In the Belly of the Beast: A Visit to Fukushima Daiichi

Here is a post I wrote in June 2012. I was among a group of journalists allowed inside the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant for a press tour. This is what I saw and experienced.
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1. Approach

The azaleas are in full bloom as we arrive at J Village–as they were the last time I was here–but everything else has changed. This massive sports ground, deep in Fukushima prefecture, formerly hosted children from all over Japan for football training and events. Now its grassy pitches are covered with steel plates, converting them into parking lots for scores of trucks and construction vehicles.

Instead of children in soccer uniforms, the present visitors are mostly dressed in white TyVek protection suits or grey and blue industrial garb. The radiation levels here are about twenty times normal. This has become Tepco’s command center, just at the edge of the 20 kilometer exclusion zone surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex. Originally a present from Tepco to the surrounding community, it has now been reclaimed in order to organize the efforts directed at stabilizing and decommissioning the ruined plant.

Today, for only the third time in more than a year, the Japanese media have been invited to enter the core of this latest nuclear disaster. I will be shooting pool video for foreign television. I have been advised that I can expect to receive 200 microsieverts of radiation—about two and a half months of normal background exposure–in my six hour visit to the plant.

I have been covering this story since it began on 11 March of last year with one of the most massive earthquakes in history. Many times since then I have returned to the area devastated by the quake and the resulting tsunami, and especially to Fukushima, to record the effects not only of those natural events, but also of the nuclear meltdowns and explosions at Fukushima Daiichi that followed them.

Although it was not highly publicized, Fukushima Daini, the second nuclear complex in the area, almost suffered meltdowns as well, but efforts to restore cooling there were successful–just in time.

The effects of the earthquake and tsunami, while horrible, are beginning to ease. The victims have been laid to rest, the rubble cleared. Huge tasks remain, but rebuilding has begun. The effects of the Fukushima disaster, though, continue to haunt large parts of Japan: a sword of Damocles hangs over the country, and everyone knows it.

Whenever I take trips north of Tokyo, I carry a Geiger counter, and already just outside the city, two hundred kilometers from Fukushima, it always creates foreboding as I see the background radiation begin to climb. In Fukushima city, sixty kilometers from the plant, we have recorded readings from children’s parks, schools and playgrounds that are more than 100 times the normal background level. The contamination is invisible and silent, but it covers a massive area, affecting cities and towns and villages, woods, fields, rivers and the sea. And it all came from the spot I am going to visit today.

I am happy to have this opportunity to see Fukushima Daiichi with my own eyes; to experience what life is like in the eye of the nuclear storm.

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2. Preps

After a four hour ride from Tokyo, we pull into the parking lot of J Village. Several times in the past I have sneaked in as an uninvited visitor, covertly grabbing shots from inside the car. Now I am a guest, and I will not have to hide.

Buses are here to take us to the main building for a briefing and preparation, before boarding other buses that will take us to the center of the zone. Tepco people stand by to escort us. I notice that no one is smiling.

Entering the large, fancy foyer of J Village, I see that its vast expanse has been filled with desks and notice boards and boxes. The smooth stone floor is dirty. Although the large murals depicting football teams still grace the high walls, this is now about business, not pleasure.

The group of perhaps eighty journalists is led down the hall and into the former “Alpine Rose” restaurant, but there is no food to be seen; it has become a meeting and preparation room. Each of us has been assigned a seat at the tables that crowd the space. Upon entering we each pick up a TyVek protective body suit. Almost everyone here wears one, along with a simple face mask and a small white head cover.

Because no one is recognizable when fully suited, the first thing we are asked to do is to write our name, number and media organization in big letters with permanent marker on both the front and back of the suit. Everyone here is so identified, and thus identifiable.

At each seat, a bag, a dosimeter and a full face mask with breathing filters has been provided. The bag contains multiple sets of various kinds of gloves and thick vinyl shoe covers, a head cover and a small face mask. These will be used and discarded in a specific order as we move throughout the day.

