through a metal detector and what was to be the first of many radiation meters.

Our guide led us through room upon room of shrieking radiation meters. We eventually arrived in a closed‐off room where we were given “protective clothing“ consisting of two pairs of blue socks, a thin white vest, cotton gloves, glasses, a surgical bonnet and mask, and our own personal radiation meters. According to our guide, 96% of the site has been decontaminated to the point where workers and visitors no longer need to suit up in full respirators. After a brief explanation of the disaster and the last seven years of cleanup efforts we were guided outside the plant where we are loaded into a minibus and the tour began.

We were shuttled to scaffolding above reactors 1‐4 which allowed us to view the damage above. Although progress has certainly been made to reduce the nuclear fallout, I was struck at just how close these plants are to the ocean. Even from our relatively high position I could feel the sea breeze, hear the waves lapping at the seashore, and even see the reflection of the water on the plants' facades. Tepco representatives repeatedly stressed the fact that the earthquake and tsunami which triggered the meltdowns were unpredictable and unprecedented, but my five years living on this island has made me more than aware of the real danger of earthquakes. Historical literature shows that northeastern Japan has been periodically hit by large offshore earthquakes, some with cycles as short as 40 years. Although the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake was in many ways unprecedented, Tepco surely bears responsibility for the disaster in building four nuclear reactors literally on the beach in a volcanic country in a region with a history of cyclical earthquakes and tsunamis.

Our next destination is an up‐close look at one of the hundreds of new tanks built to hold radioactive water leaking from the reactors. More than 1 million tons of radiation‐laced fluid is being kept on‐site in hundreds of hulking steel tanks. What will become of this water remains unclear. As long as there is decaying nuclear fuel in the reactors that fuel needs cooling, and the water poured on the melted fuel will only continue to increase. Unfortunately, removing highly‐radioactive melted fuel debris is no easy task. Tepco estimates it will take 30 ‐ 40 years to decommission the plants, meaning most of the people currently involved in the cleanup will be dead long before it is complete. It will be my generation and those after me who will bear the responsibility of for carrying out this monumental undertaking.

Our last stop is at a newly‐cleared plot of land upon which new incinerator will be built for burning the “protective clothing“ worn by workers and visitors. According to our guide, the land upon which we stood was originally a forest acquired by Tepco to be the site for additional reactors should reactors 1 ‐ 6 prove insufficient.

As I gazed upon the vast, brown, clear‐cut field that what would soon turned into be a great engine of destruction, I was overwhelmed by pathos at the malignancy of unrestrained human greed. What a horrific waste ‐ the constant stream of clothing turned to ashes, farmland debased as landfill, an endless sea of black bags of toxic waste, thousands of workers toiling for the last seven years transporting contamination, billions of dollars of public monies spent in a seemingly endless decontamination effort. Is cheap electricity really worth this?

As an American I am one of the most wasteful consumers of energy in the world, sucking electricity into my laptop, cell phone, TV, washing machine, and air conditioner with little thought of the environmental and human consequences. No creature comforts ‐ no smartphone game, Netflix series, podcast, blogpost, Facebook post, clean clothes or a cool bedroom is worth this cost. Yet for twelve years I have begrudgingly paid my monthly power bill, a tiny fraction of my monthly income, each time naively hoping the cost of energy will magically decrease. Until my visit to Fukushima I had never considered that the energy I consume has such a destructive potential.

Although profit‐hungry corporate executives are easy to blame for the horrific disasters, endlessly hungry energy consumers ‐ myself included ‐ also bear responsibility. In this post‐industrialist era our distance from the processes of production enables an especially pernicious form of mindless consumption. If we are not willing to put in the effort to research how the resources we consume are produce, we have the responsibility to elect public officials which will regulate and oversee production on our behalf.

About the Author

Hello! My name is Terasa Younker and I am a graduate student at Harvard University. This summer I will be working as an intern in the Disaster Prevention & Education Section of the Kahoku Shimpo. As a second‐year student in the Regional Studies ‐ East Asia program I study gender, material culture and consumption, social stratification and popular culture, globalization and cultural diffusion in contemporary Japanese society. I received my undergraduate education at New York University (’10), where I studied East Asian language, literature, art history, philosophy, history, and film theory. My study abroad experience includes Columbia University in Beijing, Princeton University in Ishikawa, and the Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies.
After graduating from NYU, I spent a year as a translator, a year studying advanced Japanese at the Inter‐University Center for Japanese Study in Yokohama, and three years as an account manager at Rakuten, a Japanese firm in Tokyo. At Rakuten, I was a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Sales group and worked with hotels in central Tokyo as well as the Tokyo Islands.
Although I lived in Japan for a total of five years I never had the opportunity to visit Tohoku. I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to explore of an area of Japan not well known in the United States and hope to promote understanding of the region upon my return.