Not a Soul with a Hazmat Suit in Minamisoma: Covering a Story in Radioactive Rainfall

2011.05.12

After covering the devastation left by the tsunami in the Iwate and Aomori prefectures, I couldn’t suppress my desire to pay a trip to Fukushima. I figured that it would be impossible to fully grasp the 3.11 crisis without first understanding both sides of it – the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, and the nuclear power plant accident.

This kind of nuclear accident, which had occurred on just two occasions in all of human history -- in Chernobyl and Three Mile Island – had just taken place in my own country, and at a location just two hours away from Tokyo by Shinkansen. If I were not to observe the affected area, and record and report on it, for what purpose had I been working as a journalist for the last 25 years of my life?

How do people go on living in a "partitioned city"

But I was clueless as to where to start. I wasn’t familiar with the area, and I had no idea where I should choose as a base for my research. And even if I were to go, there was no way for me to know how bad the radiation was and how I should go about protecting myself.

I have a lot of journalist friends, but none of them had ever done reporting in a location exposed to radiation before. Was it even safe to enter the affected area with the amount of radiation that was being reported? And even if it were deemed safe, were there any necessary precautions to be taken? There was no one to ask.

And then I suddenly remembered that a writer friend of mine, Yoshiyuki Nagaoka, was from Minamisoma-shi. "My family's home was completely washed away by the tsunami," he told me over the phone. What a tragic story. A disaster feels a lot more serious when you have a friend among its victims.

I also had the feeling that if I had him introduce me to some people he knew in town, I just might be able to hear their stories at a more intimate level.

Right, so if a tsunami hit this place, it must be along the Pacific Coast. Meaning that it's in a dead line with the nuclear plant. This was all new to me, and I needed to look at a map to figure it all out. I confess this without the slightest bit of shame: this was the extent of my knowledge about Fukushima.

But after looking at a newspaper article, something struck me as a bit odd. The municipal of Minamisoma had been divided into three zones by a boundary 20 and 30 kilometers from the site of the nuclear accident: the exclusion zone, the safe zone, and the neither-exclusive-nor-safe zone in between. I understand the meaning of a safe zone, and I suppose the exclusion zone is like something from a sci-fi film. But the area in between – with an official label of the "Indoor Lockdown Advisory Zone" – What is that supposed to mean?

For the people who chose to stay in this town, exactly what kind of life are they living? I wanted to find the answer to this simple question (You can see the severity of their living conditions in this article that I wrote).

Through Twitter I just happened to see that a colleague of mine working in film journalism, Yoju Matsubayashi (33), had gotten in really close to the nuclear power plant. I realized that in the photos he wearing some kind of astronaut suit.

I called Matsubayashi on his cell. It turned out that he just happened to be in Minamisoma-shi at that very moment. "Is the radiation really all that dangerous?" I asked. Matsubayashi informed me that he himself was wearing regular clothing, the reason being that none of the civilians were wearing any kind of protective gear, and if he were to wear it, it would only frighten them and he wouldn't be able to get the full story.

Seriously? I found myself beginning to lose my nerve. Matsubayashi is young, is he acting recklessly on this? Is it really okay there? As I started to worry further I heard Matsubayashi's voice through the receiver, laughing as he said, "If you really want to use something, you can always buy one of those throw-away hazmat suits. They're selling them in Fukushima-shi for ¥1000 a piece".

Alright, I guess I just have to go and see for myself. It was on April 22nd that I packed my bag with a week's worth of clothing, grabbed my digital camera and camcorder and hit the road. The Tohoku Shinkansen to Fukushima-shi was in working order again. I made a bunch of calls and confirmed that I could get a rental car in Fukushima-shi, that the gas stations were up and running, and that I would be able to find a place to stay in Minamisoma-shi. I stayed in the city until the night of the 26th.

Panicking about aftershocks and another tsunami

The night of my arrival on the 22nd, after getting into bed in the wee hours of the morning, all of a sudden there came a loud sound like that of a motor’s low purr. At first I thought maybe the AC had broken, but soon after the hotel room started rattling and then began to shake. It actually felt like I had been thrown into a cocktail shaker.

It was a JMA scale magnitude 5 aftershock.

That low beast-like roar had been the rumbling of the earth.

If only that had been the end of it. But I was now very near the coastline, and my room was on the first floor. After the shaking stopped, I became faint with a sudden realization. A tsunami must be on its way! How am I supposed to get away?

By a stroke of bad luck, I was the only guest staying at the hotel. I ran to the front desk. But because this was the middle of the night there was nobody there. Even if I were to try to get away, having just arrived in unfamiliar territory, I had no idea where anything was.

Just calm down! If this hotel is still standing, that means that the last tsunami didn't come this far. But that's still no guarantee that it won't this time. I roamed about in confusion as these thoughts passed through my mind.

