Photographers' Blog

Following a nuclear train

By Fabrizio Bensch

126 hours from La Hague to Gorleben; the longest ever nuclear waste transport from Germany to France

This is a retrospective on the past 10 years, during which I have covered the nuclear waste transportation from France to Germany many times. The German nuclear waste from power plants is transported in Castor (Cask for Storage and Transport of Radioactive material) containers by train to the northern German interim storage facility of Gorleben.

As the train came closer to its final destination, I would end up with only a few hours sleep, mile-long marches on foot through forests and fields and never-ending police checkpoints. But in the end each castor transport reached its intended destination.

Nuclear waste from German nuclear power plants was reprocessed at the French plant at La Hague. The train used to transport it was protected in Germany by up to 20,000 policemen. Each transportation was different, but the pictures each year were very similar. There were blockades on the railway tracks, activists chaining themselves to the tracks, peaceful and violent protests along the route and the waiting patiently for hours for the train to move further along.

But this year the protest was very violent. Thousands of activists blocked the transport route between Danneberg and Gorleben and they were displaced by police using water cannons. Local farmers constructed a concrete pyramid, which stood on the tracks. Four of them chained themselves together with a sophisticated mechanism. Specialist police tried for hours to open the mechanism and to clear the railway tracks but after more than 10 hours they gave up. The activists had won.

Shooting heat without getting sweaty

By Kai Pfaffenbach

The use of photographs showing global climate change, industries’ increasing emissions and its effect on our environment is growing rapidly.

Looking for different images Eastern Europe Chief Photographer Pawel Kopczynski came across thermal imaging technology and bought one of these cameras that shows different temperature levels. The camera was sent to my Frankfurt office with a short and easy job description: “Kai, play around with the camera and make good use of it”. After getting familiar with the technology (the first time ever in my career I had to read a 200 page manual) and taking a few silly shots of houses in the neighborhood I made up my mind to start a tour through southern Germany, shooting the nuclear and coal power plants of the region.

The thermal imaging camera is not comparable to a “normal” camera we use day to day. It looks a lot more like the radar guns that police use to catch speeding car drivers. To make it look even more strange you can use a laser pointer for better targeting. No wonder power plant security was after me within a minute as I stood on a street about 500 yards away from the nuclear power plant in Phillipsburg near Karlsruhe to get my first shots. After a few minutes of negotiations they realized I was not coming up with some rocket launching laser system. After crosschecking my passport and press-pass details they took me off their personal list of “terrorist suspects”.

Beefing up radiation checks

Since covering the Fukushima nuclear crisis in March, I have photographed various radiation scenes in the months that followed.

Starting with shocking scenes of people who were actually contaminated with radiation being cleansed and scenes of people being isolated into a building.

I covered many people who had possibly been exposed after their evacuation from areas near the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. Imagining what it would be like to be in their shoes it was difficult to ask for permission but surprisingly, almost all the people allowed me to take pictures as a Geiger counter ticked beside them.

Back in the nuclear zone

Fukushima prefecture’s Kawauchi residents who evacuated from their village near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were allowed to return home briefly last Tuesday to pick up personal belongings. This was the first government-led operation for the evacuees.

Kawauchi village is one of the cities, towns and villages designated by the government in late April as a legally binding no-entry zone within a 20km (12 miles) radius of the plant.

Clad from head to toe in white protective suits, they got off the buses and received a screening test for signs of nuclear radiation at a village gymnasium after a two-hour trip inside the no-entry zone.

Cherry blossoms spring smiles in devastation

Cherry blossoms in full bloom are seen at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ofunato, Iwate prefecture, April 18, 2011.  REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Even this year, cherry blossom season bloomed in Japan.

The lives of us Japanese have changed completely in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the constant fear of radiation following the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. So much so that we forgot the coming of spring.

Cherry blossoms on a tree damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ofunato are seen next to fish near a damaged fish-processing plant in Ofunato, Iwate prefecture, April 18, 2011. The fish was likely washed up from the nearby plant.  REUTERS/Toru Hanai

I returned to cover the stricken area again at the beginning of April. The huge piles of debris that were visible immediately after the quake and tsunami were slowly being managed. Roads had appeared again and gradually I saw that there was a town.

