The Fukushima-Daiichi plant on Japan’s main island of Honshu went into meltdown in 2011 after the devastating Tohoku earthquake and the resulting tsunami that flattened it and killed over 20,000 people. Vital cooling systems failed, and nuclear radiation leaked into the surroundings. The food was no longer safe, and water undrinkable.

The hitherto flourishing towns of Fukushima Prefecture now lie in disarray and abandon. Contaminated soil is stored in thousands of plastic bags in the exclusion zone. The landscape makes for an eerie and fearful sight.

People in the radioactive zone lost their homes and virtually all possessions. They were ordered to move out and given meagre compensation and temporary housing in return. Many live in the hope that one day they will go home. Others seem to have given up.

“I thought after Chernobyl there would be more safety and learning in handling accidents. But nothing has changed,” said Shizue Sakuma, a 45-year-old homemaker. Sakuma is part of Nariwai Sosho, a lawsuit of 4,000 plaintiffs seeking consolation money and the restoration of lives lost to the nuclear accident.   

“Today pregnant women and young mothers don’t want to live here,” explains Miyuki Owada, a 47-year-old nurse who still resides in Minamisoma. Their fears are justified by the long-standing effect of the calamity. Radioactive Cesium will continue to reside in the environment for centuries. Once a large amount of radioactive cesium enters an ecosystem, it becomes ubiquitous. It has been detected in Japanese spinach, tea, milk, beef, and freshwater fish up to 200 miles from Fukushima. 

The lives of the residents now revolve around evacuations, health and emotional trauma. After the disaster, the thyroids of thousands of children and teens were examined for signs of radiation-related cancers. A large number of the kids showed abnormalities and are now under constant observation. Such developments have given momentum to the anti-nuclear movement of Fukushima. The same people who once welcomed nuclear technology are increasingly involved in the “zero nuclear restarts” campaigns. Slogans like “Saikado Hantai!” and “Gempazu Zero!” are sbecoming the voices of the movement.

Despite the passage of time, the human cost of Fukushima cannot be quantified. A lot of questions linger unanswered in the deafening silence. Will the residents ever return? Will their voices be heard?

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Geiger counters on the highway and village roads are common in Fukushima Prefecture. Here, a huge Geiger  display board on the Hirono–Minamisoma highway tells the numbers.

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Workers check for radioactivity at Lumbini Kindergarten in
Fukushima city, 64 km from the nuclear plant.

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Hiroyuki Yoshino, disaster response chief for SHALOM, a nonprofit based in Fukushima city which advocates  protection from radiation, monitoring radiation levels at a public park. (Following page) Bags of contaminated soil in fields near Minamisoma city, 25km from the plant.

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A fallow paddy field in the 30 km exclusion zone. Thousands of hectares are unfit for cultivation after the disaster.

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Activist Hida Shinsyuu, a photographer from Fukushima, explains the impact of the accident. He is a campaigner for the closure of all nuclear power plants. 

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Radiation readings in Ittate village.

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An abandoned fuel station in the town of Tomioka.
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Nobuyoshi Ito tests the radiation levels on leafy vegetables from his farm in Ittate, one of the worst affected areas. Readings of vegetation and soil are sent regularly to scientists in the village.

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Hiraku Amano, technical manager of the Beta-ray laboratory at the Iwaki Radiation Measuring Center. The lab was set up by a group of mothers called the Iwaki Action Mama in response to the dishonesty of nuclear regulators. Sceptical of official reports they decided to measure radiation themselves. The lab measures the cesium 134 and 137, strontium 90, tritium and collects data on gamma radiation.

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A solar charging point for cars in Minamisoma. Fukushima Prefecture is turning increasingly to solar energy. Today 38 per cent of its power is solar and it expects to raise this to 65 per cent by the end of 2018.