Alone in the Zone

Review by Caroline Phillips, Fairewinds Energy Education Administrator

“Loneliness doesn’t quite capture it,” says Matsumura Naoto, the Fukushima farmer who will not leave his animals or his home and is the sole resident of his once bustling town. The post-apocalyptic, evacuated ghost towns of Tomioka and Iitate that are located within a 25mi radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor are featured in a 20-minute video 'Alone in the Zone' produced by VICE Intl. 

As a US citizen, watching this video brings to mind the havoc of Hurricane Katrina and its forced dislocation of so many people living in and around New Orleans. Destruction caused by Fukushima’s nuclear meltdown appears as visceral as the hurricane, but the greatest difference between the two is what no one can see. The highly toxic radiation released by Fukushima Daiichi lingers indefinitely and radioactivity will continue to contaminate once beautiful farmland for hundreds of years. Now, four years after the nuclear triple meltdown, slow decommissioning of everything in the reactor’s shadow continues without an end date in sight.

Naoto is a Tomioka farmer who has returned to his cattle farm where ostriches run free since the meltdown. With his arms hanging comfortably around one of these wild, long necked birds, Naoto recounts evacuating his family, living as a refugee, and being refused lodging from his sister-in-law who feared that they were contaminated and would bring radiation into the house. Two years after Fukushima Daiichi’s meltdown, Naoto returned to his farm despite the high cesium levels. Naoto says he opposes the killing of animals in radiation-controlled zones. While he believes that slaughter for consumption is reasonable, he says that slaughter because of contamination is senseless- “Would they kill people just as indiscreetly?” he asks.

You might think that Naoto is a simple farmer obsessed with his livestock however, in the words of Hasegawa Kenji another farmer from the area, “Everyone views cattle as all the same. But that’s not true. At all.” Kenji and his family of eight once lived in a stately home on land that supported his life’s work of farming. Now he resides with other refugees from the Fukushima Prefecture in temporary housing that looks like a chain of doublewide trailers. Kenji recalls scientists telling the mayor of Iitate, Kenji’s village, that they were in danger of radiation but the government continued to reassure residents that they were safe. Once it was clear that the scientists had been right about the significant radiation exposure and not the town officials, Kenji and his wife did all they could to care for their exposed and contaminated cows by milking them everyday and pouring out the toxic milk. Sadly, they were eventually forced to systematically slaughter all of their beloved animals.

Radiation Testing Clinic Director, Nihei Masahiko explains that the amount of exposure is irrelevant because if cesium enters the body, there will be damage. Radioactive substances leaked by the Fukushima Daiichi owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company, have contaminated the soil of the Fukushima prefecture rendering the land unusable. Yet, according to Nuclear Physics Professor Koide Hiroaki, TEPCO still refuses to accept responsibility for its radioactive fallout because the land is ‘bona vacant’, an ownerless object.

Not being able to eat or drink without exposing oneself to contamination in a radiation-controlled zone makes Matsumura Naoto’s return to his farm unimaginable for most of us, but I would venture taking that risk is not so unfathomable for Hasegawa Kenji or anyone else who has been indefinitely displaced from their home. Remembering a time before the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Kenji recalls his grandchildren visiting him every day after school to say hi to their grandpa and the cows. That life is over now. All that remains are memories of happier times that Kenji says, “I almost wish I could forget.”