By Andrew Deck
Since our day began at the edge of the exclusion zone in Tomioka, Fukushima, we had passed through half a dozen security checkpoints and received a full-body scan to measure internal radiation, a baseline reading for later comparison. Now, at the power plant, facing the shells of two nuclear meltdowns, our observation time was further regulated to minimize exposure. A visit to this part of the plant came with the understanding that just steps away were structures housing melted nuclear debris, the epicenters of one of the largest nuclear disasters in history.
There were no hazmat suits or gas masks, the biohazard uniform most would imagine for this portion of the tour. Pants and a long-sleeved shirt was the required outfit, a protective layer augmented by gloves, a helmet and what could pass as a kafunsho (hay fever) mask. We were directed to tuck our pant legs into four layers of neon blue socks, which we slid into black ankle-cut rain boots. A personal Geiger counter was placed in the chest pocket of our mesh vests. It would set off an alarm when it reached the tour’s daily allowance for radiation exposure, 100 microsieverts, equivalent to a roundtrip flight between Narita and JFK. In our meticulously planned day-long tour, these counters wouldn’t reach more than 30 microsieverts.
The optics of this moment, standing in plain clothes next to two nuclear reactors, were not lost on Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operates Fukushima Daiichi and facilitated Metropolis’ tour of the 3.5km² power station, known internally as 1F. Our guide remarked that they often bring visitors to this spot. Safely getting up close to one of the reactors, even if only for 10 minutes, is a gesture they hope will show conditions at the plant have improved substantially since the 2011 disaster.
In the past year, TEPCO has expanded the number of power station tours for journalists and the general public. These tours are an effort to increase transparency and educate the public on the plant’s status. They are also an effort to build goodwill for a company that is still maligned by many for its culpability in the disaster. Three retired TEPCO executives, Ichiro Takekuro, Sakae Muto and former chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, are currently on trial for “professional negligence resulting in death and injury,” a criminal charge for ignoring internal reports that Fukushima Daiichi was at risk from a debilitating tsunami wave. The indictment was brought by a civilian judiciary panel, overruling prosecutors who had twice declined to press charges. The criminal trial follows a string of civil suits, including a ruling by a Tokyo court last year that ordered TEPCO to pay ¥11 billion (100 million USD) in damages to the residents of Minamisoma, Fukushima.