In the center of the room is a table where tape and plastic bags and sheeting have been provided. Every piece of equipment must be completely sealed, camera straps taped, microphone cables wrapped. The grounds of the plant are highly radioactive, and so too is any dust,which will settle on exposed surfaces.

I find a large vinyl bag that will fit the camera, seal it completely with only lens and eyepiece uncovered. I put it on my shoulder and it slips around on the plastic. I try to get my hand through the lens strap, and struggle to make space to operate the zoom servo. With my other hand, I try to operate the focus and aperture rings, and to change filters. This is going to be difficult!

I cannot do anything at all through the plastic. Finally I give up and poke a small hole through the plastic so that with one finger I can reach the controls. Otherwise I might as well just give up, since I will get absolutely nothing.

We are given instructions about the day’s itinerary: We will be taken to the command center of the plant first, where we will attend a presentation of the minister of nuclear power policy, Goshi Hosono, who is touring the plant today. Afterward we will suit up and go to two spots to see the ruined #4 reactor up close. First from below, at its base, then on a hill about 70 meters away, where we will be able to see the minister as he climbs up to the wrecked third level to see the infamous spent fuel pool where over 1500 fuel rods are stored.

Lately the complicit silence has been broken with high-level warnings of a possible global catastrophe if the pool in this highly compromised structure were to leak or collapse. It would release at least ten times as much radiation as was released from Chernobyl, and would lead to the abandonment of this plant, and possibly several others nearby. Some people estimate that a worst case scenario would include the evacuation of at least half of Japan, and possibly the west coast of the United States. Today the press has been invited to participate in a mission of reassurance. I am here, instead, to see what I can see of what is really going on.

We try the masks, learn how to get a good seal so that there will be no unfiltered air leaking around the edge. We don the first set of protective gear that will take us into the Fukushima complex. This is minimal: shoe covers, cotton gloves covered by vinyl gloves, and a small cloth mouth and nose mask. We also hang that essential piece of equipment around our necks: a dosimeter, which will tell us how much radiation exposure we receive today. I note that it is named “Mydose”, a comical moniker for a serious piece of kit.

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3. Journey

We move to our assigned buses. First, we are driven up the hill to another part of the J Village complex, where we are given a full body scan for internal radiation.We will be checked coming and going, in order to make sure that no radiation sneaks through our protective layers and into our bodies. There are many avenues of internal contamination: the mouth, the nose, through small breaches in the skin. It can even enter the body through the delicate tissues of the eyes. Once inside, it is very hard to get it out, and the constant bombardment by radioactive decay can do serious damage to cells, possibly causing cancer.

I have been given the perfect front window seat as a video cameraman, from which I can film the 20 kilometer trip to Fukushima Daiichi. The door is closed, and we begin this journey into a hostile land.

Checkpoints are everywhere: one at the exit of J Village, and then two police checkpoints just at the edge of “the zone”. Once before, I sneaked into the exclusion zone to film for a documentary, risking arrest. This time I can relax as we are waved through, and do not have to hide my camera.

We drive through lush countryside, passing towns and villages. There is the occasional car and truck, but not a person to be seen anywhere. This area was evacuated almost immediately after the problems with the plant began, and will remain so for a long time, parts of it likely for decades.

It is an eerie feeling traveling though this long stretch of ghost towns. So many shops, so many houses sit empty. Where are their owners now, what kind of life are they living, what kind of work are they doing? They have lost so very much; how can this ever be made up to them? Tepco is discussing compensation, but how can an entire life be compensated? I am happy that I do not see the bones of the many animals that starved to death here. That would be too much to bear.

The road was badly damaged by the earthquake, and has still not been repaired, although the cracks have been filled. We move slowly but steady, as all the traffic lights simply flash yellow. Caution.

I am filming everything I can, trying to capture the feeling of this strange environment, which looks both so normal and so abnormal at the same time. Trying to hold the camera steady on this bumpy road is difficult, and as I will find out, this will end up being one of the most physically demanding shoots I have ever done.

