The Associated Press for National Geographic Magazine
"JAPAN'S NUCLEAR REFUGEES"
In March 2011, three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant melted down, irreparably damaged by the super tremor.
The government has now announced the plant has attained a level of stability it is calling a “cold shutdown.” As many as 3,000 workers stream into the facility each day.
The tsunami’s destruction is still visible. Piles of rubble stand where the walls of the reactor structures crumbled and large pools of water still cover parts of the campus. In the ghost towns around Fukushima Dai-ichi, vines have overtaken streets, feral cows and owner-less dogs roam everywhere.
The tens of thousands of people who once lived around the plant have fled. They are now huddling in gymnasiums, bunking with friends, sometimes just sleeping in their cars, moving from place to place as they search for alternatives.
For those who lived on the perimeter of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, fliers used to come in the mail every so often explaining that someday this might happen. Most recipients saw them as junk mail, and threw them away without a second glance. For those who did read them, the fliers were always worded to be reassuring — suggesting that although a catastrophic nuclear accident was extremely unlikely, it could require evacuating the area. Never was it even hinted that the evacuation could last years, or decades.
The total amount of radiation released from the plant is still unknown, and the impact of chronic low-dose radiation exposures in and around Fukushima is a matter of scientific debate. Recent studies also suggest Japan continues to significantly underestimate the of the disaster.
One study suggests that twice as much radioactive cesium-137 — a cancer-causing agent — was pumped into the atmosphere than Japan had announced, reaching 40 percent of the total from Chernobyl. All told, decommissioning the plant will likely take 40 years.
Footsteps are imprinted in the drying mud on the streets on Odaka, Japan, inside the exclusion zone encircling the Dai-ichi nuclear power station. After the disaster on March 11, tens of thousands were ordered to leave their homes in the vicinity of the damaged nuclear plant.