Dateline visits one of the most contaminated places on earth... the ghost towns around Fukushima.
Tuesday, March 5, 2013 - 21:30

Time has stood still over the past two years in the communities surrounding the crippled nuclear power plant at Fukushima in Japan.

In a Dateline special on The Nuclear Dilemma, Adrian Brown explores these ghost towns to see for himself the legacy of the nuclear disaster that followed 2011's earthquake and tsunami.

Armed with a Geiger counter, Adrian travels through one of the most contaminated places on earth, meeting some of the people who've chosen to stay in and around the exclusion zone.

Life is tough for the locals, who fear long term consequences for their health. Other residents have decided to move and start new lives far from home.

So what does the future hold both for them and Japan's nuclear power industry?

Also in this special edition of Dateline... the controversy over the disposal of nuclear waste in Europe, and the long-term effect of nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific.


Adrian writes for the Dateline blog about his eerie experience visiting the ghost towns inside the Fukushima exclusion zone"...

The Geiger counter on the dashboard of our van is going berserk. In the space of just a few minutes the reading has leapt from 0.23 microsieverts per hour to 19.2 - 0.23 was the pre-disaster Japanese government regulatory limit. It’s an unsettling moment.

We are travelling inside the exclusion zone around the crippled Dai-ichi nuclear plant in north east Japan. Almost two years ago, a radioactive cloud blew over this area and the radiation still lingers today.

It's a landscape denuded of life.  Fields where rice and strawberries once grew are now covered in towering weeds. Homes and shops shaken by the disaster lie abandoned. It's a time capsule of the terrifying events of March 11th 2011.

There are few more lonely or desolate places.  Outside the town of an Odaka, a surreal moment. The traffic lights are still working. They blink red, so we stop. What you notice more than anything else is the eerie silence.

Not for the first time in my career I realise that what I am doing is all down to a personal perception of what risk is. I am reassured by expert opinion that a brief visit into this no-go zone is not hazardous to health. Prolonged exposure, of course, is why almost no one lives here anymore. But I have already received a few teasing texts from colleagues, including one advising I wear lead pants!

We are on our way to visit one of the few people who have remained on this contaminated land since the disaster.

Masami Yoshizawa can see the towers of the Dai-ichi plant from the hilltop overlooking his farm. It's just 14 kilometres away. He heard the explosions on that fateful day and soon realised the danger he and his 40 cattle were in. He's had regular health checks and so far so good, but he also knows that it could be many years before he knows what effect the radiation exposure will have on his health.

Some of his cattle have started to develop a strange skin condition that he says he didn’t see before the disaster. As he contemplates his future, I detect an almost fatalistic acceptance in what may lie ahead.

At the time I was both shocked and mesmerised by the story of the Fukushima 50, the group of workers who went back into the crippled plant to try to cool down the reactors. The operator of the plant, Tepco, rarely grants interviews and those workers who have spoken to the media have only done so on the condition of anonymity.  

However, I submitted my request to Tepco and hoped for the best. Then just two days before my assignment ended, the company's PR department contacted me to say one of the Fukushima 50 was prepared to talk to me on camera.

For Atsufumi Yoshizawa it would be his first interview with a foreign television network. He's 54 and married with two adult daughters. But his thoughts, he told me, were not on his family as he prepared to return inside the plant after the first of the explosions. He admitted that it felt like a suicide mission.

'Regardless of dying for somebody or something, it was something that only we could do and no one else could do," he tells me. 'So me and the other workers on the spot were thinking this way. There was a feeling among everybody on the spot that we may have to sacrifice ourselves."

Anywhere else in the world, people like Mr Yoshizawa would have been hailed as heroes, but it hasn't worked out that way. Many Japanese people believe that he and his co-workers perpetrated the accident and then bungled their response. Yet there is no doubt that without their intervention, the disaster could have been a lot worse.