Cherry blossoms in full bloom are seen at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, April 19, 2011. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

The town which appeared was still a world of monotone. But light pink flowers, that elicit a feeling of excitement within all Japanese, appeared in the black and white world.

Japan’s nuclear crisis and my life

As a Reuters photographer, I have covered many disasters and incidents over the last ten years but these things had little direct affect on my life. Just like the saying: “The photographer must be taken out of the picture”, I was a third party in most of these cases. By and large, those catastrophes had nothing to do with my personal life. Once my assignment was over, I used to go back to my normal life and switch from emergency mode.

But last month’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that sparked the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in Japan was different. I am not exempt from the fear caused by the disaster nor am I immune to the threat of the invisible nuclear radiation.

Since I deployed to near Fukushima prefecture to cover the nuclear crisis story last month, two palm size radiation monitors have been added to my MUST-carry items along with my camera equipment. The first thing I have to do after waking up in the morning is not drink a cup of coffee but instead check the radiation level. The number on the device has been the main criteria on whether I can get out of the car once inside the 20km evacuation zone from the Fukushima nuclear plant.

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A Week in Pictures, March 27, 2011

Japan continues to dominate the file from Asia with new photograhers rotating in to cover the twists and turns of this complex and tragic  story.  In a country were the nation rarely buries its dead, the site of mass graves is quite a shocking scene to behold. Holes the length of football pitches are dug in the ground with mechanical digggers and divided into individual plots by the military and are then filled with the coffins of the victims of the tsunami. Family members come to weep and pray over the graves. Some are namless and marked only with DNA details, others bear the names of the victims. There is not enough power or fuel to cremate the thousands of bodies that are being recovered from the disaster zone. 

JAPAN-QUAKE/

Members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force carry a coffin of a victim of the earthquake and tsunami to be buried at a temporary mass grave site in Higashi-Matsushima, in Miyagi prefecture, northern Japan March 24, 2011. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

People who have either been made homeless by the tsunami or have fled the 30km exclusion zone around the stricken nuclear plant live out their lives in evacuation centres, not sure what the future will hold. There is a backdrop of growing concern over the radiation that is continuing to leak out into the atmosphere from the nuclear plants in Fukushima.  Thousands of people are still unaccounted for, international help has arrived to help with the massive task of clearing up, industry is still crippled and the weather is poor.  Next week, a school will reopen at a temporary site, 80% of the classes are either dead or missing. It is under these conditions our team of photographers continue to work. Again I wil let the pictures speak for themslves.

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A week in Pictures March 20, 2011

Japan - after four days of editing pictures from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan I took an hour break to buy some food and get some money in a small shopping centre near the office. As I walked through the busy street, the thought that stuck me was that everything around me is so temporary. The people along the coast of the Miyagi Prefecture were probably going about their daily business, just like I was, when the wall of water swept through their towns wiping their very existence off the face of the earth. Reports of a nuclear cloud heading towards Tokyo where 13 million people live, added to my sense of fear. In my mind,  the world had changed forever. I cannot begin to imagine what the people in Miyagi, the rescue workers and the photographers taking the picture are feeling. From our team of photographers covering the story, I have chosen three pictures from each photographer, not an easy task when there are so many great images. Respect to all the teams covering the story and my condolences to the people of Japan. I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

JAPAN-QUAKE/

A survivor pushes his bicycle through remains of devastated town of Otsuchi March 14, 2011. In the town of Otsuchi in Iwate prefecture, 12,000 out of a population of 15,000 have disappeared following Friday's massive earthquake and tsunami. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

JAPAN-QUAKE/

A vehicle is half submerged at a crossroad after an earthquake and tsunami in Sendai, northeastern Japan March 12, 2011. Japan confronted devastation along its northeastern coast on Saturday, with fires raging and parts of some cities under water after a massive earthquake and tsunami that likely killed at least 1,000 people. Japan scaled back its tsunami warning for much of the country on Saturday, nearly 24 hours after a massive earthquake struck and set off a succession of tsunami, NHK television said. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak