Iris Riddell visits the Fukushima Power Plant, destroyed by tsunami in 2011.
"Your total radiation dose on this tour will be 0.01 millisieverts — about the equivalent of a dental X-ray."
That's what we'd been told, barely 40 minutes earlier. I tried to keep that firmly in mind as our bus crawled slowly between the reactors at the disabled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, handheld radiation meters pinging and flashing. I furiously scribbled the numbers in my notebook, trying to keep up as my fellow tour-goers shouted them breathlessly. 11.98 millisieverts. 15 millisieverts. 42 millisieverts. 130. 313…
"That's it. Those are the highest readings we'll experience on this tour," our guide called from the front of the bus. As quickly as they'd spiked, the numbers started to fall away.
I glanced at the dosimeter around my neck that I'd received at the start of the tour. As promised, it read 0.01 millisieverts.
Just like a dental X-ray.
Our day had started simply enough: A meeting in the rain outside Haranomachi Train Station, eight of us — three of us from Minamisoma, two from Sendai, two from Fukushima City and visitors from the States and East Germany — cheerfully making introductions. Our guide, Sasaki san, met us at the train station with a rented minivan and we piled in to embark for our first destination: a centre in Tomioka where we would receive our pre-briefing.
The only items we were allowed to bring into the plant were a pencil, notebook, and a 1000 yen note in case we wanted to buy ourselves a commemorative Fukushima Daiichi clear file from the Lawson convenience store onsite.
And oh, you best believe we all wanted that clear file.
A clear file featuring images from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant: the four reactors, a self-driving bus and workers walking around the site in plain clothes.
Where else in the world are you going to get a memento with nuclear reactors on it, I ask you? Shortly after our visit, TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) halted the sale of these clear files after facing public backlash.
I can't say I'm surprised.
We transferred to a different bus to drive to the plant, as only certain vehicles are cleared to enter the site. We passed multiple checkpoints on our way in, not to mention the bored-looking policeman in his patrol car whose job it is to chase down any unauthorised vehicles that attempt to make a break for it.
Rolling up to the plant, I had to remind myself where I was. It all seemed so… mundane. The entrance was clean and modern, the carpark full of cars and buses, and workers in sneakers and ordinary clothes wandered here and there carrying their lunch in plastic bags. From here, it didn't feel like the site of one of the worst nuclear disasters of our time. There are around 5000 TEPCO employees working onsite to decontaminate and decommission the plant. It's a massive task that will take, optimistically, between 30 and 50 years and cost more than $126 billion.
We also heard that they are planning to eventually decommission the Daini Power Plant, 15km south, but no word on how long that will take.
Entering the plant was like going through airport security. They checked our documents, gave us visitor tags and vests and handed us our dosimeters to clip to our lanyards. We passed through a metal detector and double gate, and we were in. We were corralled into a side chamber for another safety briefing. Our German friend caused a small flutter because he had a rip in the knee of his jeans; we had been instructed to wear a long-sleeved shirt and trousers, and torn clothing was a no-no. The staff hurriedly patched him up with some duct tape and our guide told us with a laugh that it wasn't the first time it had happened.
We made our way outside and passed a rank of very new, shiny buses. The TEPCO guide proudly informed us they were self-driving buses and had recently been acquired. Our bus, however, had an old-fashioned driver, and we set off.
The tour started innocuously. We went by the newly constructed rest building which contained a cafeteria, convenience store, medical facilities and places for the workers to relax. We drove down avenues of lush cherry blossom trees, of which there are some 400 onsite. We saw ranks of cars with plastic-covered seats and big red plates, meaning they were for use around the plant only and not to be taken offsite, to reduce the risk of contamination. Since they cannot leave, there is a special gas station onsite. At this point in the tour, radiation levels were topping out at a respectable .4 millisieverts.
It was a gloomy, blustery morning, with a summer typhoon threatening to sweep in any day. Towering pylons and remote-controlled cranes loomed in and out of the grey rain.
We started to see more workers in the blue or white hazard suits that have become synonymous with Fukushima. The facility was a little less shiny than the front entrance. Rust, weeds and twisted steel — some signs of what came to pass here.
"Okay, we're coming up on reactors one and two," our guide said. The feeling in the bus became charged and anxious. None of us had anticipated actually seeing the reactors, but we rounded a corner and there they were. A susurrus of awed whispers ran up and down the bus. Right in front of us was the husk of reactor one, the first to explode, and reactor two beside it. Reactor two remained intact, so we were able to see the original structure, and reactor three had a huge dome-like cylinder constructed on top of it to remove the spent fuel rods. Five hundred and sixty-five fuel rods are still in the third reactor and they are working on solutions to remove and dispose of them. It's a tall order.
From our vantage point overlooking the reactors, the bus crawled down the hill toward the base of the structures. We passed a clearly visible waterline on a nearby building painted with an arrow and the word "Tsunami", requiring no explanation, before moving on to reactor four. Reactor four has been decked out in a new 4200-tonne structure to assist with decontamination and decommissioning.
The bus continued on to the base of reactor three.
"Up here," our guide said, "You'll see some green trucks. They are experimenting with ways to remove the fuel rods and trialling these trucks. You're lucky to see this today." Indeed, about half a dozen men in suits were hard at work on the ramp leading up to the reactor.
It was just after this that we experienced our highest readings — 313msv/h — before heading back up the hill to close the tour.
We ate lunch in the newly constructed cafeteria, where we were offered a choice of curry rice, katsudon, ramen or udon. The workers seemed bemused by our presence — over lunch, I found that while they operate multiple tours daily, foreigners only make up about 10 per cent of those numbers.
After lunch (and picking up our Fukushima Daiichi commemorative clear files), it was back out into the wide world. We headed back to the centre in Tomioka for a Q&A session, then it was on to the tour of the affected areas.
Our first stop was to visit Yukiteru Naka, a former General Electric power plant engineer, author and founder of Tohoku Enterprise. He spoke to us about his memories of that time, and the responsibilities and helplessness he felt as the events unfolded. It was clear he still carries that weight, even though there is nothing he could have done to stop it.
We said our goodbyes and continued with our tour, visiting an Interim Storage Facility Zone for contaminated soil, an abandoned nursing home for the elderly, a fish hatchery, and an abandoned elementary school.
I struggle to find the words to talk about what an emotional impact visiting these places had.
I found the school very difficult because it's not so different from the one I currently work at, and my school would have looked much the same just a few years ago. The sense of loss and pain at all these places was very real.
Living in Minamisoma, a small city in Fukushima Prefecture, there is a buffer between me and the disaster. I go from my cute little apartment to school and back, visit my favourite grocery store for the week's veges, walk by the river and generally lead a good life.
With the exception of the radiation meters around town (all reading an acceptable range) there are not too many day-to-day reminders of the earthquake and resulting tsunami. It's sometimes easy to forget. But not everyone has that freedom. So many people lost everything in the events of 2011 and visiting these places put it all into sharp focus for me.
So much has been done toward the relief effort but there is still so much to do. Decades of work, at the plant itself and in the communities.
It's naive to think things will ever get back to the way they were; this region will always carry its scars. But I believe in the strength of the people of Fukushima.
Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Tokyo, with one-way Economy Class fares from $619.