Mr Yoshizawa spent nine months in the plant, braving high levels of radiation. Hearing his calm reflections of that time makes for compelling listening. For the first few weeks he and his co-workers survived on little sleep, living on a diet of water and biscuits. Like others affected by the disaster, he is learning to live after exposure to high levels of radiation.

Japan is the only country in the world to have had a nuclear bomb dropped on it. This disaster though had a much wider destructive range, affecting more than 600 kilometres of coastline. The scale of it is still hard to absorb.

Today more than 340,000 people remain homeless. They've just endured their second winter in temporary shelters. Their initial stoicism has now given way to frustration over the lack of reconstruction.

But Nakamura Hiro is remarkably philosophical about his predicament. His home was destroyed and tells me how he lived in his car for four months. He doesn’t have any idea when or if he will ever get a proper home like the one he had before. He says he’s satisfied because at least he has a job.


Look back at Dateline's 2011 stories on the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster...

Japan's Catastrophe from March 2011 reported on the immediate aftermath...

Nuclear Family from August 2011 looked at the effect of the disasters on the lives of local people...

Related Links


First, though, to Japan, where two years ago almost to the day the tsunami struck. It was the nuclear disaster that followed which has left the most lasting legacy. So what's happened to the people of Fukushima since then? Adrian Brown travelled to Odaka, deep inside the irradiated zone to find out.

REPORTER: Adrian Brown

Desolate and blighted - this is Fukushima's exclusion zone , a radioactive wasteland, the site of one of the world's worst nuclear disasters.

Driving through Fukushima is a surreal and unsettling experience. A Geiger counter is our only means of monitoring the danger all around. We're now less than 20km from Ground Zero.

You can't see radiation - you can't taste it - you can't feel it - but we know this is one of the most contaminated places on earth. The experts say making a brief visit here is not dangerous but prolonged exposure is. It's not a place you want to spend too much time in.

NEWS VOICEOVER: This is the moment the quake struck...

NEWS VOICEOVER: It had a magnitude of 8.8... The largest in Japan...

These barriers mark the start of the no-go zone around the crippled Dai-ichi nuclear reactor.


MAN: Yes, which have very high.

Despite the high radiation levels, some people have refused to leave. We're on our way to meet one.

MASAMI YOSHIZAWA, FARMER (Translation): I saw the cloud with my own eyes - I heard the explosion from the farm, as it is 14 kilometres away. That was really incredible. Shocking.

Farmer Masami Yoshizawa once provided beef for some of Tokyo's finest restaurants.

MASAMI YOSHIZAWA (Translation): They had always said that nuclear plants were safe with multi-faceted protective mechanisms - the accident blasted this claim along with the plant. The accident made the cattle worthless. Since summer last year, seven animals have developed a condition I have never seen before. It looks like more than a skin disease, they have nasty spots - I believe the disease was caused by the explosion.

REPORTER: What about your own health - have you been feeling sick?

MASAMI YOSHIZAWA (Translation): Since the accident I have had 15 or 16 body scans, I was worried about the levels I had been exposed to and I have had other health checks, quite thorough ones. They all came back okay.

The 58-year-old farmer is refusing to slaughter his animals. His herd has become a living symbol of protest against TEPCO, the plant's operator and the resumption of nuclear power in Japan.

MASAMI YOSHIZAWA (Translation): Once nuclear plants reopen, all areas with nuclear plants will be in danger. What we are suffering in Fukushima will be relevant to everyone who lives near a nuclear plant. I am not thinking of moving or going far away, I will finish my life here and die as a cattleman here. I'll spend the rest of my life with these cattle.

As we leave, we come across visitors taking pictures of Mr Yoshizawa's irradiated crows. They say they've come as a show for support, but are seemingly oblivious to the risks. The Geiger counter is showing one of the highest readings of our entire trip.

MIEKO YOSHIDA (Translation): I'm from Nara, I know nothing about it.

REPORTER (Translation): So the radiation is not a worry?

MAN (Translation): That's right.

REPORTER (Translation): Not a concern?

