Abandoned streets, sandwiched homes, broken infrastructure, infected land, and contaminated air: this is the disquieting image of Fukushima’s 20-kilometer ‘red zone’ in the aftermath of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. The quake moved Japan roughly 2.5 meters to the east, killed some 19,000 people, and left behind a swath of ghost towns.
The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant already had safety measures in place. After the March 11 quake, seismic sensors drove control rods into the three operating reactors, cooling and shutting them down completely. But then the tsunami hit, destroying the generators that cooled the reactors. Operators took to the parking lot, grabbing car batteries to power up measurement and control systems. By then, it was too late.
In the aftermath, many blamed the Japanese culture of group decision-making, more than any one person, for the disaster. While inclusive, it’s a process that breaks down when costly decisions need to be made on the fly, like whether to pump seawater into the reactors—a necessary step that was delayed by several hours.
Today, the Fukushima Daiichi workplace is quite different. Vigilant, sleepless employees from the Tokyo Electric Power Company survey the reactors, removing spent fuel rods, erecting barriers, and covering areas with pink decontamination sheets. Not all sections of the plant are accessible: Reactor 3 remains closed-off, with radiation levels still too high for humans to get close.
Occasional spills from the plant continue. Contaminated land and water continue to pose a threat to Fukushima’s inhabitants, many of whom still live in temporary housing away from the red zone. The 10-kilometer area that forms the red zone’s nucleus may never be habitable again, and the cleansing process in surrounding areas could last decades.
Despite the risks, residents want to shed the disastrous experience and rebuild life. The natural environment has chipped in for the effort, flourishing amidst the wreckage. The reawakening happens alongside the mandatory presence of scientists pouring in and out of the towns, performing frequent radiation checkups in homes and on plants and livestock. Though hints of it may appear, life as normal remains a while off.