I ran out front, but the nearby rice fields and lifeless streets were pitch black, and there was nobody there. And yet I didn't know whether they weren't leaving their houses for fear of radiation, or because they knew there would be no tsunami coming this time. After going back to my room and turning on the TV, I saw the words "No tsunami danger" scrolling across the screen; but I still couldn't settle myself down. Those who survived the March 11th disaster tell of how no one expected the tsunami to be as huge as it was. People paid little attention to it until it was already upon them.

I gathered up all my belongings that I had just unpacked, and stayed up for another hour. Figuring it was all okay, I crawled back into bed. But I couldn't stop worrying about the possibility of yet another aftershock. I had never been so terrified to fall asleep as on that night.

In the morning, I talked to the person at the front desk and found out that the last tsunami had come just 300 meters short of the hotel. Later, I got to confirm this for myself. I drove up to the scene, and to my astonishment I saw that a fishing boat lay on its side in the middle of a field.

How unsettling it was to cover a story in an area affected by radiation

I went all the way up to the boundary 20 kilometers from the nuclear plant, but I never saw anyone wearing a hazmat suit or anything. In fact, there were very few people even wearing those white surgical masks that people always wear for allergies. So basically, these people's clothing and equipment weren't any different from those of people in Tokyo. If someone were to show up in that kind of place wearing a full-out hazmat suit, everyone would panic and I wouldn't be able to get the story. Even after taking just a few pictures, I was treated with suspicion.

With a stroke of bad luck, it rained for nearly the entire duration of my stay. Since nearly 500 people died and another 1000 went missing during the tsunami (In my ignorance I didn't know this at the time, but Minamisoma-shi had the largest number of fatalities in all of Fukushima Prefecture), I also made it to the tsunami-affected area. Naturally all the buildings in the area had been washed away by the tsunami. With no overhangs to take cover from the rain, I clumsily tried holding onto my umbrella while I took some pictures. After walking around like that for a while I was soaked to the skin in no time.

I brought my sopping wet hat and coat back into the room with me. After walking around the muddied disaster area, my shoes were covered in mud. This is terrible!

Since radiation has no color or smell, I didn't notice anything unusual. But that rain and mud no doubt contained radioactive cesium and iodine that were spewed out from the nuclear reactor. And I was in the same room with my hat and shoes that had been drenched in that rain and mud.

Fukushima's Pacific coastline (commonly referred to as the Hamadori) is home to a strong ocean wind. It comes in violent blasts strong enough to make parked cars sway. On clear days, clouds of dust fill the sky. It's within this backdrop that I passed through the remains of those houses. It was as if the entire town were a field of waste. I was covered in dust. Even putting on a mask couldn't completely keep it out, and my eyes ached. The inside of my car was coated with a thin layer of sand.

Isn't this internal radiation exposure? What am I going to do? Have I really been exposed to radiation? Am I going to get cancer? Will I lose my hair? Will I start bleeding from my gums? This is a nightmare.

If it was any other area I wouldn't be that concerned about it, but this was only 20 km from where the nuclear power plant was emitting radioactive material. The dust, the rain, the mud – everything became an object of concern.

A dosimeter showing 0.1 microsieverts

I borrowed a dosimeter from an editor friend of mine before leaving Tokyo (I borrowed it because it would have cost me ¥55,000 to buy one on my own). But the digital display on this pager-like, Chinese-made dosimeter stayed at a constant 0.1 microsieverts.

"This thing isn't accurate when the amount is below 1," the owner had informed me. But what if it's broken, or what if the batteries have died? My worries began to latch on to anything my imagination came up with.

I looked around for an open convenient store and bought the local newspaper (the last delivery of the paper to this town had been the morning of March 12th). As would be expected from their local paper, it featured a graph showing the hourly radiation exposure in every municipality in the Fukushima Prefecture.

Minamisoma-shi showed readings right around 0.54 microsieverts. I gave a sigh of relief.

Since I stayed in Minamisoma-shi for 5 days – a total of 120 hours – I had been exposed to 63.6 microsieverts of radiation.

But it's hard to know whether this is a dangerous level of radiation or not.

Will I get cancer? Well, even if knew that I would come down with cancer in the next 20 years, I'm 48 right now, so would it even happen within my lifespan? No one has the answers to these questions.

Before heading back home, I found myself confronting a serious dilemma: should I throw away my towel and clothes that had become drenched in the rain? If I were to bring them home with me, would I be exposing my family to the radiation too? Of course it would be better to play it on the safe side and throw them out, but it's at these moments that our judgment falters. Nah, this is a brand new coat. What a waste it would be to just throw it out. I began getting myself all worked up over things that don't really matter.

How foolish I had been. There are not many who have had to deal with the threat of nuclear radiation. What should you do with clothing that got wet in rain 20 km from a leaking nuclear reactor core? No one knows the answer to this. In the end, I decided to take my chances, and after throwing away some of the cheaper stuff, like towels and what-not, I took the rest of my things with me back to Tokyo (If you think about it, these would be treated like radioactive waste normally). How idiotic my behavior truly was.

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