We drive slowly, almost leisurely, pass the deserted towns and villages as one of the Tepco people, acting as a tour guide, speaks on the bus PA, giving town names, points of interest, and radiation readings. I am checking those by myself as well, and see that in many places background readings are about sixty times normal—inside the bus. The reason for the exodus is clear. Anyone staying here at those levels would receive a year’s acceptable dose of radiation in one week.

Fields lie fallow, but overall there is not the sense of things returning to the elements. Everything looks quite tidy, although we do pass occasional shops and houses that have been partially destroyed by the earthquake. Nothing has been moved or cleaned up. The evacuation was quick, and long term.

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4. Entrance

Finally, we turn right toward the sea, and pass through a forested area. I am requested to stop shooting, we are approaching the gate, which should not be filmed for security reasons.

After a cursory check we enter Fukushima Daiichi, the belly of the beast. Here too, azaleas are blooming in gay shades of pink and magenta, but the radiation readings are now more than 100 times normal. We pass large, squat industrial buildings. Everything looks quite normal, except for pipes and cables running along the side of the road.

We turn into a parking lot, and approach a temporary construction in front of a low, heavy building. This is the earthquake-proof room, the emergency center, which has become the nerve center of Fukushima Daiichi. Leaving the bus quickly, carrying our bags of gloves and covers and mask, we move towards the door

This hastily-built addition in front of the main building is for decontamination. We enter a utilitarian foyer. Everything is covered in pink plastic sheeting; walls, floor. There is a small step up, and this is the line of demarcation: shoe covers are taken off here, and once the shoe cover is off, the wearer must put his foot only on the step. To step back down with naked shoe on the plastic-covered floor is forbidden.

From here we follow a Tepco spokesman through the narrow pink corridors, passing workers in their TyVek suits. These white pajama-like body coverings are beginning to look entirely normal. We go up a flight of stairs, where hundreds of strings of paper cranes, and posters filled with messages of encouragement to the workers here have been sent by schoolchildren from all over Japan. There is a life of sorts here. The atmosphere is not particularly tense, but it does feel constrained and regimented. Enough time has passed that routines have been established, and people have become accustomed to the very dangerous conditions which exist inside the plant.

We are brought to a large room, also completely pink, in which the floor has been cleared, with bunk beds pushed against the walls. Some minimal drinks and snacks that have been provided, all still in their boxes. No frills here, but I am grateful. Once we leave to tour the plant, we will have no chance to either eat or drink for several hours: our masks will be on at all times.

There are no chairs, so people simply mill around. Waiting is one of the occupational hazards of this job, and everyone is used to it.

Eventually we are escorted to another checkpoint inside the building, where the equipment is monitored for radiation, and so are we, entering full body scanners that pay particular attention to the hands, which must be put in separate slots and pushed down and forward in order to activate the scanner. Hands are easily contaminated, and spread contamination easily.

Now we are escorted into the central command room, from which all activities in the plant are monitored. Scores of men in blue and gray Tepco uniforms sit in front of their laptops. In the center is a large oval table, with more of the same. At the head of this table sit three men in front of a flag with the representation of an atom on it. There is a large screen showing various CCTV camera images on the left; on the right a similar screen displays the real-time image from a streaming camera pointed at the reactor buildings. Nothing moves in the image but some flowers in front of the lens blowing in the wind, but there is dangerous activity taking place deep in those structures.

We, with our plastic-covered cameras, are positioned at the far end of the table, waiting to shoot statements by Minister Hosono, who is visitng the plant today, another ministry bureaucrat and a Tepco spokesman.

We have not been allowed to bring tripods into the plant for fear of contamination, and with the speakers positioned at the other end of this long table, shooting is truly difficult—fully zoomed out, trying to hold the camera steady at quite high magnification for long periods of time. Covered in plastic, the camera keeps slipping on my shoulder, so it takes even more effort than usual to hold it. Minutes seem like hours, and I skip the less important middle speaker, but grudgingly film the last one, as he starts to stammer in the middle of his talk. With a newsman’s radar, I had hoped this might signal some sort of revelation, but of course the statements are the usual bland pablum designed not to say anything in as many words as possible.

