On the Road with a Geiger Counter in Japan

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FUKUSHIMA — A Geiger counter isn’t something you ever want to know how to use. It’s definitely not something you want to need. Not that it’s an intimidating piece of equipment – the one I used last week in Japan was roughly the size of a mobile phone circa 1998. Our Terra MKS-05, made in the Ukraine, almost blended into the miscellany of four days on the road in rural Japan: empty coffee cups, gum, onigiri wrappers, Geiger counter. But its quiet, insistent beeping, constantly calibrating and recalibrating the levels of radioactive material in the atmosphere, was a constant reminder that the bucolic scenery out the window was immutably — if invisibly — altered.

I’ve wanted to take a road trip through Japan since I moved to Asia in 2007. But until March, I had never made it out from under the shadow of Tokyo Tower to see the fabled countryside that I envisioned as the engine driving the capital’s intense aestheticism. In the end, it was the fact that the Japanese countryside is the quite literally the engine of Tokyo that took me there. Rural prefectures host most of Japan’s nuclear power plants, receiving tax money from the utilities that run them. Many have criticized the relationship, saying the host prefectures amount to little more than economic colonies of the capital. In Iitatemura, a village nearly 25 miles away from the damaged Fukushima power plant, residents living with some of the highest levels of radiation from the disaster are incensed. “It’s Tokyo’s electricity,” a woman in a local beauty salon fumed. “Why are we suffering?”

Despite the fact that it’s far outside the official evacuation area, it was in Iitatemura where I measured the second highest levels of radiation in three days of driving around Fukushima prefecture – a little over 3 microsieverts per hour. That’s not dangerous to people like me who are just passing through, but authorities say it’s still too high for residents to be exposed to on a long-term basis. On Friday, the government ordered people to evacuate Iitatemura and four other towns outside the evacuation zone in a month’s time. Even worse- off is the town of  Namie, well inside the so called “caution” zone and less than 12 miles from the power plant. There, our  Geiger counter registered a brief spike to 6 microsieverts per hour — down significantly from late March, when IAEA recorded levels there of 161 microsieverts per hour, or about 1,600 times normal background radiation levels, but hardly a healthy level.

As we drove, the faint beeping of the Geiger counter became a kind of dystopic soundtrack to the early spring landscape. Acre after acre of rice fields stood empty at a time of year when farmers would normally be out planting. The springtime cherry blossoms looked forlorn and unfestive. In evacuated neighborhoods, the counter clicked and calculated as we passed an abandoned cat sitting alone in a driveway. As we were leaving the area on Wednesday — the day before it was made illegal to enter — a policeman pulled our car over and lectured my colleague and me for going in. Didn’t we bother to consider the contamination we were going to bring out and track around the region?

That argument would be more compelling if the contamination was, in fact, limited to the neat 12-mile radius circle that authorities have drawn around the devastated plant. But as the enduring high levels of radiation in Iitatemura and Fukushima City demonstrate, the leaks in the early days of the power plant crisis left a trail of radiation that spreads far into what is supposed to be the safe zone. The government’s recent moves to evacuate towns outside the radius are a tacit acknowledgment of that, and the fact that the U.S. set its own recommended no-go zone at about 50 miles (80km) back in March did not escape the attention of some Fukushima residents. “It makes me feel like the Japanese government is lying to me,” said Shoichi Manome, a sea urchin fisherman in the seaside town of Iwaki. “They are always telling us that the nuclear plant is safe. I think it got so bad that the government wasn’t thinking straight. They didn’t know what to do.”

Fukushima’s agreement to host nuclear plants has been predicated on three key ideas: that nuclear power is safe, that nuclear power is good for a country with few other energy options, and that it provides jobs and money to an aging demographic where agriculture is on the downswing. Since 1977, Fukushima prefecture has collected a tax on nuclear fuel from Tokyo Electric and Power Company (TEPCO) for the 10 reactors the company operates here. (Twelve other prefectures also collect nuclear fuel taxes.) The money has been used for radiation measurements, improving infrastructure and providing subsidies to towns close to the reactor. It’s become an important part of the local government coffers. Before the disaster, it was penciled into the initial 2011 budget at 4.47 billion yen, or about $54 million.  Without energy production occurring at the plant, the fuel won’t be produced and therefore the tax will not likely be collected. “Maybe my salary will be reduced,” joked Hiromine Funabashi, an official in the Fukushima prefectural government.

The problem is that while the tax will probably stop coming, the prefecture must now spend more than ever on radiation measurements, healthcare monitoring, and cleanup. And though TEPCO has promised compensation to households forced to evacuate, that does nothing for people who worked in the area and no longer have jobs. “Everyone in the 20-km radius is out of a job,” Funabashi said, adding with a laugh, “They are very free now.” In a few short weeks, what for over thirty years of what appeared to be a kind of symbiosis between guest and host has exploded. The hosts are left with houses they can’t live in, land they can’t farm, and an ocean where fish can’t be caught.

After a few days of watching the numbers flicker on the digital screen, I had mixed feelings about leaving Fukushima. I wanted to stay and learn more about how people living there were handling the evolving situation. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved get back to Tokyo, to check into a hotel and wash the invisible threat off my skin in a hot shower — one that is heated off a power grid that so many are paying for so dearly.