Near Fukushima, a Report From the Exclusion Zone

Photos: Inside the Fukushima Exclusion Zone Donald Weber / VII for Newsweek

Silence hangs over the town of Minamisoma, 32 kilometers north of the earthquake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Here in the so-called buffer zone on Japan's northeastern coast, three weeks after the quake, the government's warning for residents to stay indoors still stands. Most of the locals can't avoid leaving their homes occasionally to pick up food packets at government-run distribution centers, to search the handful of open shops for other supplies, and to check on friends and neighbors. In an atmosphere of growing uncertainty, the Fukushima Prefecture Social Health and Welfare Office, on the town's deserted main street, serves as an information clearinghouse—and a focal point of fear.

On Wednesday morning last week, it was temperate and clear. A brisk wind blew from the north, toward Fukushima. A dozen members of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces manned a mobile shower unit used to decontaminate victims of high doses of radiation. In the parking lot, government officials in white hazmat suits swept Geiger counters over anxious residents who waited patiently in line. Kenji Sasahara, 45, a public-health physician, explained that the town's 9,783 remaining residents—perhaps one third of the pre-earthquake population—had voluntarily come forward to be screened. In return, the government issued all but three of them a certificate stating that their radiation level was below 0.0001 millisievers, indicating no detrimental impact to the human body. Three, who worked near the plant, registered higher levels and were given high-pressure hot showers to remove iodine. Then they, too, were released.

The certificate is important, Sasahara said, because people living near the damaged reactor have already begun to face discrimination. They have been barred from staying in inns outside Fukushima prefecture. Angry motorists in Tokyo and other cities have complained that Fukushima-plate-bearing cars were "contaminated." Some Minamisoma citizens have sought treatment at medical clinics in cities beyond the buffer zone, only to be turned away because they didn't have "radiation-free" certificates.

Sasahara says the harsh treatment worryingly echoes the stigma endured for decades by hibakusha—survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. "We want to prove that these people are not contaminated, so they won't be discriminated against because they come from Fukushima," says Sasahara.

The toll from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami continues to mount. As many as 18,000 people were killed. Hundreds of thousands remain homeless. Estimates vary, but the World Bank and Japanese government say that there's somewhere between $122 billion and $235 billion worth of damage to clean up.

The disaster did something else, too: it revived the specter of nuclear catastrophe in a nation that has been, for the better part of three generations, haunted by the lethal power of radiation. Nobody has yet died as a result of the radiation, though much attention has been focused on the possible fate of the "Fukushima 50"—the workers who heroically remained behind to fend off leakage from the shattered units.

As the tragedy has worn on, by last week the riveted and frightened nation, already appalled by scenes of human misery and massive destruction from the wave that washed away thousands of square kilometers of coastline, now had to deal with growing uncertainty about the safety of their dietary staples—fish, produce, drinking water—and the possibility of a nuclear meltdown.

I ventured into the heart of the exclusion zone, the no-go area within 20 kilometers of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor—where radiation emissions have been registered at four times the level considered safe for human beings.

The day after my trip, the Japanese government would announce plans to tighten its enforcement of the zone by arresting and fining anybody who set foot inside it.

But on Wednesday, despite roadblocks and frequent patrols by police and soldiers in radiation-proof suits, passage proved relatively easy. The dozen villages and towns in this death zone were chillingly deserted, as if time had ceased to pass since the moment the earthquake struck. It was like an episode of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone crossed with The Day After—an apocalyptic vision of life in the nuclear age.

Just weeks ago, some 13,000 people lived in Odaka. The town sits between the Abukuma mountain range and the Pacific Ocean, 16 kilometers due north of Fukushima. Today it lies in the heart of the exclusion zone. From Minamisoma, a two-lane highway rolls past fallow rice fields and terminates in orange cones, white tape, and a red sign that warns: "Prohibited Entry Due to Nuclear Power Hazard Special Law." Just past the empty highway—its stillness periodically broken by a convoy of police and Army vehicles racing along from the exclusion zone with red lights flashing—a series of smaller roads unmonitored by the police lead past scattered houses and through forested hills, then straight into downtown Odaka.

At 10 o'clock, the brisk northerly wind was picking up, and the town stood utterly silent. Evidence of the devastating power of the quake was everywhere: a pink-concrete boutique had toppled on its foundations and lay at a 45-degree angle to the street; a traditional two-story house had collapsed, roofing tiles and wooden planks lying in a shapeless heap. Motorcycle shops, noodle parlors, barber shops, boutiques, and a Japanese inn, or ryokan, stood open and deserted, their contents available for the taking (if there had been any takers). A lone taxi was parked at a stand in front of Odaka's railroad station. The keys hung in the ignition. Farther out, in the devastated coastal strip that was washed over by the tsunami, a pink flag marked a decomposed corpse that lay face down in the mud. Inside a ruined convenience store not far away, a woman's recorded voice played in an endless loop, cheerfully urging phantom customers to "collect your bonus points now."

