Venturing inside the nuclear evacuation zone

July 17-18, 2012

As the days counted down towards my visit to the barricaded areas within the evacuation zone in Fukushima, I began to wonder what I may feel, or rather, what any single human being could feel upon being exposed to a world left untouched since the worst nuclear crisis of our time. The answer is that you simply cannot anticipate what is largely unknown and undocumented to the world. It is a space that only a select few on this planet have been allowed to venture in since 3/11/11, and for good reason. But it is also a view of a crisis that must be exposed as a reminder to the world on what a deadly medley of natural disasters and human incompetence can do. According to a recent 600 page report conducted by Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a Tokyo University Professor, on the causes of the nuclear catastrophe, he says:

“What must be admitted — very painfully — is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan'”

The following is an account of a two day journey, one of which was spent entirely within the confines of the so called nuclear zone, an area that is still, to this day (16 months after the disaster), barricaded and protected from public access.

July 17

My day began early in the morning as I hopped on the 7am “Max” bullet train from Tokyo station heading towards Niigata. This was my first trip to the west coast of Japan. Upon my arrival, I took a cab towards Niigata University Hospital where my friend Yugo works as a medical researcher. The cab driver was intrigued that it was my first visit to Niigata and encouraged me to see the Sea of Japan, saying that “it’s not bad either” (「日本海も悪くないよ」).

I got off at the in patient lobby of the hospital, a place I later learned had received hundreds of patients from Fukushima shortly after 3/11. Following the earthquake, many hospitals were overbooked and doctors were short in demand, and so, even this hospital, located 4 hours (170 miles) from the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, got an influx of patients.

I soon met up with Yugo and got introduced to his many colleagues.  Yugo leads a team of researchers, working in areas relevant to International Health and Public Health. He then took me to another wing on campus called the Radioisotope Center, where he introduced me to the Bishamon team.

I myself have been a  member of the Bishamon team since late last year, through a partnership between Niigata University and UCLA.  Our GIS and Visualization team (that consists of David Shepard and myself) at UCLA’s Institute for Digital Research and Education has provided a web framework and visualization strategy for the information being collected by the “Bishamon-ers” working in the field.  As such, this was the first time I met with the rest of the team. Bishamon is comprised of a group of research volunteers, each an  expert in their respective fields. On this day four of us were to embark on a road trip to visit several cities that fall within the evacuation zone. Yugo, who I mentioned earlier, specializes in epidemic diseases. Dr. Jun Goto, who never stops smiling, is a nuclear physicist who I soon realized was the genius behind the many devices concocted for the project. Professor Makoto Naito is a doctor specializing in pathology and the current Director of the Radioisotope Center, and I should mention, the charismatic leader of this band of renegade researchers.

Dr. Jun Goto getting the Bishamon ready for our 2 day journey

Project leader Dr. Makoto Naito and I hold up the permit needed to enter the nuclear zone

At times, Yugo has questioned my dedication to the project, not so much on my commitment level, but more on why I, as an outsider, am so driven to this creed. I myself have also pondered on my reasons.   My background with disaster relief stems from an opportunistic visit I made to Banda Aceh (Indonesia) in 2005, where I witnessed first hand the devastation that a Tsunami can have upon an entire village.  In Banda Aceh, 100,000 people died from the Indian Ocean Tsunami, a staggering number that even the 2011 Japan Earthquake does not come close to match (in total, almost a quarter million people died from 12 different countries from the 2004 earthquake).  During one of my visits to an IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp in Banda Aceh, I met with one of the camp leaders who proceeded to take me to his tent, where he showed me a bag of rice with a Japanese flag on it… and thanked me profusely for it, simply because I had mentioned that I was from Japan.  Perhaps it was then that in some strange way, my destiny was set…

At an IDP camp in Banda Aceh, Indonesia (2005)

While simple human compassion can drive one to help in such times of crisis, I felt an entirely different range of emotions when a similar catastrophe hit my own people in my home country.  While I refer to Japan as my “home”, I do so with mixed feelings.  Being brought up as a so-called “third culture kid”, ie, one who spends a large amount of their childhood outside of his parents’ culture, I have always had an identity crisis when it comes to what constitutes “home”.  A large part of my childhood was spent hopping between different countries: Peru, Colombia, Thailand.  I did spend my college years in Tokyo, only to continue my graduate education and ultimately work as a lecturer and researcher at UCLA, where I have resided since 1995.  Despite my nomadic background, there was a moment, as I watched the horrors of the 3/11 disaster unfold on my TV screen in Los Angeles, that I knew without a doubt that these were indeed my people suffering, in my home country.

