Photographers' Blog

A visit to Fukushima Ground Zero

By Issei Kato

“This day finally came.”

That was my first impression when I was chosen as a pool photographer on behalf of foreign media based in Japan to visit the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

We were allowed to enter the plant last Monday, ahead of Japan’s one-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami, which triggered the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl. The media tour was the first to take place since the Japanese government announced in December that reactors at the plant had reached a stage of cold shutdown. We were allowed to cover not just from inside a bus, but from a certain outlying spot close to a reactor building for 15 minutes.

The pictures and TV footage of the explosion at Fukushima Daiichi that followed the disaster had filled me with fear. Although the government and the plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) had explained at the time, that it was a “hydrovolcanic explosion” we had witnessed, the blast appeared more like the explosion of the atomic reactor itself. “Can we keep on living in this country?” “Would this incident end up forcing Tokyo and nearby residents to abandon home to escape?” I can easily recall the fears I felt at the time of the explosion.

When I received the offer to do this assignment, honestly, I struggled against a feeling of fear, thinking about its potential risk. But then I recalled the reason why I chose the job of a news photographer. A key motivation was that I wanted to be “an eyewitness of the historical moment.” I just could not refuse the offer and decided to take the opportunity to enter Japan’s ground zero.

During the tour, we were strictly required to wear a full-face mask, protective suits, shoe covers, and globe, and carry an alarm pocket dosimeter (APD). We also had to receive a screening test and a white blood cell scanning test before and after the tour. Frankly speaking, it was not at all a perfect condition to take pictures, with a full-face mask which made me feel unbearably hot. Camera equipment was also required to be wrapped by plastic bags to avoid radioactive contamination. A goggle with the full-face mask was misted due to sweat and humidity, which occasionally made it difficult to see anything in the viewfinder.

Tragedy in Fukushima: when can we go back to home again?

After covering myself from head to toe in protective clothing in the hope of protecting me from radiation, I went to accompany evacuees who were temporarily allowed to visit their homes in the 20 km no-entry zone surrounding the tsunami-crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, a place now notorious for its radiation leaks.

My destination was Okuma town where the whole population of about 11,000 had been evacuated since last year’s earthquake. The town is still afflicted with high levels of invisible radiation.

In the evacuees’ memories, the town was a beautiful rural town with a close-knit community and the only unusual thing was that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was located close by.

Fukushima’s invisible fear

By Issei Kato

These days, a mask, protective clothing and radiation counter have all become a usual part of reporting trips, as essential as a camera, lenses and a laptop. Soon, this situation will have gone on for a full year.

The 20 km (12 mile) zone around Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is now a virtual ghost town after being evacuated of residents due to radiation. I asked a friend, who was forced by the disaster to leave the area and has been searching for a way to resume work, for help, and was able to enter the area where he used to live.

The massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 triggered the world’s worst nuclear accident in 25 years and forced residents around the plant to flee, leaving behind in many cases their household belongings or pets. The triple whammy is still forcing more than 150,000 people from Fukushima prefecture to take refuge, nearly half of them from the no-go zone.

Invisible snow

Invisible Snow from Reuters Tokyo Pictures on Vimeo.

When the Fukushima nuclear power plant exploded, I was in Fukushima covering people who had evacuated from their houses near the plant, as they underwent radiation checks as authorities isolated those who had showed signs of exposure.

The disaster control center in the prefectural government hall in Fukushima city, situated about 63 km (39 miles) north-west of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, was chaotic. However, once I stepped out the building, everything around me looked the same in the city and it was difficult to comprehend what was actually happening. People in the city were walking their dogs outside and riding their bicycles on the streets, although lights were out and many places were experiencing cuts in water supplies.

Soon after, I received an evacuation order from my bosses and since then, my coverage was carried out from outside of Fukushima city and I didn’t have a chance to go back there until recently. Even five months after the disaster, it seemed like fresh and shocking news of radiation had been floating up incessantly. Not just reading or hearing about the situation but imagining the amount of pain and stress the people in Fukushima were going through had made me feel depressed.

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.

Chernobyl graves

Every year Orthodox Christians in Belarus throng to local cemeteries to commemorate their deceased relatives and loved ones on the ninth day after Easter, following an ancient Slavic rite on a revered day called Radunitsa. They tidy up tombs and adorn them with wreaths, and bow their heads in somber silence.

But in the southeast of Belarus, people stream to a tightly guarded area surrounded by solid fences and barbed wire, where whole villages were evicted 25 years ago after being contaminated with deadly radiation spewed by a blown up reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in neighboring Ukraine.

The glum evacuees stream into the dangerous exclusion zone, not only to tend to the graves of their kinsmen, but also to cast a glance at their former homes in forlorn villages often plundered by looters. Fellow villagers come from all parts of Belarus, as well as Russia and Ukraine, to use the four days given by the authorities during Radunitsa to clean graves, lay flowers, leave sweets and a glass of wine at the tomb, to give each other a hearty hug and share news.

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.

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