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Heading into Fukushima

Interview: Charlotta Lomas November 5, 2014

Science journalist Ranga Yogeshwar has gained extensive access to Japan's battered Fukushima power plant. He speaks to DW about exploring radiation-contaminated zones, and how the cleanup has progressed so far.

Deutschland Fernsehen Ranga Yogeshwar in Fukushima
Image: WDR

The crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant is still recovering after an undersea quake and tsunami in March 2011 triggered the worst nuclear crisis in a generation. The plant suffered a meltdown at three of its six reactors, and site operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) is still working to remove spent uranium fuel rods from the damaged structures. Concerns about radiation contamination mean access to the site has been tightly controlled, but recently a team, including science journalist Ranga Yogeshwar, was given extensive access.

DW: Mr Yogeshwar, can you describe what you saw when you arrived at the nuclear plant?

Ranga Yogeshwar: We all remember these dramatic pictures from the catastrophe back in 2011, and you can see the scars of this catastrophe. You can see buildings which are partially torn down, you can see how the tsunami devastated the area, the cooling systems, and so on. So it's a mixture of things which are old and on the other side, new constructions. Normally if you construct something new you first take away the debris. In Fukushima the debris are still there.

Given the high radiation levels, what precautions did you have to take?

Once you get there, you enter a main building and you have to undress totally. You have to put on your protection suit, which is a whole body suit, you have a mask, you have cooling packs because it's dreadfully warm, you have three pairs of gloves... so you have to make sure that everything is really nice and tight. The most important aspect within this site is that naturally you have to minimize your radioactive dose, which means we have a couple of measuring instruments showing us the actual level of activity at the spot we are standing. You can't hear a lot so you have engineers from Tepco who are with you and they speak through a megaphone. In our case we went to Block 1 and Block 4 in a small van, and again getting in and getting out is a whole set of procedures so as not to contaminate your area. Getting into the van means stripping on plastic coverages on your shoes so that you do not import radioactive dust into the bus.

Ranga Yogeshwar gets fitted with a body suit
Yogeshwar suits up before heading inside the facilityImage: WDR

How is the cleanup coming along?

Outside of Block 4 there are areas where the (radioactive) activity is so high that the electronics of robots failed. So there is no plan. People don't even know where these melted fuel rods are. You can see three of the blocks are being permanently cooled. You have per day a production of about 700,000 liters of contaminated water and they are setting up a couple of big complexes, nuclear washing facilities, where they try to clean the water. Two of them are going to go into operation within the next two to three weeks.

This whole Fukushima Daiichi site is full of people, there's a lot of technology, and you can see that in some areas something can be done, and in other areas there are still a lot of questions. This is not a problem that is going to be solved in the next months. It's going to take years, if not decades.

A pool
The team got access to the spent fuel pool in Block 4Image: WDR

Until now, media access to the Fukushima plant has been limited. How extensive was your access to the site?

We were quite free to run around in a certain way, but as I say, this is not a normal site, you always have to keep in mind that you have areas which are definitely no go because of radiation.

Was there are limit on how long you could stay there for?

We had a plan to work out a time schedule and once you're on site you have to make sure the radiation levels are as you predicted. So there's a lot of very fine-tuned work and you have to be very disciplined and really be fast, depending on where you are. The psychological stress is immense and the physical stress is immense. You have to imagine that filming there means you have a mask due to the high heat and you can't see clearly. Our cameraman couldn't see into his view finder, so you measure the distances with a laser measuring instrument and then you shout it into the ear of the cameraman, "3.5 meters," and he sets the camera, so it's really hard work.

Tepco which operates this Fukushima plant, has been criticized for withholding information during and after the disaster. How forthcoming did you find the company?

I think Tepco is a company which changed entirely. Shortly after the disaster there were a lot of questions of liability and so on. I think with the disaster, with all the consequences, this is not a situation where you can go on cheating. Things are open, things are clear. And I met people within Tepco who were very open, who also spoke with me about the sins in the past, of data which had been falsified, of things which hadn't been done. My feeling is that this company has changed.

Deutschland Fernsehen Ranga Yogeshwar in Fukushima
Image: WDR

You also visited some of the surrounding villages. Why have these been described as ghost towns?

Because if you go inland you see villages which are literally deserted. People have left. You see empty supermarkets, beer machines with the beer inside still. You see a fuel station and you see grass coming out next to the fuel pumps, so this is something really spooky. You realize time has frozen in these villages. You have closed areas called red zones, where presumably in the next decades nobody will be able to live. You also have orange zones where people are allowed in, but they're not allowed to live there. And you have lots of decontamination troops going in and ripping off the upper five centimeters of the soil and packing it in black plastic bags. This is like a science fiction film - you drive through valleys that are filled with these black plastic bags.

Ranga Yogeshwar and his team inside Fukushima
Yogeshwar and his team had unprecedented media access to the siteImage: WDR

Around 130,000 people in the Fukushima prefecture are still displaced. How do they feel?

They have lost everything. They have lost their communities, their jobs, their houses, their own personal biography. I entered houses where you can see the clothes or the piano where the children used to play. Everything has to stay there due to contamination. So this is really a tragedy for the people here. They see their houses and they are not allowed to enter - it's like a wound which is not healing.

How much of the land is unlivable as a result of the disaster?

It's a vast area north west of Fukushima Daiichi going up to about roughly 45 kilometers. You have so-called hot spot areas with a very high contamination and you have areas which are acceptable, so there are leopard spots where people might live and other areas which remain no go zones.

Ranga Yogeshwar is a Luxembourgian science journalist, author and physicist. He has worked at the Swiss Institute for Nuclear Research, at CERN in Geneva, and at the Forschungszentrum Jülich. He has worked as an independent author and journalist since 2008. The documentary "Ranga Yogeshwar in Fukushima" was produced for German public television broadcaster ARD.