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A 50-foot wall of water spawned by the quake exploded over Daiichi’s seawall, swamping backup diesel generators. Four of six nuclear reactors on-site experienced a total blackout. In the days that followed, three of them melted down, spewing enormous amounts of radiation into the air and sea in what became the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

This past September, the first of 11 towns in Fukushima’s mandatory evacuation zone reopened after extensive decontamination, but fewer than 2 percent of evacuees returned that month. More will follow, but surveys indicate that the majority don’t want to go back. Some evacuees are afraid of radiation; many have simply moved on with their lives.

During the day, Tomioka, which once had 16,000 residents, is a vast construction site sprawling for miles across residential neighborhoods, commercial districts, and fallow rice fields. Thousands of decontamination workers equipped with little more than shovels strip 2 inches of contaminated topsoil in a 65-foot perimeter around every structure in town. They dump the soil into black decontamination bags, which they pile onto every street corner and empty lot. Some bags have been there so long, they’ve sprouted weeds. The workers also use dry hand towels to wipe down every single building, from the roof to the foundation, and pressure-wash any asphalt and concrete. It’s tedious, exhausting work.

The town allows residents to visit during the day, but special permission is required for overnight stays. Four and half years earlier, radiation levels were 5 microsieverts per hour (µSv/h). Now they hovered at around 0.6 µSv/h—still more than twice the government’s long-term goal of 0.23 µSv/h, and about 15 times the normal background level in Tokyo.

I got the sense that many evacuees would rather be compensated to relocate. Owning a house in a place few want to live isn’t much of an inheritance for their children.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) is slowly dismantling the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, a process that’s expected to cost at least $15 billion. The technologies required to scoop melted fuel out of the damaged reactors don’t even exist yet. Decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi site—removing all nuclear and radiological hazards—will likely take three to four decades.

Shucking our contaminated shoe covers, we boarded the bus and motored down a road at the base of the reactors. Units 1, 3, and 4 had suffered hydrogen explosions that looked dramatic in news footage. In reality the explosions blew apart only the reactors’ thin outer layers.

The likelihood of TEPCO meeting its 2021 deadline for the start of fuel-debris removal is, at best, remote. My dosimeter beeped its first 20 µSv alert as the bus passed the Common Pool Building, where thousands of spent nuclear fuel assemblies sit submerged underwater.

Five years after the meltdowns, contaminated water continues to flow from the site into the ocean. Although TEPCO’s most recent analysis of seawater shows a “nondetectable” level of cesium, that level merely reflects a regulatory threshold.

There are no longer skin-searing puddles of radioactive water on the ground at Fukushima Daiichi. But TEPCO is still circulating 320 metric tons of water per day into the reactors to keep the melted fuel cool. In two hours on-site, most of it riding on a bus, I'd received a radiation dose equivalent of at least four chest x-rays.

The Fukushima disaster had a chilling effect on the nuclear-power industry worldwide. Germany, for example, is phasing out of nuclear energy altogether. China suspended its rapidly expanding nuclear-energy program. And in Japan, where nuclear power supplied 30 percent of the country’s energy, the entire reactor fleet was taken offline. But the nuclear chill has begun to warm up lately. Ten new reactors went online last year, the most since 1990. China now has 24 reactors under construction, with more on the books. Last August, Japan quietly restarted its first reactor since the disaster.

Ikuro Anzai, an owlish 75-year-old nuclear scientist from Kyoto, said “The accident destroyed people’s trust in the industry, in the government, and experts. As a scientist, I want to make a sincere effort to stand beside victims and help minimize their exposure to radiation, and to restore trust in scientists.”

Understandably, many parents no longer trust authorities on any matter concerning radiation, which is ironic, because the food restrictions that the government put in place after the disaster were, in Anzai’s view, one of the few things it did right.

As the cleanup of Fukushima prefecture and the decommissioning of the nuclear plant move forward, Anzai has one simple piece of advice for Japan’s government and its nuclear industry, one that he’s been repeating for more than four decades: “Don’t hide, don’t lie, and don’t underestimate.”

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of Popular Science.

Fukushima: Five Years Later
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