One thing was certain. Every member of the Bishamon team is extremely dedicated to this project, seeing this as something beyond our regular work flow but rather a mutual devotion and unmistakable drive to do everything in our power to help the region and the people still suffering from the disaster.

"毘" is the kanji for "BI" in Bishamon

So what exactly is Bishamon? While it serves as the name and identity of the research team, it refers to the device that Dr. Goto has put together that measures airborne radiation levels through a mobile and vehicle mounted sensor.  Simply put, it combines a dosimeter , which measures radiation, a GPS, for position and altitude, and a laptop, which houses a custom built application that compiles, stores and visualizes the data streaming from the multiple devices. What makes Bishamon unique is the relentless pursuit towards accuracy and consistency. The team believes in a single measuring protocol that can be replicated for years to come, if not decades into the future. This approach comes with the belief that this is a long term project, and that measurements need to be made, possible over the life of an entire generation, to accurately measure the effects that the nuclear crisis has had upon the populace it has affected.

The project itself has a simple mission: to empower local governments to measure for remnants of radiation within their communities and to inform the residents and the general public of existing levels of radiation near and around their homes.  While other projects may not have the capacity to measure over an extended period of time, Bishamon plans to be around for a while.  The transfer of technology, from Research Universities to local governments is at the core of the missions objectives. For local governments, having the capacity and the procedural knowhow to measure radiation on their own, is imperative to conduct targeted and prioritized decontamination efforts to accelerate the process of healing and to ultimately allow residents to come home and resume their lives. For the residents, this information can serve as a reality indicator and a determinant factor towards important decisions needed to be made on whether or not to resume life in these confines. While the demand for this information has accelerated, little if anything has been done by the federal government to make this data available to the public in a timely fashion. To this regard, the Bishamon team intends to provide full transparency and access to all the data collected, both locally and to the international community to consume. The “openness” of the data remains an important, long term underlying goal of the team.  Given the unprecedented nature of the disaster, it is imperative for the world to know what has, and continues to transpire, in Fukushima, and to be able to research the effects of radiation over space and time for generations to come. In order to learn from this experience and to better prepare ourselves from future crises, the data must be made open for the world to consume.

And so it was that on the day of July 17, the four of us took off from Niigata University heading towards the Fukushima Nuclear Zone.  While this marked my first physical encounter with the Bishamon device and the first time I was part of this drive towards Fukushima, it was the 25th such trip for Yugo, Goto and Naito. Of course, I made sure to honor my earlier cab drivers recommendations, and asked Yugo to swing by the Sea of Japan, where I had a first (and hopefully not last) look at the “other” side of Japan, which was certainly not bad at all.

Along the 170 mile drive, we stopped by a rest area that was an apparent routine lunch and photo opp location:

From left: Yugo Shobugawa, Makoto Naito, Yoh Kawano, Jun Goto

Our only scheduled meeting for this day was to visit Naraha City officials.  More than 90% of the City of Naraha is within the Evacuation Zone, forcing the entire population to evacuate, where to this day, not a single resident has been allowed to return.  Therefore, the City Hall offices have been temporarily set up in building within Iwaki Meisei University, a city located just south of the evacuation perimeter.

"Naraha City Center for Emergency Planning - Iwaki Temporary Office"

Here, we were to negotiate a potential collaboration, where we would offer the entire Bishamon “package” for them to use.

Yugo demonstrates our web based interface to Naraha City officials

July 18

Spending the night in Iwaki, just south of the nuclear zone, we woke up early and had breakfast at our hotel. The hotel was called the “Washington Hotel”, an odd name given that it was located in rural Japan.  The front desk clerk was unable to provide any insight as to the origin of the name. Nevertheless, the hotel provided an excellent breakfast package.  One thing that caught my attention was the rice.  There were two options: Fukushima rice, and Akita rice.  Perhaps, to give guests the option to choose a possibly “contaminated” local brand, verses another option that was surely safe.  It symbolized the existing sensitivity towards the nuclear situation.

On the left: 2012 Fukushima prefecture koshihikari crop, on the right: 2012 Akita prefecture komachi crop

After all four of us consumed the local Fukushima rice for breakfast, we took off to enter the Nuclear Zone. First, we stopped by the gas station to fill up our vehicle.  Here, Yugo and Jun exchange a light moment, something that is of critical importance, given the gravity of what the rest of the day would bring.

