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  • It's... It's surreal.

  • To walk through a town that was once so full of life now slowly being consumed by nature,

  • half of it hidden away behind barricades in a contaminated 'no-go' zone.

  • As you walk past degraded houses with shattered windows, overgrown shop-fronts and collapsing shrines,

  • you start to put it all together like pieces in a puzzle.

  • You can start to imagine what life must've been like here...

  • ... before it became the backdrop of the second worst nuclear disaster in history.

  • Fukushima Daiichi was once one of the largest operational nuclear power stations on the planet.

  • Now, it's one of the worst man-made disasters in history.

  • I've come to the exclusion zone to piece together what's happened in the 8 years since the disaster,

  • to hear from the locals who've endured the nightmarish aftermath,

  • and to see what the future might hold for the area.

  • It's a story that starts with a devastating tsunami, so powerful it moved the entire planet off its axis,

  • and ends in a nuclear disaster with a mammoth $200bn clean up operation,

  • involving 70,000 workers that will take an estimated 40 years to complete,

  • and is almost incomprehensible in scale.

  • --So we're currently one hour outside of Tokyo.

  • It takes about three and a half hours by car from Tokyo to the exclusion zone.

  • I've been advised to bring a Geiger counter along just to detect any pockets of radiation.

  • It's currently registering, uh... 0.09, which is what you expect for the background radiation for this region around Tokyo to be.

  • Yeah, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't slightly anxious, but...

  • me visiting for a couple of days is nothing compared to the workers that have to clean up the area,

  • and the thousands of local residents who lost everything - who lost their homes, their possessions,

  • and their livelihoods.

  • The exclusion zone is situated on Fukushima's remote east coastline

  • across a 70 kilometer mountain range separating it from cities such as Koriyama and Fukushima City.

  • Today, the exclusion zone is not a simple radius around the power plant,

  • but a patch-work of towns that have been cleaned up and dense forests that have yet to be decontaminated.

  • --I've always... thought about visiting the exclusion zone.

  • It's always been something I've considered doing.

  • Um, especially given that I live about two and a half hours north in Sendai.

  • Why am I visiting the region now? Well,

  • I know people that live and work in Fukushima.

  • I know people that have visited the region.

  • I've come with the hope of actually trying to dig a little bit deeper

  • and hear some of the stories of the people that call the exclusion zone 'home'.

  • As we make our way into the exclusion zone, the highway starts to become filled with convoys of trucks,

  • carrying contaminated soil.

  • Just a few of the 355,000 trucks that have so far been used in the clean-up effort.

  • And where you'd normally see sign posts,

  • instead, Geiger counters loom, ominously revealing the elevated radiation levels.

  • The figures creep higher and higher the further we go.

  • Huge piles of soil begin to appear at the side of the highway,

  • and in the distance I catch my first glimpse of the reactor itself,

  • nestled amongst a sea of cranes.

  • All of a sudden I feel like I've arrived in a different world.

  • The Fukushima exclusion zone is not the sort of place you'd want to make a wrong turn.

  • And to that end, I'm going in with an experienced guide, Fumito Sasaki,

  • who understands the region and the risks involved, having run numerous tours inside the area.

  • And our first stop is what was once the town of Ukedo, on the coastline just north of the Daiichi reactor.

  • There's a clock up there that's stopped at 3:38.

  • That was the time that the tsunami actually hit the school and cut off the power.

  • The power of the clock was in the staffroom, and that went with the tsunami.

  • While the spectre of the nuclear disaster still looms large,

  • it can be easy to overlook the fact that the nightmare began with a tsunami that ultimately killed over 20,000 people, on March 11, 2011.

  • Ukedo School was just 200 meters from the shoreline when the waves struck,

  • however after the initial magnitude 9 earthquake,

  • teachers hastily evacuated the 80 students to a nearby hill inland.

  • And with just minutes to spare, all of the children were saved.

  • The rest of Ukedo... wasn't so lucky.

  • What was once a town of 1,900 people had been washed away by a 15 meter wave,

  • taking 300 people with it.

  • As chilling as this school is, for me there's a sense of relief that all the kids were able to get out safely.

  • All that remains is Ukedo Elementary School.

  • That's the only marker that lets you know that there was once a town here.

  • Instead of the sound of kids playing and running around,

  • all you can hear in the background is the sound of diggers pushing around bags of radioactive soil.

  • It's quite the contrast.

  • --So right now, we are just 5 kilometers along the coastline from the Daiichi nuclear power plant.

  • And interestingly, we've got the Geiger counter out and it reads 0.09 microsieverts,

  • which is about the same as Tokyo.