Finally the ordeal is over. We go back to the waiting room and begin the process of suiting up for the tour of the reactors. The TyVek suit goes on easily, more a soft coverall than anything else. I slip the small fabric head cover on, a second protection for the hair under the hood of the suit. Radiation does not become less harmful in small doses, the effect is cumulative. Therefore it is most important not to spread it; the less radioactivity that leaves this area the better. Let it be trapped on something that can be disposed of on site, not in the hair, or on the clothes or the camera, where it will be transported to and dispersed in Tokyo.

Over the head cap goes the mask. It covers the full face, from the top of the forehead to under the chin, with two air filters and an exhaust valve, making everyone look like strange insects. It is more comfortable than I expected, and is very well designed to draw the filtered air up along the inside of the mask to keep it from fogging. We are cautioned to make sure that there is a good seal, with no possibility of unfiltered air leaking in around the rubber skirt of the mask. To test this, we cover the filters and inhale. A partial vacuum should be created, pulling the mask inwards. Any leakage is readily apparent.

Ah, progress! These are light and reasonably comfortable, far better than the gas masks I used in Korea in the 80s to guard against tear gas.

Next, shoe covers—thick vinyl, with elastic tops. We put on two pairs over our shoes. I don’t understand the need to double them, but afterward it will become clear.

And gloves. Three pairs. First, soft cotton gloves, the delicate white kind that are worn by coin collectors and museum curators handling precious objects. Then two pairs of latex gloves, pulled up over the sleeves of the TyVek so that no skin or clothing is exposed.

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5. Walking on the Moon

With this we are ready, and we march back to the building entrance. While walking, the shoes covers slide over each other and the shoes, making it feel like walking on ice. Tepco employees also in full gear stand by, ready to open the door only for long enough to let us out. When everyone is gathered, the signal is given and we head for the buses. I notice that the radiation is now 60 microsieverts per hour, about six hundred times the present average radiation level in Tokyo, and more than one thousand times more than what it was before the accident.

The plant is surprisingly large, with many outbuildings, and a lot of land simply covered with pine trees. I film everything, just because it is such a rare opportunity to be here. Finally we see the four ruined reactor blocks.

I am actually relieved to see that while the top two stories of the five story structures of reactors three and four are nothing but masses of twisted metal and debris, the bottom three stories appear quite solid. Small comforts…

The bus rounds a corner and we are at the base of reactor #4, perhaps fifty meters from the building itself. All the Geiger counters are screaming, warning of high radiation levels. I check the one I brought, hanging around my neck. 160 microsieverts per hour. At that rate, a person receives the standard background dose for one year in six hours and fifteen minutes.

I am struggling with the camera. Without a tripod I have to balance the slippery camera on my shoulder and since I am shooting fully extended, even using the doubler on the lens for more magnification, every small movement of the camera is tremendously magnified. Add to that trying to manipulate the camera through a plastic cover with three pairs of gloves on. The face mask forces me to hold the camera far out in front, with my eye quite far from the eyepiece, and pull my head back as well to keep the camera at least somewhat balanced. My neck hurts and I point the camera up, filming the ruined reactor.

In front of me I see one of the workers struggling to put on his tool belt; it takes him many tries to fasten it, with his suit catching in the buckle and him unable to feel what is going on. With so many gloves, the sense of touch is severely diminished. I know exactly how he feels, and I begin to get an idea of the difficulty of working under such conditions. And the suits are hot: In full summer they must be a nightmare, and workers cannot even take a drink until the end of their shift, back in the relative safety of the emergency center with its special air filters, in which the masks can be removed. Worker shifts therefore last only a few hours at a time, with much time wasted in unsuiting and suiting up, and transportation to and fro.

We are allowed only ten minutes here because of the high level of radiation, but it also takes several minutes to get back on the bus, because each person has to stop at the first step up at its door, at which point Tepco personnel carefully remove the first of the two pairs of shoe covers. Doubling them allows us to stop in two places without having to put on a new pair with our now-contaminated gloves. Each person first lifts his right foot. When the cover is slipped off, he puts that foot on the first step of the bus, lifts himself and raises his left foot. After that cover is slipped off he enters the bus.