One last preparatory task was to put on our radiation protective suits (放射線防護服).  While this was not mandatory, it served to mark the reality of the moment, to form a sort of unwritten code of solidarity, that we, as a team, were ready to venture into a territory that was otherwise forbidden to the world.

We proceeded to enter the Nuclear Evacuation Zone from the South, heading North from Iwaki.  The entrance was heavily barricaded, and I was surprised to see the large contingent of security officers present.


Once inside, it literally felt like we were in a bubble, a time capsule per se that had descended upon this land, filled with crumpled buildings, unkept shrubbery and debris that had been left untouched since March 11, 2011.  While there was a decent amount of traffic on the road (military, police, decontamination workers), there was not a single soul to be seen occupying any of the residential or commercial structures around. I was also struck on how incredibly beautiful the landscape was inside.  Unlike urban Japan, this region was representative of the nature that abounds rural Japan, with gently winding roads, small bridges, fogs clinging on to the mountains, a myriad of rivers, an agricultural landscape dominated by rice fields, and a nice blend of traditional and modern Japanese structures.

We proceeded to go to several “hot spot” locations, areas that the team knew had high levels of radiation, to see whether or not the radiation may have decreased since a previous visit.

In this video below, we conducted an experiment to demonstrate the high levels of radiation that are detected at the ground level by the roadside (as opposed to the middle of the road).  You can see how the needle starts off at around 3~6 μSv/hour measured above ground, but upon lowering it to the roadside, it goes beyond the capacity of the device which maxes out at 30 μSv/hour:


As we approached the ocean, we noticed cars and boats strewn across the landscape, many as far as a few miles inland.

Ukedo Elementary School

The “highlight” of our trip was the stop at Ukedo Elementary School.  The school grounds are located just about 150 meters from the shore, and the facilities showed the staggering devastation left behind by both the earthquake and the tsunami.


What struck me immediately was on how similar the damage here in Ukedo was to the damage Yugo and I observed in Ishinomaki City back in December.  Here is a scene from the Ishinomaki City Hospital:

And here is a scene from Ukedo Elementary School:

What is astounding is that these 2 locations are separated by a coastline that covers over 200 km, which means that similar waves caused similar damage throughout the entirety of this distance.

Another thing I noticed in Ukedo Elementary School were the clocks.  Each classroom is equipped with clocks that are powered by some central source, and each clock had stopped at exactly 3:38pm.  Initially, I thought this to be odd, given that the earthquake happened at 2:46pm.  However, I soon realized that the power was not cut off by the earthquake, but rather, by the tsunami waves.  Every classroom reflected upon this fact (which also demonstrates the Japanese accuracy in synchronizing their clocks), but also showed the un-erased date (3/11) and messages of encouragement left by the relief workers.  Click on the classroom photo’s below to see the clocks and read the messages:

I am also glad to report that according to Mr. Takahashi, a Namie City Official, there were no student casualties from Ukedo Elementary School, unlike the tragedy that befell Okawa Elementary School. According to him, the instructors commanded the student body to evacuate and run and climb atop the nearby mountains, where a major road (Highway 6) lay on the other side.  This was about a 2.5 km trek, and many of the students were then picked up by a passing truck.  Here is the interview with Mr. Takahashi (in Japanese):


I was also able to interview Mr. Shirato, another one of our Namie City Officials who kindly guided us around the evacuation zone.  I asked him about his experience in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, and he recalled the chaos that pursued, and how he was tasked to help in the evacuation procedures.  He also mention how phone lines and the Internet were completely shut down, and how his team relied on radio communications.


At the end of the day, we went by our final checkpoint.  This station measured each visitor to make sure that nobody left with excessive levels of radiation on them:

Something tells me that this will not be my last visit to the evacuation zone.  As I mentioned before, the team believes in the long term commitment of what we are doing.  Measuring now is important, but what is more important is to continue to measure and measure, so that we can study the effects of decontamination,  and see the rate of decrease over time.  But ultimately, it is all about the people affected by the nuclear crisis.  We, as academic researchers, want to provide as much long term aid in a way that leverages our expertise, to help these communities cope with this on-going crisis.  Finally, I would like to thank the people of Minamisoma, Naraha and Namie City, for making this trip possible, but for also having an open mind to research and technology sharing between academia, government and the general populace.  We at Bishamon hope to continue our efforts for years to come.

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