The Most Dangerous Room in the World

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from TIME Magazine,

Three-and-a-half years after a catastrophic meltdown, Fukushima is far from fixed.

Our gas masks are on, as are three pairs of gloves secured with tape, two pairs of socks, rubber boots, a hard hat and a hazmat suit that encases our bodies in polyethylene. Ice packs cool our torsos, but photographer Dominic Nahr, reporter Chie Kobayashi and I start sweating. Maybe it’s nerves, or maybe it’s just the sticky humidity of summertime Japan.

Soon we approach the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant—ground zero of the worst atomic meltdown since Chernobyl. Dosimeters around our necks record the rising levels of radiation.

After the 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11, 2011, the aging plant on Japan’s northeastern coast suffered a total power failure, causing the cooling system to shut down. Three of the station’s nuclear-­reactor cores overheated, sending plumes of radiation over a placid landscape of fishing villages, rice paddies and dairy farms. (The station has a total of six reactors. Two were in cold shutdown at the time of the accident; another, which had been defueled, suffered an explosion.) As we lumber through the plant like clumsy B-movie extras, I’m reminded that our many layers don’t protect against every type of radiation.

Three and a half years after the most devastating nuclear accident in a generation, Fukushima Daiichi is still in crisis. Some 6,000 workers, somehow going about their jobs despite the suffocating gear they must wear for hours at a time, struggle to contain the damage. So much radiation still pulses inside the crippled reactor cores that no one has been able to get close enough to survey the full extent of the destruction. Every 2½ days, workers deploy a new giant storage tank to house radioactive water contaminated after passing through the damaged reactors. We wander past a forest of some 1,300 of these tanks, each filled with 1,000 tons of toxic water, some of which was used to cool the reactors.

Leaks have plagued the site. In February, water with a radiation level several million times higher than what’s safe gushed out from a storage tank near the coast on the Pacific Ocean.

Japan took all of its other 48 nuclear power plants off-line after Fukushima, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to restart some of them despite public opposition.

There’s no question that Fukushima Daiichi is a huge test for ­TEPCO—and for Japan. Yet the destroyed plant feels enervated and empty, like a Hollywood version of a nuclear wasteland.

It’s a truism, but that doesn’t make it any less true: Japan is perhaps the world’s most collectivist society. But what happens when that collective trust is so fundamentally breached? Fukushima was not just an epic natural disaster in a nation long conditioned to frequent betrayals by land and sea. It was also a man-made crisis, born of political hubris, corporate dereliction and an instinct to obscure Japan’s ugliest elements that remains unchanged to this day. The Japanese, as a people, may bow before the temple of precision, fetishizing detail and safety. But Fukushima proved that no matter how many cool innovations Japanese companies churn out, a lack of oversight and emergency initiative can be deadly.

You’d think, for example, that a nation ranking as one of the world’s most seismically active would take heed when building a nuclear plant on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Yet TEPCO’s disaster plan and post­accident ­coordination were woeful. It had ignored a joint government and utility-­company study on potential inundation by a tsunami. But the fault went well beyond one power company. “What must be ­admitted—­very ­painfully—is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan.’

About 125,000 Fukushima residents, most of whom used to reside within an 18-mile (30 km) radius of the nuclear station, still exist as evacuees because their homes are within a government-mandated exclusion zone. Some now subsist in prefab units more evocative of a third-world disaster zone than the world’s third largest economy.

Despite all this, the Japanese government’s message to the world is, Trust us. Last year Prime Minister Abe visited Fukushima, flashed a grin and bit into a locally grown peach to prove that the area’s ­produce—an economic ­mainstay—was safe to eat.

As yet there’s no clear evidence of any connection between the Fukushima meltdown and ill health in the area, even among nuclear workers. The government has pointed out that taking an X-ray or even a long-haul flight can expose our bodies to surprisingly high doses of radiation, yet somehow we go about our lives without worrying about the risk. But even if the science says otherwise, the radiation from an accident like Fuku­shima feels ­different—and dangerous.

Atomic power is entrenched in the Japanese government. In 2009 more than 70% of individual donations to the now ruling Liberal Democratic Party came from current or former electric-­company executives. The LDP supports restarting Japan’s nuclear power plants, which were idled by a previous government.

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