I film this procedure, and as I do, one person makes the mistake of stepping back on the ground with his right foot, instead of onto the first step of the bus. Everyone freezes. I hear a groan. He immediately lifts his foot again but it is too late. The ground is so highly contaminated here that he may well track radiation into the bus. Finally one of the Tepco workers removes the contaminated second cover—he will need a new one before he can get out at the second stop.

Everyone is finally on the bus, but we cannot yet leave this highly radioactive area–we must wait for the Tepco people, who carefully tie large bags of used shoe covers: those are now hazardous radioactive waste and must be disposed of as such.

We drive back up the road and turn onto a bluff overlooking the plant, about 70 meters from number four and on the level of its third floor, where the lid of the pressure vessel and the fuel pool are visible. It looks like quite a mess: The walls are blown out and large chunks of concrete hang on twisted rebar mesh, with metal debris littering large areas of the floor. The large yellow cover of the pressure vessel sits askance. This reactor was down for maintenance, but that is a mixed blessing. While there was no chance of the same meltdown that struck reactors one, two and three, the very dangerous new fuel rods are all sitting in the spent fuel pool, which has no containment whatsoever. The Tepco people know the danger from the pool, and are working to try to repair the machinery to remove the rods as quickly as possible and get them into more secure dry-cask storage.

Shooting from here is the same problem: no means of support, and out long on the tele. I try to brace myself on a metal railing but the Tepco guide stops me. I am not allowed to touch anything, except with the bottoms of my vinyl-clad feet. Everything is contaminated. I had made a disposable steady bag out of bubble wrap in a plastic bag, but I can see that it will be impossible to use it. Although I could throw it away, no provisions have been made for any trash other than shoe covers. Trash is no longer just trash; it is dangerous, and nothing from here can be treated lightly. I put the camera on my aching shoulder and do my best to hold it steady.

Soon we see a number of people climb onto the open third floor of the building—it is the minister with his entourage, some Tepco people and a few photographers. The minister is here—and we have been invited—as a photo opportunity, to ease the fears of a catastrophe emanating from the possible collapse of the #4 building. Look! Even the minister can visit here—it is perfectly safe! Nobody mentions that the radiation levels where the minister now walks hover around 500 microsieverts per hour—enough to provide a year’s nominal exposure in just two hours. Nor does anyone believe the government anymore. We are here to legitimize the official claims of safety, and that is exactly how most of the reports will be presented to the Japanese people

Radiation levels on this hill are nowhere near as high as they were on the ground below, but time is limited to fifteen minutes in order to minimize total exposure. We climb back on the buses in order to make our way out of the plant and back to J Village.

Our exit route takes us between the four reactors and the sea. I am shocked to see that between the shore and the reactors there is only a low wall of rocks in metal mesh bags. If there is another tsunami, things could go very bad here, given the fact that the three reactors that suffered meltdowns are being cooled only by a makeshift system of pipes, and the contaminated water from that cooling system is being filtered by an even more jerry-rigged system, both of which would most probably be destroyed by another wave, even if it were quite small.

Passing behind the reactors, I am surprised to see that not much cleanup has been done. Carcasses of vehicles still litter the area between the road and the reactor blocks. In one place what might have been a cooling plant is nothing but rusting, twisted metal. The reason for this neglect suddenly becomes clear…

I am shooting out the window between reactors three and four when all the alarms go off at once. The Tepco guide instructs the driver to move fast. I find out later that the radiation there measured 1500 microsieverts an hour as we passed—a normal year’s background exposure in 40 minutes, the maximum normally allowable yearly exposure limit for a nuclear worker reached in less than half a day.

