Frozen Clocks and Radiation Mark Fukushima's Abandoned Towns

Returning evacuees grapple with the 2011 disaster’s legacy and wonder if it is safe.

The wall calendar in Yuji Onuma’s house remains stuck on March 2011, the month of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Onuma lived in the town of Futaba, Japan, about five miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. When the flooded plant began leaking radiation six years ago from Saturday, 150,000 people in the vicinity were evacuated. Onuma and his family were among them.

Since then, his house remains much as it was six years ago. Onuma says he has returned 81 times to document the scene with his camera so that his wife and young children will be able to see the home they cannot inhabit.

Ari Beser was there with Onuma to capture his most recent visit home, along with that of another evacuee, Kenta Sato from Iitate. Beser, a Fulbright-National Geographic storytelling fellow, had planned in early 2011 to live in Japan to hear stories from those who survived the 1945 nuclear bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Fukushima disaster gave his mission a new dimension.


“My family history brought me to Japan, but the failure of nuclear technology kept me here,” Beser says. 

His grandfather, Lt. Jacob Beser, was the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He has made it a mission to collect stories not only from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the ongoing crisis in the region surrounding the Fukushima plant, where wild boars have overtaken the town of Namie and evacuees in Futaba must make a reservation and sign a waiver with gatekeepers to gain access to their homes.

Beser says he and Onuma were exposed to 1 microsievert of radiation during their three-hour visit, less than one would encounter on a flight home to the U.S. Some towns are being reopened to residents, but Beser says there is lingering mistrust about the health risks.

“It is widely believed that [authorities] are rushing to open up the towns before they are truly known to be safe,” he says, “to end compensation for those who have been displaced.”

While the radiation levels in Futaba were relatively low, Beser says, the town of Iitate was a different story. Even though it is farther away from the power plant—about a 35-mile drive—air currents carried the radioactivity there. On their recent visit, Beser and former resident Sato measured radiation levels many times more than those of liveable communities in Fukushima, yet the town is set to open next year.

The government has been removing the topsoil in Iitate in an attempt to decontaminate the town. But, Beser says, “there is no clear way to decontaminate the woods, which make up a large percentage of Fukushima.”

The Fukushima Daiichi accident rekindled a worldwide debate about nuclear energy. Because nuclear plants generate large amounts of electricity without the greenhouse gas pollution of fossil fuels, proponents including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates see it as key to a carbon-conscious future. Beser and many of Fukushima’s evacuees disagree.

“In war, nuclear weapons destroy everything in a moment,” Onuma says, drawing a parallel between two disasters more than six decades apart. “In the case of a nuclear power plant accident, people are deprived of everything in a moment. So it is the same thing.”

Beser points to the waste associated with nuclear power and the fact that it can be used as a weapon. “There is nothing we can do to neutralize it,” he says. “We are so much smarter than this.”

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