  • Even though we are quite close to it.

  • Actually, the more dangerous areas are where the fallout was blown on the day the reactor exploded.

  • So inland, towards the north, is a little bit more treacherous than it is here.

  • The government already decontaminated this area.

  • --Right. So,

  • the number of radiation dose is the same as Tokyo.

  • And you can actually see the ridiculous, incredible scale of the decontamination.

  • Over here, we've got about-- it must be the size of ten football fields.

  • This whole area is covered in bags of soil.

  • By 2021, 14 million cubic meters of topsoil will have been removed from the exclusion zone,

  • part of a $29bn operation focused on lowering radiation levels.

  • The soil and debris is packed into bags and blankets the landscape.

  • Ukedo is just one of many temporary storage locations.

  • Though where to store the soil in the long term remains an ongoing political issue.

  • On our way to the partially reopened town of Tomioka, we travelled down one of the worst-affected areas.

  • A stretch of road, where it's forbidden to even leave your vehicle due to the higher levels of radiation.

  • It's an eerie sight.

  • Game centers, gas stations... suspended in time.

  • And slowly being buried beneath trees and foliage as nature reclaims its surroundings.

  • Look at this.

  • This is the border between Tomioka's no-go zone, and the bit where people are allowed to come back and live.

  • If your house is there, you can't go back. It's not been decontaminated - you can't go back at all.

  • But yeah, if you lived just 10 meters this side of the road, you can come back.

  • There's your house, you can return.

  • That is the difference between being able to come back to your life and not being able to return at all.

  • Just a 10 meter gap across the road.

  • --What was the population here before the disaster? What is it now?

  • [Fumito Sasaki]: Before the accident, it was 16,000 people.

  • [CB]: 16,000 people...

  • Now, it's about 1,000 people.

  • So less than 10%.

  • Yeah, and I mean we're standing here in front of an elementary school,

  • that's derelict, and there's a Geiger counter quite literally in the playground here showing us the figures.

  • In terms of the school population, what were the numbers before and after the disaster?

  • [FS]: Before the disaster, there were 1,400 students in this town.

  • But now, they only have 20 students.

  • 20...

  • Obviously a lot of people, having left this town after the disaster, have moved on now.

  • They've started new lives, right? In other towns across the country, so...

  • I guess getting any people to come back at all is a-- is just a success, to some extent.

  • This was the main cherry blossom street in Tomioka, right?

  • [FS]: Yes, this is a symbol of this town. Cherry Blossom Street.

  • But these cherry blossoms are only 20% of the cherry blossom street.

  • Only 20% is here?

  • Yeah.

  • And the other 80%?

  • The rest of them is inside of the no-go zone.

  • [CB]: And are people allowed to ever go from Tomioka into the no-go zone?

  • [FS]: The residents can get permission to enter the no-go zone.

  • After 8 years of lying abandoned, many of Tomioka's houses are collapsing.

  • Residents who don't plan to return at all are able to have their houses bulldozed for free by the government.

  • Unsurprisingly, many have been marked for demolition.

  • In just the three years after the disaster, there were 1,200 cases of theft reported.

  • Obviously, a lot of the damage here was done by the earthquake itself.

  • But you see smashed windows around, and that's because wild boar running loose around the area have been breaking into buildings,

  • and also a lot of people have been stealing from towns like Tomioka and Namie,

  • because it's open season for burglars to come in and break into people's property.

  • This used to be a pharmacy.

  • This is one of the few buildings I've seen so far where there's no damage to the windows.

  • It looks like nobody's been in here.

  • I've got the Geiger counter. It's 0.25 microsieverts,

  • which is a little bit higher than the coastline.

  • I've actually found the Geiger counter relatively reassuring today.

  • It's not been quite the levels I was anticipating.

  • Would I feel comfortable living here?

  • I'm not sure.

  • And I suspect if I did go into areas that haven't yet been decontaminated,

  • I would get pretty uncomfortable quite fast.

  • Japan's reconstruction agency estimates there have been over 2,200 disaster-related deaths

  • as the result of the trauma and stress the evacuees endured being ripped away from their lives.

  • This is one of the main motivations Japan has for attempting to decontaminate Fukushima.

  • With almost 42,000 evacuees still living outside the area,

  • by giving them the option to return to their hometowns, if not to live then just to visit, it may prevent further deaths.

  • And at a rate of 0.3 microsieverts per hour, or 2.6 millisieverts over the course of a year,

  • whilst the levels are higher than Tokyo,

  • it still places the decontaminated areas within the average world background radiation levels of 1.5 to 3.5 millisieverts.