Up the hill, the bus stops near a truck, with three pipes leading from black machinery on the back down and along the ground. Blue lights glow like vigilant eyes. We are told that this single truck supplies all the cooling water for reactors 1, 2 and 3. I am flabbergasted. This is all that stands between Japan and a very bad fate–scary even though there is a backup truck next to it. It is very probable that these pumps, or pumps like these, will have to be operated for a decade—maybe longer—since no technology presently exists to removed the melted fuel now burrowing its way through the two meters of concrete in the primary containment vessels of those three reactors. In fact, no one even has a good idea of the state of the fuel, because the radiation level inside those vessels is so high that most electronic devices are immediately put out of commission by it

But progress of sorts is slowly being made in this area, and the news is not good: It was recently announced that the water level in one of the three stricken reactors was measured at a level lower than originally thought—considerably lower: in fact only forty centimeters of water was found in the pressure vessel, instead of the nearly two meters that was thought to cover the fuel. Forty centimeters is about the depth of the average bathtub. No one is saying where the rest of that water might be.

The whereabouts of quite a lot of other cooling water is visible as we continue our drive: we pass a field of huge water tanks; dozens and dozens of them. They hold highly contaminated water. Since the fuel is melted, and no longer has its zirconium cladding, any water coming in contact with it becomes highly contaminated, and must be filtered before being used to cool it again. But removing the contamination is difficult and time consuming. Even with all these tanks, there will soon be a problem: They will reach capacity within ten weeks–a couple of hundred thousand tons of highly contaminated water, and no place to put that which will inevitably continue be generated for at least a decade, and probably much longer.

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6. Return

We are nearing the end of the tour—but there is one more step before we can leave. Our bus is driven into a large canvas tent, where six workers with contamination probes slowly go over every centimeter of the front, back and sides of the vehicle to check for contamination. They sweep the probes from side to side in slow arcs, eyes glued to their meters for any telltale jump. But we are clean, and the bus is allowed to leave and reenter the exclusion zone.

I am completely exhausted and my shoulders ache. The driver pulls off his breathing mask and invites everyone to do the same. The Tepco people suggest we keep them on. We do. I check my Geiger counter—eight microsieverts per hour, about 80 times the normal rate. On the way in it alarmed me, now it seems like nothing.

At J Village we enter through a temporary building; this for decontamination procedures. We drop the masks into a large receptacle. Next we take off the two pairs of latex gloves and put them in a bin, then the TyVek suit and cap. We surrender out dosimeters. I note that I have received 80 microsieverts of radiation, about forty days worth of Tokyo background. But this is still much better than the 200 microsieverts estimated for the tour by Tepco.

Finally we remove the cotton gloves. The gear is stripped of its protective covering. We are back where we started six hours before, richer both with those eighty microsieverts of exposure and with a new understanding and respect for the tasks ahead here.

In the environs of J Village the radiation is only about 20 times normal. It feels like freedom. To walk outside and feel the wind on my skin is lovely. My muscles start to relax, but there is one final insult: the minister and a Tepco spokesperson will hold an impromptu press conference in the entrance foyer. Another thirty minutes with the 12 kilo camera on my shoulder, trying not to shake, which gets harder all the time. At least the vinyl cover is off the camera, and it sits firmly on my shoulder. Still, this is no fun at all.

And with that, it is over. No one bows or thanks us as we queue up for buses to take us to the parking lot. No one even stays to bid us farewell. There is work to do.

–Toby Marshall
2012.06.02

No cameras or phones were allowed inside. I snapped myself trying on the mask with my phone before we left J Village

No cameras or phones were allowed inside. I snapped myself trying on the mask with my phone before we left J Village

In Japan, it is "my" everything--my house, my car, my life...so this on the dosimeter came as little surprise.

In Japan, it is “my” everything–my house, my car, my life…so this on the dosimeter came as little surprise.

Every inch of the equipment was covered in plastic except the actual lens front objectives.

Every inch of the equipment was covered in plastic except the actual lens front objectives.

The heavy plastic sheeting made life especially nasty for us video camerapeople, because it was almost impossible to reach the buttons and controls.

The heavy plastic sheeting made life especially nasty for us video camerapeople, because it was almost impossible to reach the buttons and controls.