(Although I was certainly taking a risk by entering the zone without a lead-lined suit or any other protection, I was reassured somewhat by reports that the radiation leakage into the atmosphere had been contained, at least for now, and by the near-constant wind that cleared the air and blew any lingering particles back toward Fukushima.)

About 15 minutes after arriving in Odaka, I came across the first sign of life: Eiji Furuuchi, a 59-year-old supermarket owner. A small man wearing a white face protector and a blue warmup jacket, Furuuchi had been staying at a relocation center, then with his sister in the buffer-zone town of Haramachi, about 30 kilometers away. But food was scarce. They had run out of cash. Banks were closed. And ATMs had stopped working. Furuuchi decided on a quick trip with his sister back to Odaka to salvage whatever they could from their market.

Furuuchi had been up watching television late into the previous night, riveted by the latest news about the escalating nuclear crisis: the hospitalization of Masataka Shimizu, president of the Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, the operator of the crippled reactor, who had come under heavy criticism for his slow response to the radiation spillage.

"I know it's not safe, but the wind is blowing in the right direction, and I won't be here long," he said, setting off on foot. His cell phone rang and his face brightened with surprise—phone service, as well as electricity, had been spotty in the exclusion zone. His sister was calling from the market, telling him to move it. "Let's just pack up the car and get out of here," she said.

Furuuchi turned into a darkened warehouse where his sister, Masako Kowata, was briskly filling shopping bags and plastic crates with tea bags, biscuits, cans of whale meat, orange nectar, canned coffee, processed cheese spread, margarine, and eggs that had long passed their sell-by date. "The radiation levels are so high, and I've seen nobody here the whole day," she said. "It's making me nervous." Kowata nodded when I asked her if she was worried that the food might be radioactive, but she said that shortages left them little choice.

Kowata finished packing and made one last inspection of the supermarket. She'd fled the moment the earthquake hit and hadn't been back since. She reeled from the overpowering stench. "There's been no electricity here in three weeks." She pointed at buckets of clams and display cases packed with rotting fish. Her brother surveyed the mess, stepped back into the deserted street, and shook his head grimly.

"I don't think people will ever want to live in this town again," he said.

Kowata suddenly remembered something: she had heard rumors that Mrs. Watanabe, an elderly neighbor who was suffering from cancer, was still living in Odaka, defying orders to evacuate. She threw some packages of soba noodles and laundry soap into her Subaru, got behind the wheel, and sped off toward the edge of town. At a two-story cement house with a brown-tile roof where the drapes were pulled shut on all the windows, Kowata knocked lightly on the front door.

"Yoriko-chan?" she called.

"Is that Masako?" came a weak voice.

"You're there!" Kowata exclaimed.

The door opened and an elderly woman, bald head wrapped in a beige knit cap, hobbled out. "I'm sick," she rasped. "I can't leave."

The woman's husband, a lean septuagenarian wearing tinted glasses and a burgundy sweater, came to the door. His wife's health had been deteriorating since January, he explained. Nausea and other side effects from the medication made it impossible for her to be moved. So the pair had decided to hunker down in Odaka and wait for the crisis to pass. Of Odaka's original population, the Watanabes are two of perhaps only a half-dozen people still living there.

The situation wasn't so bad, Mr. Watanabe insisted. The power and water on their side of town were still functioning, "so we can take a hot bath." He fetched bottled water and other supplies twice a week from a market in Soma, an hour away by car. "I've been watching the news, and it seems like they've got the situation contained," he said. "I got myself tested in Minamisoma, and my radiation level wasn't so high. Besides, I'd rather be here than at the evacuation center. There's no privacy." The police had come by twice and asked them to leave, but after hearing the couple's explanation, "they said they understood, and they left us alone."

In fact, Mr. Watanabe was taking a grave risk by ignoring the warnings of health officials and scientists and electing to remain permanently inside the exclusion zone; he seemed to be rationalizing a situation—his wife's immobility—that he was helpless to change.

Back in Tokyo Thursday night, the impact of the catastrophe 240 kilometers to the north was beginning to fade. True, electricity shortages dimmed the lights of Shinjuku, Akihabara, and other commercial districts; traffic moved smoothly through even the most densely populated corners of the city, reflecting concerns about gasoline distribution and generalized anxiety. There were still runs on bottled mineral water and packaged foods, and shelves stood empty in many convenience stores. Giant television screens at intersections in Shibuya continued to broadcast updates around the clock. Still, in contrast to the atmosphere of abandonment, creepiness, and fear that characterized the buffer and exclusion zones, the city was bustling, getting back to normal. And, after the initial outpouring of concern for the victims of the earthquake, darker feelings had begun to surface. One factory owner I had spoken to in the exclusion zone had told me that children evacuated from Fukushima prefecture—especially from the exclusion and buffer zones—and sent to centers in Tokyo and other cities were now being singled out for rough treatment in elementary schools. Their classmates were shunning them and taunting them as being "irradiated." He worried that his own 2-year-old daughter would face similar problems. "These disaster victims need help not only physically but psychologically," he told me. As Japan reckons with its latest nuclear tragedy, the suffering endured by the hibakushas still weighs heavy on the land.

With Chiaki Kitada