Robert Bazell writes:
For more than two weeks following the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear accident that struck Japan in March, I reported on Fukushima every day from Tokyo. Now, nearly three months later, I’ve been able to actually go there – not to the nuclear plant, but as close as 12 miles away, to the Fukushima Prefecture that surrounds the crippled reactors and gives them their name.
My first impression upon arriving was of the beauty of the place: Rice paddies line the slopes, and traditional Japanese houses sit on the hillsides where rivers and waterfalls flow. These forests rival California’s Big Sur for their grand display of nature’s serenity.
The enormous human misery inflicted by the radiation leak forms my second strongest impression. Much of my reporting in March made an effort to calm the panic as foreign workers and some Japanese fled Tokyo, 150 miles away. I don't regret any of that, but as one gets closer to the reactor site, it's easy to see how much human damage a radiation leak can cause. As one engineer told me, “When nuclear reactors fail, they REALLY fail.”
As far as anyone knows, no one has died from the Fuksushima radiation—yet. Even those workers who have been exposed to more than the allowed amounts have not shown any signs of ill health, except for two who suffered burns on their legs. But more than 80,00 people have been turned into radiation refugees. And despite government efforts to find housing, many remain in shelters with only the clothes they could grab when they ran, three months after the accident. Families are being torn apart when some members find housing or jobs in one area, and not everyone can join.
And then there is the radiation itself: Levels in the air are two to 50 times the normal level. Radiation levels are high even in populous cities of 400,000 or more people – such as Koriyama and Fukushima City – each about 35 miles from the reactors. Most of the radiation escaped in the first few days of the accident and was deposited on the ground --in school yards, on people’s homes and in massive amounts in the farmlands that make up most of the area. The government monitors the levels in the air at seven sites in Fukushima Prefecture, but radiation falls in particles, and a very high levels can remain in one place, while just a few feet away there's very little.
No one knows what the long-term effects of the radiation will be. The health dangers of elevated but relatively low levels of radiation remains one of the biggest disputes in medicine. Residents worry about the effects on themselves, and on their children especially. Farmers fear the crops they are planting this spring will never come to market after the fall harvest. And everyone knows there is no end in sight to the crisis. As Hideo Hanai, a cattle farmer, told me “It’s like being chased by a monster that you can’t see.”