MAN (Translation): That's right.

REPORTER: Do you believe the government when it says the radiation levels are low? You don't believe the government?

WOMAN (Translation): High or low, the government is not telling the truth.

REPORTER: It's a feeling of betrayal shared by many we meet. Mieko Yoshida is among them. This is really weird - apart from our car, I've seen no other people. No people.

MIEKO YOSHIDA: No people. Like a ghost town.

REPORTER: So silent.


REPORTER: It's very strange.

Mieko was forced to evacuate her home in Odaka, 50km from the nuclear plant. But she returns there regularly to leave food for abandoned pets. The traffic lights are working, but just about nothing else is. Mieko's only protection is a face towel.

REPORTER: How many cats will come here?

MIEKO YOSHIDA: Two or three.

REPORTER: They're eating it?

MIEKO YOSHIDA: They are eating.

Many animals have already perished. Today, for Mieko, there is a reassuring surprise.

REPORTER: Who are they?

In the window of an abandoned shop, she spots a friend's cat. Excitedly, she calls her, with the news it's alive. The discovery happens just metres from Mieko's home.

REPORTER: This is your house?

MIEKO YOSHIDA: This is my house. 40 years.

REPORTER: 40 years you lived here?

MIEKO YOSHIDA: 40 years old.

Before the disaster, Mieko had big plans to rebuild, but it's unlikely she will ever live here again. So now her home is a ramshackle shelter for the area's stray cats.

MIEKO YOSHIDA (Translation): You see, the animals have nothing left to eat. No food, it's terrible, so I come here every week.

Close by are garbage bags filled with contaminated debris. Piles like these litter the exclusion zone. The government is still struggling to safely dispose of this radioactive material. It's little wonder that Mieko has lost faith in nuclear energy.

REPORTER: Do you think Japan should keep nuclear power?

MIEKO YOSHIDA: No. Japanese Government policy is very strange and we people have been deceived. We have been deceived by the government and the electricity company.

This was the scene inside the Unit 1 reactor building after it was rocked by explosions. As the cooling system failed, and the plant went into meltdown, a band of 50 workers stayed on, risking their lives to bring the crisis under control.


REPORTER: That's you?

ATSUFUMI YOSHIZAWA: Yes that's me. I look very tired.

REPORTER: You look very thin.

ATSUFUMI YOSHIZAWA: At the time there was still not enough food and water.

Quietly spoken and unassuming, Atsufumi Yoshizawa is one of the heroes of Fukushima's dark days.

ATSUFUMI YOSHIZAWA (Translation): After the accident the situation in the plant got worse and worse, the radiation levels rose higher. To be honest, we didn't know if we could control it.

For the first two weeks, he and his fellow workers survived on little more than adrenalin, biscuits and water.

REPORTER: You've been quoted as saying you felt like a Kamakazi pilot. Did it feel like a suicide mission, though?

ATSUFUMI YOSHIZAWA (Translation): Those of us who were there felt obliged to fix the situation, we were ready to sacrifice ourselves. The first month was extremely difficult. Not that we wanted to die for others, but there was no one else who could do the job. That is how it seemed to those of us who were there.

Despite the workers' bravery, many Japanese still blame them for causing the accident and bungling their response.

ATSUFUMI YOSHIZAWA (Translation): Most of us who worked there also lost our homes - we had to be evacuated. From both a work perspective and on a personal front, it was an extremely tough time.

REPORTER: It's two years since the disaster. Have the radiation levels started to drop? I mean, is it as bad now as it was then, or less bad, or worse?

JOE MOROSS, SAFECAST: Actually, we're really surprised that the levels have come down much quicker than we expected.

It's refreshing to hear some positive news from Fukushima. Joe Moross and Azby Brown work for Safecast, a US-based organisation which has helped to build a real-time map of radiation levels, using mobile monitoring technology.

JOE MOROSS: Each unit has a GPS and Geiger counter inside so it measures the location t time, and the radiation levels and writes that on the memory cards, so we can read it out later and put it on a map.

