No-go zone a wasteland frozen in time

Namie a ghost town, dead livestock, decay at its doorstep

by Chico Harlan

The Washington Post

Eight months ago, people left the town of Namie in haste. Families raced from their homes without closing the front doors. They left half-finished wine bottles on their kitchen tables and sneakers in their foyers. They jumped in their cars without taking pets and left cows hitched to milking stanchions.

Now the land stands frozen in time, empty and virtually untouched since the March 11 disasters that created a wasteland in the 20-km zone of farmland that extends arouond the wrecked, coastal Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

Some 78,000 people lived in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, but only a handful have been allowed to return. Cobwebs spread across storefronts. Mushrooms sprout from living room floors. Weeds swallow train tracks. A few roads, shaken by the earthquake, are cantilevered like rice paddies. Near the coastline, boats swept inland by the tsunami still lie beached on main roads.

Only the animals were left behind, and the picture is not pretty. Starving pigs have eaten their own. Cats and dogs scavenge for food. On one farm, the skulls of 20 cows dangle from their milking tethers.

Several thousand workers draped in white protective gear pass daily through the front gates of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, site of the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.

But around the plant, the government is maintaining a 20-km no-go zone, with teams of policemen sealing off all roads in.

Nobody is allowed to live there — a situation that could continue for decades.

If the dormant Chernobyl plant in Ukraine provides any guide, the land surrounding the Fukushima facility will one day grow wild, with contaminated villages eventually bulldozed and buried. Maybe decades from now, Japan will tailor the area to adventure-seeking tourists, or use the region as a wildlife preserve. For now, though, the land surrounding the nuclear plant still preserves the history of those who were ordered to evacuate.

The area is dangerous over long periods, and radiation levels exceeding those at the nuclear station’s main gate have been recorded at many spots. But spend a full day driving all around the no-entry zone and the risks are minimal, with a total radiation exposure comparable with that from a 12-hour flight or two chest X-rays.

Only emergency workers and select residents with special permits are allowed to enter the zone, and then only for brief trips. When two Washington Post reporters entered the zone with the help of a local rancher, only a few cars were seen traveling along the main roads. The rancher, Masami Yoshizawa, said that only about 1,000 of the area’s 3,500 cows are still alive. At one point, while driving, he spotted a few brown cows with yellow tags on their ears.

“Those are probably mine,” he said.

Many who once lived close to the No. 1 nuclear plant feel cut off from their previous lives. But Yoshizawa, who daily visits his now contaminated farmland, prefers a dangerous reminder of his old life to no reminder at all.

Before the nuclear accident, Yoshizawa worked at the M Ranch, a 30-hectare farm with the curvature of a salad bowl. From the corral where Yoshizawa kept his cattle, one could see the Fukushima No. 1 plant’s towerlike stacks, which are just 14 km away.

Yoshizawa and his fellow ranchers raised the cows for their prized “wagyu” beef, selling them to wholesalers for around ¥1 million per head. Then, in a five-day span of reactor meltdowns and hydrogen explosions at the power station, vast amounts of cesium and other radioactive isotopes were blown across the countryside. The cattle became worthless, and the farm’s president, Jun Murata, lost ¥500 million worth of livestock. On March 18, Murata told his employees that the farm had reached the end. He went to the corral and unlatched the gate, and some 230 cows wandered into the open.

Most of the employees never returned, but Yoshizawa, who has no wife or children, spent the following week thinking about his livelihood and feeling as if his own worth, too, was verging on zero.

So he clung to the ranch. He obtained a permit from a friend at the local mayor’s office that allows him unfettered access to the no-go zone. He bought a dosimeter and fixed it on the front window of his car. He made daily trips to the ranch, often accompanied by Murata, to feed the cattle with contaminated hay. A few of the animals turned feral, but most stuck around.

Still, the question now is how best to treat animals inside the 20 km exclusion zone. A few animal rights groups have made quick trips to save dogs and cats — but not livestock. Scientific groups say the animals represent the best chance for research on the effects of radiation. But in May, the government recommended that farmers euthanize their livestock and banned them from taking feed into the no-entry zone.

Yoshizawa says he’ll defy the order to euthanize his cattle, but he also understands the government prioritizing self-preservation amid the ongoing nuclear disaster. It’s the same logic that forced his neighbors, the Tochimotos, to leave in such a rush. And on his recent trip into the no-go zone, Yoshizawa stopped by their house, where they used to live on the second floor and the animals on the first.

Persimmons were rotting on the driveway, and near the front door the weeds were knee-high. A Mazda Titan truck was speckled with bird droppings. The cows, which died without being milked, no longer even smelled, their flesh pulled off by other animals.

“They were dead within 10 or 12 days,” Yoshizawa said.

He said he had talked to the Tochimotos just once since the disaster. “They have been having nightmares about their cows,” he said. “They can’t even think of coming back here and to see for themselves. But you can’t blame them. They made the right choice.”