  • But, the contaminated area is vast,

  • with hotspots spread across forests and mountains, many of which are impossible to reach.

  • After the evacuation, many farms across the region were abandoned,

  • with animals and cattle being left behind to die.

  • The radioactive fallout meant animals in the region were no longer safe for consumption.

  • But when the government ordered remaining farmers to euthanise their cattle,

  • not everyone followed the order.

  • Masami Yoshizawa was one of those people.

  • 14 kilometers from the reactor, his 328 cows were worth 450 million yen before they were exposed to the radiation.

  • In protest to the government, he vowed to keep his cows alive for as long as possible

  • even taking on cows from other farms that had been abandoned.

  • Feeding cows isn't cheap though, and so he accepts donations of food,

  • most notably, a staggering amount of pineapple skins.

  • Cow godzilla!

  • So, when the self-defence force came here to the area to clean up and help in the recovery effort,

  • Yoshizawa-san created this cow-zilla

  • to kind of inspire the troops and keep them motivated.

  • Whether it worked or not, I'm not at liberty to say.

  • But it is quite the sight.

  • During my two-day visit to the Fukushima exclusion zone, I've been staying in Iwaki city just 30 kilometers south,

  • which has fully recovered following on from the tsunami.

  • This area has been spared much of the damage caused by the nuclear reactor.

  • Iwaki city was hit by the tsunami and this hot spring, in fact, was washed away.

  • It took two years to reopen.

  • But for the most part, it's business as usual in Iwaki now.

  • Fortunately for Iwaki, on the day the nuclear reactor exploded,

  • the southerly winds carried the radioactive fallout north.

  • The radiation levels here are pretty much on par with Tokyo,

  • and, in fact, many people leaving the exclusion zone came here to Iwaki to make it their new home.

  • For Kaniarai Hot Spring, after the recovery, it's business as usual and it remains a popular resort on the coast,

  • although the memories of the tsunami still remain fresh in the minds of those working on the day of the disaster.

  • The reconstruction work along these coasts has ultimately succeeded in hiding much of the damage,

  • including the Kaniarai Hot Spring.

  • However, if you know where to look, you can still find the marks left behind to this day.

  • So whilst Kaniarai Onsen has been completely renovated,

  • there's still some little clues that something terrible happened here.

  • These are the shoe lockers. When you walk in, you take off your shoes and you put them in a locker.

  • And you can actually see how high the wave came up to just by looking at the different lockers.

  • This one was fine.

  • This one, however - with the newspaper on - this was destroyed by the tsunami.

  • Or the locker has rusted away inside.

  • It's a small indicator of what happened here.

  • Deciding whether or not to return to your home town after such a disaster

  • must be one of the hardest decisions you can make.

  • Heading once more into the exclusion zone, I meet one of the first returning evacuees

  • to try and understand what led him to come back.

  • Katsumi Arakawa was born in Ukedo town

  • and was evacuated 300 kilometers north to Akita prefecture after the disaster.

  • Not only has he returned to the area, but in February 2018 he started a business growing flowers.

  • Difficult task, given much of the original mineral-rich, fertile soil was removed during decontamination.

  • It's a welcome sight to see these beautiful flowers blooming after all the chaos we've seen - all the destruction.

  • It's inspiring to hear people, like Katsumi-san, who want to come back to the area

  • and give it another go despite potential risks.

  • Thank god he did.

  • I mean, literally and metaphorically, life is blooming once again because of Katsumi-san.

  • In recent years, even though many previous residents haven't moved back to their hometown of Tomioka,

  • many still regularly return.

  • This year, Tomioka's empty streets sprung to life once more for the cherry blossom season,

  • when once desolate streets bustle to the sounds of friends and families partying and celebrating the season.

  • Meanwhile, in the once empty fields, many of which may never harvest crops again,

  • there may yet be hope that they can be utilized to the benefit of the locals.

  • What kind of jobs are they going to create in Tomioka do you think?

  • Uhh, it's a difficult question, but...

  • Some people have started to make a solar power plant.

  • Solar power?

  • Yes.

  • Wow.

  • As you pass through the exclusion zone, nearly every other field is lined with solar panels.

  • Thousands of them.

  • Both agriculture and the Daiichi plant were once the lifeblood of the local economy.

  • Now, the unusable land is being turned into a means to produce clean energy

  • and a potential alternate source of income to landowners.

  • I'm glad I finally came here and saw it all with my own eyes after hearing about it continuously for 8 years now.

  • It's difficult for me to comprehend what I've seen here in Fukushima.

  • This is not a normal situation,

  • and I came here naively hoping to try and tell the story of what happened after the disaster,

  • but this is a situation that's very far from being over.