Three and a half years after a catastrophic meltdown, Fukushima is far from fixed

By Hannah Beech/Fukushima
Photographs & Video by Dominic Nahr for TIME

August 21, 2014

Our respirators are on, as are three pairs of gloves secured with tape, two pairs of socks, rubber boots, a hard hat and a hazmat suit that encases our bodies in polyethylene. Ice packs cool our torsos, but photographer Dominic Nahr, reporter Chie Kobayashi and I start sweating. Maybe it’s nerves, or maybe it’s just the sticky humidity of summertime Japan.

Soon we approach the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant—ground zero of the worst atomic meltdown since Chernobyl. Dosimeters around our necks record the rising levels of radiation. After the 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11, 2011, the aging plant on Japan’s northeastern coast suffered a total power failure, causing the cooling system to shut down. Three of the station’s nuclear-­reactor cores overheated, sending plumes of radiation over a placid landscape of fishing villages, rice paddies and dairy farms. (The station has a total of six reactors. Two were in cold shutdown at the time of the accident; another, which had been defueled, suffered an explosion.) As we lumber through the plant like clumsy B-movie extras, I’m reminded that our many layers don’t protect against every type of radiation. Not to worry, we are told by officials from Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO). The radiation levels in certain parts of the nuclear complex are actually lower than in some populated swaths of Fuku­shima prefecture. Later, as I sit in a futuristic cubicle in the plant complex, undergoing a full-body internal radiation check, the soundtrack underscores TEPCO’s soothing message. A line from one song’s lyrics, tinkly and sweetened: “You’ve got a friend in Jesus.”

Three and a half years after the most devastating nuclear accident in a generation, Fukushima Daiichi is still in crisis. Some 6,000 workers, somehow going about their jobs despite the suffocating gear they must wear for hours at a time, struggle to contain the damage. So much radiation still pulses inside the crippled reactor cores that no one has been able to get close enough to survey the full extent of the destruction. Every 2½ days, workers deploy a new giant storage tank to house radioactive water contaminated after passing through the damaged reactors. We wander past a forest of some 1,300 of these tanks, each filled with 1,000 tons of toxic water, some of which was used to cool the reactors...

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