In the zone

Photojournalist Rob Gilhooly conveys a sense of what it's like in the wasteland close to the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant

by Rob Gilhooly

MINAMISOMA, Fukushima Prefecture — There’s a repellent stench coming from the cowshed. It’s a mixture of manure, hay and something more difficult to pinpoint — something dank, musty, unworldly.

At the back, penned behind large wooden troughs, two cows stumble back and forth, searching for food and water. Two others are lying on their sides, eyes vacant, their bodies bloated. They, too, had waited to be fed, but in vain.

There is no water — the taps are dry — and there’s nothing to feed them with, though even if there was, there’s no one to put it out for them. The farmer has fled, along with all the other residents of this small community, who were told to leave following the disaster that began on March 11 a short distance down the road.

They obviously left in a hurry — doors of homes are left ajar, partially finished cups of tea lie abandoned on a table. The only beings here — dead, or barely living — are parched and famished farm animals and pets that roam the streets aimlessly in a chilling scene reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock film.

That community, located in Futaba, about 18 km south of Minamisoma and 8 km north of the leaking Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture, falls in the 20-km evacuation zone, an area that has been evacuated and blocked off by governmental decree due to unsafe radiation levels.

However, there is little to stop anyone from entering this zone, since roadblocks around the perimeter are makeshift and unmanned. At 30 km from the plant, local police man a roadblock, advising drivers of the dangers of going further — but not prohibiting admission. The reasoning, presumably, is that no one would want to go further. But some do.

“Everything is exactly as we left it,” says Akiko Kowata, 36, who evacuated her home in nearby Odaka district with her three children to Soma but returned to rescue her children’s pet hamsters. “I want to go back, but I don’t know if we will ever be able to.”

This is the hard-to-digest truth for many residents, whose future in this picturesque part of Japan’s northeastern Tohoku region lies in the dirt of the fields whose famed fresh produce and quality beef now carry a name that may be forever soiled.

“Fukushima is now synonymous with one thing only: nuclear accident,” says Tadanori Miura, who chose to remain in his home in Minamisoma, 25 km from the Fukushima No. 1 plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co., despite the danger warnings. “I feel angry and deceived. I’d like to throttle the Tepco president,” he adds.

Another resident, who requested he not be named, said he had heard of several local farmers who have already thrown in the towel. One, a producer of cabbages in Sukagawa, took his own life last week.

“He had spent years tending to his land so that he could grow his produce organically,” my anonymous informant explained. “It’s such bad luck.”

Anything other than ill fortune would seem to be in short supply for a prefecture whose name in kanji (Chinese characters) ironically means “lucky island.”

In addition to being struck by the physical force of a magnitude 9 earthquake and 20-meter-high tsunami waves, it is also being doused in a deadly substance invisible to the human eye.

And, indeed, to the eyes of animals. The only difference for them is that they have no idea why they have been abandoned.

“We have all been left to die,” says Yuji Watanabe as he strokes the head of a dying cow in a field located inside the zone. “We are supplied with food, but in reality we have been forgotten, just like these animals,” adds the former nuclear plant worker of 25 years. The animal population is dwindling, but at a slower, more agonizing rate than the human one.

Back in Minamisoma, according to resident Ryuji Yokoyama, 49, around 10,000 of the 70,000 population have stayed behind — generally, those too elderly or sick to leave. “I wonder how many will come back, if they ever do,” he says.

Yokoyama volunteered to stay behind to monitor radiation levels on the streets of the town — streets that are eerily deserted, since remaining residents have been advised to stay indoors.

The radiation levels are acceptable, changing little from day to day, he says, looking at his dosimeter. It’s a relief, but to be extra sure I later visit the town’s health center to be checked by officials dressed in yellow overalls and toting Geiger counters.

The rather jolly woman who checks me tells me in a cheerful voice that I am clear, that there’s “no need for concern.”

Somehow, I couldn’t help feeling that she couldn’t be more wrong.

  • happyquails

    Thank you so much for turning on the comments for us again in April of 2013! Perhaps there won’t be as many visitors but I have wanted to respond now that I have only very recently learned that so many people fled the 11 towns within the Fukushima exclusion zones without their pets and that farm animals were not always released to the wild to fend for themselves when abandoned. This pains me to absolutely no end. While I realize that many did indeed take their pets, I can’t imagine how so many others could have been dissuaded from initialy taking them while collecting the minimal belongings that they were instructed to take. And why couldn’t there have been some organized effort to effectively respond to the situation given the fact that people could return fairly early on in suits and dosimeters for short times and shifts. And they reported having returned without appreciably dangerous exposure during the following months or year. I understand that mention has been made of efforts to return to slaughter hundreds of animals, house pets included and that there have been others who have done whatever they could to feed and visit the animals they could meet while there. So I am hoping that those who were directly involved might help me understand how that choice was made to leave them and what might have been done differently to help those facing that choice to opt to take their pets or return long enough to carry out a plan for releasing or humanely dealing with one’s farm animals. Thanks :)