Inside Fukushima’s nuclear ghost towns

by Justin Bennett / 15 January, 2018

Inside a hastily-evacuated house. Many residents of towns around Fukushima haven't returned. Photo / Justin Bennett

Seven years after Japan's devastating tsunami, evacuees from towns around Fukushima's Daiichi nuclear plant have yet to return.

On Friday 11th March 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck eastern Japan and caused considerable damage in the region, the massive 15-metre tsunami it generated caused so much more.

The tsunami resulted in a human death toll of over 19,000 people, with millions of buildings destroyed or partly collapsed; it also disabled the power supply and cooling of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors causing a nuclear accident that resulted in the melting of three cores and the largest global nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Photo / Justin Bennett

A three kilometre emergency evacuation was ordered in the first day, extended to 20-30km by the second and thousands of people were ordered to flee their homes suddenly as an exclusion zone was put into place for many years that followed.

As we approach the seven-year anniversary in 2018, despite the exclusion zones being lifted by the government and radiation returning to safer levels, few have returned to the ghost towns it left behind.

Outside an abandoned pachinko parlour in Tomioka. Photo / Justin Bennett

The outside of an abandoned pachinko parlour in Tomioka. Photo / Justin Bennett

The Ghost town of Tomioka

The first thing you notice driving into Tomioka, a little more than 5km south of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, is the vast fields of decontaminated waste from all over the prefecture. Black bags of radioactive soil piled up side-by-side.

Workers across Fukushima had been scraping up contaminated topsoil and storing it in bags, however as Japan doesn’t have a centralised radioactive waste dump; they have been left sitting there out in the open.

Bags of radioactive soil are left sitting in the sun. Photo / Justin Bennett

Tomioka was home to 15,830 people before the accident, very few have returned and the streets remain mostly deserted. The silence is eerie, evidence of sudden evacuation is everywhere, many of the houses, businesses and pachinko gambling parlours have yet to be cleared up or repaired – still filled with 2011-era products.

It’s a heart-breaking sight to see how people fled and left their belongings behind.

Of the few people you see, mostly police cars driving past and workers heading towards the Daiichi plant, an old lady can be seen sweeping her patio alone, surrounded by decaying cobweb-covered houses.

Inside an abandoned pachinko parlour. Many Fukushima residents have been reluctant to gamble on their return. Photo / Justin Bennett

The only police road-blocks that remain in place are at the entrance to the stricken Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. There a lone police officer asked us to turn around and not to take photos.

Despite the all-clear being sounded for Tomioka, evacuees remain reluctant to return, most have built new lives elsewhere, and they have new jobs, homes and schools for their children.  

There is a growing concern that these ghost towns may be destined to remain just that for decades to come.

An aerial view of Tomioka. Photo / Justin Bennett

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