Two days after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami devastated northeastern Japan, photographer Dominic Nahr joined a TIME team roving the Tohoku countryside in a very compact car. Born in Switzerland and raised in Hong Kong, Dominic is not a short man. But somehow he squeezed his lanky frame between a jerrycan of gas, a portable stove, gallons of drinking water and a mountain of food I’d packed for our rations.
We came to cover the deadly wave that had overwhelmed fishing and farming communities in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, killing nearly 20,000 people. But the natural disaster quickly gained a surreal, manmade edge. The aging Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, perched on Japan’s coastline, had been inundated by the tsunami and lost the electricity needed to operate cooling systems. Three of its reactor cores began to overheat and then melt down, sending clouds of radiation spewing into the air.
Every day, as other news crews evacuated the area, we took stock of just how close we were willing to go to the crippled plant. Radiation is invisible, and we didn’t want to be foolhardy. Dominic eventually bought a dosimeter—its Cyrillic writing signifying another nuclear disaster at Chernobyl—to track his personal radiation. We ate dried seaweed in the hope that iodine might counteract any dangerous, unseen particles.
The months went by. Even as Fukushima Daiichi still leaked radiation and the haplessness of the plant’s operator, Toyko Electric Power Co., became ever more apparent, the world’s media moved on to the next natural disaster, the next epic scandal. Dominic, though, kept returning to Fukushima. This year alone, he has spent four months documenting the climate of fear and uncertainty that envelops the region more than three-and-a-half years after the tragedy of March 2011.
Around 125,000 people have been unable to return to their homes because of the lingering radiation, with some confined to aluminum-sided temporary housing – shacks, really. At ground zero, swathed in constricting haz-mat suits and gas masks, nuclear workers struggle to decommission the plant and contain radioactive emissions. Dominic and I braved this gear for only a few hours this summer and felt exhausted even after such a brief stint. “I feel a responsibility to document what these people are enduring, both mentally and physically,” says the photographer. “There is a lingering fear and anxiety that doesn’t let go of you. Sometimes people completely break down emotionally in front of me. It’s the unknown, brought about by the invisible dangers and the lack of transparency, that seems to wear down the spirits of the affected the most.”
One night, Dominic was staying with a family in Fukushima city when he was startled by the sound of emergency sirens. Rushing outside, he was confronted by the syrupy smell of gas. Firemen broke into a nearby home, only to find a man who had barricaded the door with chains before committing suicide. The deceased had been a part-time decontamination worker in the Fukushima area. “We were,” recalls Dominic, “the same age.”
Hannah Beech is TIME’s China bureau chief and East Asia correspondent. Read her full story on the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster on TIME.com