While they found that radiation is dropping, they concede that science is divided on the consequences for health from the levels that remain.

REPORTER: Does that mean it's safe for people to return to their homes?

JOE MOROSS: Well, safety is a relative term, and it depends on each person. The same thing that an elderly person may find tolerable in terms of health risk wouldn't be tolerable for a young mother with children, because at a low level, if it's likely to generate a cancer in 20 years in your life, a 70-year-old person probably does haven't to worry about that. Someone who is only ten years old, they have that time several times over for something to come up in their life later on, because of that exposure.

NAOKE INOME (Translation): We are so tired of this, I'm so fed up.

In Fukushima City, I meet Naoke Inome. 50km from the crippled nuclear plant and well outside the exclusion zone, life is still far from normal.

NAOKE INOME (Translation): Everyone is worried about the radiation, the food may be contaminated. We can't grow it here, we can't hang our washing out - we hang it inside the house.

Every day she sends her daughter to a school far away in the mountains - a three-hour round trip by bus.

NAOKE INOME (Translation): Everyone's immune system has become weaker so the children's bodies are changing and I am extremely worried about this, so I think this is because of the radiation. The radiation and the fact that they cannot go outside - they don't get any sunlight so their bodies are becoming weaker.

Seven-year-old Chie is too young to fully understand what happened here two years ago. All she knows is that she can't play outside her home any more.

REPORTER: If you're so worried about the radiation levels, why do you stay in Fukushima?

NAOKE INOME (Translation): My husband has his own business so he has to work here. I said I will leave with the children but he does not want to separate from the kids. So there is not much we can do.

For many of those who turned their backs on Fukushima, life isn't much easier.

KYOTO (Translation): I would love to go back, I just want to return to the life we had.

Six days after the explosion, Kyoto and her family abandoned their home 20km from the Dai-ichi plant. Now mum, dad and four children share two rooms of a rented ground floor flat on the outskirts of Tokyo.

KYOTO (Translation): We are six people living in a place the size of a kids bedroom and it is a completely different environment.

REPORTER: Is the truth this - that really nobody knows when or if it will ever be safe to return to your home?

KYOTO (Translation): That right. What is the truth? I'm not sure what to believe, are the figures they have been reporting safe or not? I just can't trust them.

While the authorities work out how to deal with this nuclear nightmare, the clean-up goes on and on. I found this dad's army group of volunteers just outside Fukushima City. It's slow, methodical work, as they rake and prod at land the tsunami consumed. They've been doing this, six days a week since last May.

KEIICHI SATO (Translation): We are doing this to create a new plot for farming, everyone is voluntarily working hard to clean this up.

Strawberries and rice once grew in this soil. The hope is that one day they will again.

REPORTER: Japan is one of the richest countries in the world. Did you imagine you would still be living in temporary housing two years after the tsunami?

NAKAMURA HIRO (Translation): The country may be rich but does that make me rich? I am just an ordinary Japanese citizen, just one little person. One little Japanese person.

Two years on, it's still hard for survivors to absorb the scale of this disaster. For the people of Fukushima, the suffering goes on.

REPORTER: What do you think when you see this scene before you?

MAN (Translation): It's all over. It makes me feel miserable, it breaks my heart. There is so much wreckage in this area. I hope this will be over as soon as possible.

REPORTER: Do you think they can rebuild this place?

MAN (Translation): No, not at all, there has been no progress - none at all. Things have not changed.

ANJALI RAO: Adrian Brown there. Extraordinary images and you do have to admire the woman who is braving radioactive poisoning to feed those stray pets left in the exclusion zone. There's a blog from Adrian on the website, describing how he felt visiting the disaster zone. Take a look at our interactive guide to radiation and its potential effects on health.





Additional Camera



Original Music Composed by


Addiitonal footage courtesy of TEPCO, Safecast and the Japan Coast Guard

5th March 2013