JPRI Occasional Paper No. 41 (July 2012)
by Peter Blakely
Since April 2011 I have been visiting communities, and surrounding lands, directly affected by radioactive contamination from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. For this project I have chosen to work with a large format view camera to slowly and deliberately absorb this unfolding tragedy in places like Minamisoma and Iitate Village. I believe that the essence of the tragedy can best be revealed through this kind of “quiet evidence.”
For me, “Facing Fukushima” is a story of the world confronting the true character of nuclear power and of modernity itself. By documenting subtle but nonetheless harrowing signs of radioactive contamination, I seek to explore how our unbridled quest for perpetual economic growth at any cost is affecting the ecosystem and its people, especially those without political voice. And in so doing, I also hope to provoke serious reflection on alternative priorities for Japan and beyond.
The Fukushima disaster has unleashed radioactive elements that will react for many years in Earth’s thin atmosphere and consequently in the bodies of creatures that inhabit it. Ultimately, Fukushima is not just a Japanese tragedy; we are all “Facing Fukushima.”
I am grateful to the Japan Policy Research Institute at the USF Center for the Pacific Rim for its help in developing this project.
Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture. A surveying crew measures the height of a seawall destroyed by the tsunami, just north of the Haramachi thermal power plant, which was also damaged by the 20-meter high waves. The coal-burning Haramachi plant (owned by Tohoku Electric) will be repaired. Yet more than a year after the tsunami struck, Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant 20 kilometers away is still leaking radiation into the sea.
Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture. High voltage transmission lines brought down by the tsunami when it toppled miles of towers. The towers and lines are now rebuilt and awaiting the restart of the Haramachi thermal power plant. But almost all of Japan’s 50 main nuclear reactors – not just the reactors at the irreparably damaged Fukushima Daiichi complex – are still off line as local citizens rise up against the nuclear power plants in their own backyards.
Iitate Village, Fukushima Prefecture. Once a fertile agricultural center, now a wasteland. Rice paddies still lie fallow due to radioactive contamination from the Fukushima Daiichi plant 40 kilometers away. Snow squalls that fell in March 2011 while the plant still burned spread heavy radioactive contamination. But it was not until nearly a month after the radioactive snowfall that the Japanese government recommended people evacuate the town. Iitate was considered well outside the officially designated 20km exclusion zone. But local topography and weather has left higher levels of radioactive deposits here than in many towns inside the zone.
Kuniko Suzuki (64, foreground) and Yoshio Suzuki (70) plant rice in Iizakamachi just outside Fukushima City within Fukushima Prefecture. Although many parts of Fukushima Prefecture were not tested until months after the planting season, farmers were permitted to plant their crops on the assumption that levels of radiation would be low enough not to threaten human health. Farmers here claim their produce is in fact safe, but people in much of the country remain extremely wary about the specter of Fukushima contamination. Farmers throughout this region fear that their produce will fetch low prices, or find no buyers at all, bringing financial ruin.
Iitate Village, Fukushima Prefecture. Katsuzo Shoji (75) and his family have worked his Iitate farm for six generations. Like the rest of the town’s citizens, he has been told to evacuate, with no idea of when he will be allowed to return. For now, he is renting a bit of land outside the badly contaminated village, 40 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Although far from the 20km official exclusion zone, Iitate Village’s mountainous topography funneled radiation spewing from the crippled nuclear plant into mountain valleys, poisoning crops, water and livestock. Shoji was told to destroy his crops and his six prized beef cows.
Iitate Village, Fukushima Prefecture. Water company workers measure radiation levels near a scenic overlook in one of the worst contaminated spots on Highway 399, the main road into Iitate. According to local residents, snow squalls on March 15, 2011, left residues contaminating this stretch of highway with radiation levels 3-5 times higher than in others parts of the community. On the day the photograph was taken, radiation levels exceeded 15 micro Sieverts per hour, the equivalent of a full body CT scan every hour. From this mountain road on a clear day, one can see the Pacific Ocean just east of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant.
Tea plantations near Shizuoka city, 170 kilometers south of Tokyo and more than 400 kilometers southwest of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Tea leaves harvested in Shizuoka in May 2011 were found to contain radioactive cesium exceeding levels considered safe by some European governments. Since the nuclear disaster, elevated radiation levels have been detected in tealeaves and other food products all over Japan, far beyond the boundaries of Fukushima itself.
Iitate Village, Fukushima Prefecture. A harvest of radioactive weeds. A farmer mows his fallow rice field in the hope that one day, radiation levels will fall enough to permit planting and harvesting rice again on his family land. The most common radioactive isotope contaminating Iitate is Caesium-137, which has a half-life of more then 30 years.
Peter Blakely, JPRI Non-Resident Fellow in Visual Studies, is an American photographer currently based in Tokyo. As a photojournalist, he has covered conflicts in Chechnya, Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Kosovo. Mr. Blakely’s work has been published in many magazines worldwide, including Time, Newsweek, Forbes, BusinessWeek, New York Times, Fortune, Paris Match, Der Spiegel, Sunday Telegraph, New York Times Magazine, and National Geographic.