There's something fascinating about nuclear events. An existential, perhaps spiritual feeling is invoked by pondering the terrifying potential for prolonged destruction caused by meltdowns, explosions, and radioactivity. In 2011, an oceanic earthquake triggered a tsunami that engulfed the tiny island nation of Japan. On top of the despair caused by the natural disaster, over 154,000 people were evacuated from their homes due to a catastrophic nuclear incident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Today, visitors can visit the Fukushima exclusion zone and learn about the incident first-hand.
For a decade, Fukushima was a radioactive exclusion zone, which means that no one was permitted to live in and around the site of the powerplant. As of 2021, the Japanese government determined that it is safe to resettle in certain parts of Okuma in Fukushima.
Despite years of extensive nuclear waste cleanups, there are still areas that test higher in radiation than others, which has had the effect of deterring native residents from returning to their hometowns. Resultingly, there are only around 3,000 people living in Fukushima -- a small number considering that the area had a population of over 13,000 people before the nuclear incident in 2011.
What Happened At The Fukushima Power Plant?
The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was one of the 15 largest plants in the world. With six boiling water reactors that 4.7 GWe of electricity, the Fukushima plant was supposed to propel Japan further into the future than it already is.
To fully grasp the extent of the Fukushima disaster, or any nuclear power plant catastrophe for that matter, one must first understand how nuclear power works.
In summary, a nuclear power plant relies on nuclear fission. Thermal heat is generated by the splitting of Uranium-125 atoms. When the atoms are split, a massive amount of energy and radiation is released. The heat is simply used to boil water, which turns to highly pressurized steam and facilitates the rotation of a series of turbines that create electricity through induction.
At around 3 PM on March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake occurred in the Pacific Ocean, about 45 miles (75 km) east from Tohoku in Japan. The tectonic mega-shift lasted continuously for six minutes. The massive seismic activity conjured a massive tsunami that made its way to the Japanese coast. Indeed, the region, the region is prone to such events, which continue to happen every few years. In fact, the term "Tsunami" comes from Japanese and translates to "harbor wave".
The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was somewhat prepared for disasters, what with being on the coast of Japan and all. Unfortunately, the Tohoku Earthquake was the most powerful seismic event ever recorded in Japan.
For a while, everything went according to design. The earthquake automatically disabled the nuclear reactors, which, in addition to generating electricity for the entire region, also supplied electricity to the power plant's safety, communication, operations equipment. To ensure that the safety systems remained active, a backup diesel generator kicked in to continue pumping coolants to the reactors' cores. At the time, though scary, it appeared that the situation was under control.
Then the tsunami came. Wave after wave of raging seawater -- 46 feet (14m) high -- thrashed the coast of Fukushima, eventually breaking past the power plant's concrete seawall and flooding the lower levels. Not built to run underwater, the diesel generator was destroyed, which meant that the coolant pumps were no longer being supplied with electricity.
Without a cooling mechanism, the nuclear reactors overheated, melting the infrastructure surrounding them and leaking radiation into the external environment and seawater. In total, there were three nuclear meltdowns, three hydrogen explosions, and radioactive contamination in three reactors.
Following the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear catastrophe the government of Japan evacuated 154,000 people who were living in a 20km radius of the plant. To this day, radioactive water is still flowing into the Pacific Ocean, causing untold damage and mutations to sea life as well birds and animals that form part of the marine ecology.
How To Visit Fukushima Exclusion Zone
The only legal way to visit the exclusion zones in Fukushima is through Real Fukushima. Real Fukushima is a tour company run by the local government. All tours are conducted by residents and experts. There are three tours options on offer.
The Standard Tour takes around five hours to complete and brings visitors to the affected towns of Odaka, Namie, Haranomachi. The tour starts at the JR Odaka or Namie train stations on the Joban Line.
- Tour: Standard
- Price: $66
- Duration: Five hours
Many former visitors have shared their experiences touring the area. The coastal and mountain town of Namie, in particular, stands out as an unfortunate symbol of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. While there are about 1,000 residents in Namie, it is painfully clear by observing the general cityscape that people packed up and left in a panicked hurry.
The company also hosts customized private tours for the benefit of visitors with a keen academic, or otherwise, interest in Fukushima or nuclear disasters in general. An English-speaking guide will take visitors to the disaster spots of their choosing.
- Fun Fact: So long as one does not stay for longer than a few hours, it is relatively safe to visit the Fukushima Exclusion Zone
A major aspect of the tour involves information about preventing such an incident from happening again and cleaning up nuclear waste. Heartwarming stories come to light, like that of the elderly residents, now mostly deceased, who volunteered to clean up the radioactive waste in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, sacrificing the short remainder of their lives to help protect the future of Japan's younger generations.
Real Fukushima is also launching a new Nuclear Power Plant Tour on a trial basis. From April 2022, for the first time ever, the general public will be able to access the inside of the power plant. After years of cleanups, the radiation inside the plant is equivalent to a couple of dental x-rays and is even milder than the outer space radiation that people are exposed to from flying. Most of the radiation exposure comes from Unit 1-4 -- the coastal reactors where the explosions occurred. No one is allowed in those reactors, and the radiation exposure comes from driving nearby in a bus.
The massive power plant campus is almost 90% clean. Visitors will have the opportunity to explore an unnerving abandoned disaster site that spans the size of a small city. Power plant tours will happen twice a month starting April 16th, 2022, and cost $66 -- the same as the standard tour.