Openings of Iwaki beaches offer semblance of normalcy

Coastal radiation readings show Fukushima leaks being kept at bay

by Chico Harlan

The Washington Post

Every day, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., a part-time worker at one of Fukushima’s most well-known beaches walks toward the shoreline and lowers a dosimeter to the water. The device measures radiation, and its readings this summer have delivered the best news one can hope for 70 km south of a still-leaking nuclear plant:

The levels are normal.

Nearly 2½ years after a series of meltdowns at a coastal atomic plant, normalcy has become Fukushima’s scarcest commodity, and those who live here cherish it — or anything approaching it — in whatever form they can find. Local officials describe Nakoso Beach as a symbol of recovery, its seasonal opening day this year feted with hula dancers and hopeful speeches. But the officials acknowledge that the Fukushima region’s recovery is tenuous, and only by the standards of a traumatized region does Nakoso Beach feel normal.

At Nakoso, beachgoers are greeted by two signs, one advertising Fukushima’s sunshine, the other announcing the water’s latest radiation levels. The lone surfer on a recent Monday — a chiseled 38-year-old — spends his workdays blasting radioactive contamination from residential rooftops. The 56-year-old who handles the dosimeter is a former fisherman, put out of his job by a regional fishing ban on 41 species. Occasionally he still takes his boat 35 km offshore and trawls the ocean floor for tsunami debris.

“I’ve found washing machines, bicycles, parts of trucks, even housing material,” Nobuyuki Ueno said.

Some weekends, Nakoso provides a sneak preview of a full recovery — a thousand people, maybe more, packing the 2-km-long beach. But in general, crowds have dwindled, tourists are way down, and trepidation about being outdoors is higher — particularly because some nearby areas remain highly contaminated. At the very least, those who come to Nakoso, where radiation readings are about the same as those in New York City, have contemplated the risks and decided that they were minimal.

On one recent overcast afternoon, only one beach umbrella was pressed into the sand at Nakoso. Three snack bars, selling ramen and “takoyaki” octopus fritters, were nearly empty. A few teens held foot races along the shore. Izumi Seya, 21, drove an hour with her friend to the beach from her home inland, having been warned by her mother not to go into the water.

She went in anyway.

“A normal summer,” her friend, Masumi Shiota, 22, said.

Iwaki is the southernmost city along Fukushima’s coast, and before the triple meltdown of 2011 spread radioactive material across the region, beaches were one of its major selling points. Other communities in the prefecture spent millions building massive (and ultimately useless) coastal concrete fortifications, intended as protection against tsunami. But Iwaki had 70 km of white sand — nine beaches in total. Every year, about 180,000 people visited.

Iwaki’s coast, like most in the northeast, was pulverized by the disasters. During the March 11, 2011, offshore earthquake, the largest in the nation’s recorded history, the ground in Iwaki shook for 190 seconds. Tsunami traveling at the speed of a plane then bulldozed beachside homes. The ground sank under the churning water. Concrete barriers guarding the beaches were twisted and uprooted. In Iwaki alone, more than 300 people died. Some of them ran the inns and restaurants that catered to beach tourists.

Seven of Iwaki’s nine beaches remain closed because their infrastructure was so badly gutted. After some quick cleanup, the city reopened Nakoso last summer for a truncated season. The other beach to reopen, Yotsukura, did so this year.

North of Nakoso, surfers still use at least one unsanctioned beach, which stretches in front of a partly damaged neighborhood. But other beaches, like Usuiso, look like ghost towns. Only the rusted lifeguard tower is standing.

Officials in Iwaki admit they’re lucky in one respect: Contamination of their beaches hasn’t proven as serious as feared. About 50 percent of Iwaki’s land needs decontamination work — a process that will take at least three more years — but no beach yet has yielded worrisome radiation levels. This despite the several hundred tons of tainted water at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant that have seeped or been dumped into the ocean.

Experts say that some of the contamination has been penned in by man-made barriers around the plant. The rest has either diffused or fallen to the ocean floor, binding to clay and silt. The surface water, the experts say, is far less dangerous than the depths.

“The environmental contamination is enormous around the plant, but not so much beyond it,” said Tatsuhiko Kodama, a professor at the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo.

Iwaki’s problem is as much about perception as contamination. Because of the partial fishing ban, for instance, fishermen at one port in Iwaki catch only one-third the volume they did before the nuclear disaster. But those fish have one-fifth the value because of consumer fears.

The city relishes any chance to show that life here is normal. All major factories here have reopened. Warren Buffett visited. So did Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn, who called the recovery of his plant in Iwaki “spectacular.” In July, the city hosted one of the three all-star baseball games.

“Still, just this word — Fukushima — makes people a little hesitant,” said Hiroshi Sato, director of regional promotion at the Iwaki Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Recently, Tokyo Electric Power Co. admitted that new contamination seemed to be flowing from groundwater under Fukushima No. 1 into the ocean, something experts had long suspected.

The utility couldn’t identify the source of the leak, a spokesman said, but the worst area was confined to the waters around the plant.

In Iwaki, several managers in the city tourism office held an emergency meeting. They decided to enlist a new research lab to double-check the local monitoring. They also chose not to close the two open beaches.

“Our monitoring data have not changed,” said Joji Kimura, deputy director of Iwaki’s tourism division. “Even if radiation is leaking from the plant, it’s becoming diluted by the time it reaches our beaches. Realistically, there could be some impact” from the new discovery, with a drop in the crowds. “But we will not know until the end of the summer.”

  • Rockne O’Bannon

    “Officials in Iwaki admit they’re lucky in one respect: Contamination of their beaches hasn’t proven as serious as feared.”

    What does luck have to do with it? Their fears were unfounded. Are they lucky just because they were wrong? Let me make sure I understand this “new normal.”

    If something bad happens, and I assume the worst case scenario will come to pass, then I am just being “prudent.” And if things never get nearly that bad, then I am “lucky.” So panic is prudence and a normal outcome is luck? I wonder if they used prayer to give them the best possible odds.

    • Sam Gilman

      I think this comment excellently identifies the problem in reporting on Fukushima. The straightforward “we honestly expected x and x happened” is, although clearly news, not very good for a journalist’s career, nor for a newspaper’s readers.

      Look at the only decent quote from a scientist:

      The environmental contamination is enormous around the plant, but not so much beyond it,” said Tatsuhiko Kodama, a professor at the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo.

      That’s different to the overall tone of the piece.