As Innocuous as Plant No. 1

William Vollman enters the radioactive red zone to visit the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

William Vollmann | No Immediate Danger | Viking | April 2018 | 26 minutes (7,015 words)

The taxi driver said: “Nuclear power plants, I wish they would all be abandoned, because there was a safety miss. They promised nothing dangerous would happen, but then this accident clearly showed there was a miss…”

The new dosimeter read 4.7 microsieverts as we rolled out of central Iwaki, and the van’s interior radioactivity was a homelike 0.12 micros an hour — appropriate for Tokyo or San Francisco.

“The fact is, the government is trying to restart other nuclear power plants,” he said. “That move is unbelievable. With all these reactors turned off here, still electricity is not short at all. Renewable is better.”

It was a cloudy morning, promising rain to the west. The rice fields were stubbled green and brown, most of the crop having been harvested in mid-October. Occasionally a very few yellow-green shaggy fields awaited the gathering. Water was sparkling on young trees, and in several yards ripe persimmons glowed on the trees.

* The Union of Concerned Scientists asserted an official return date of 2022, although, as will be seen, different zones would actually be decontaminated at different times.

The driver’s notion was Okuma would be safe to live in after 60 or 70 years.* At 8:07 we entered the expressway, with the frisker reading nearly unchanged. With the driver now silent, I gazed down on rice fields and an occasional scarlet maple in the light and dark green of forest. At 8:16 we could see the twin thermal stacks of Hirono, the frisker showing 0.24 micros an hour. Naraha read comparably at first; the sun shone there on a small hillside cemetery in a clearing, so that the stones looked almost cheerful. The mountain forest remained mostly uncut except for the so-called “laydown areas” where green tarps overlined the black bags.

In the four minutes that it required for us to pass through Naraha, the frisker readings (on NORMAL) climbed from 0.23 to 0.6 micros per hour — with ups and downs, to be sure. Then we entered Tomioka. Just here a digital sign advised us that the radiation was 2.34 micros outside. Departing the expressway so that the interpreter could use the washroom, the driver parked a few steps from the toll taker, who wore white protective gear in his booth; and I took a one-minute timed walk to frisk birdsong and pine-smell: only 374 cpms, 1.26 micros an hour. Why the radiation level was so much lower here than it had been at the digital sign was one of life’s mysteries; one could blame the frisker, the digital sign or local variation.

We now took a certain forest road whose air dose by brown pools and tall sedges was 1.644. High over a reservoir I read a happier 0.356. It was 8:40 when we entered the city limits of greater Okuma, whose name means “Big Bear”; the dosimeter read 4.9. Continuing onward, we came to the sign which warned: NO GO ZONE AHEAD, and presently arrived at the Okuma Town office, whose anteroom a NORMAL frisk found to be a remarkably salubrious 0.22 micros—not out of place for Moscow if on the high side for Poza Rica, Mexico. We took off our shoes and went upstairs. Especially for me the two officials had prepared their daily weather report:

Situation map at the Okuma Town office

They said that in one spot in central Okuma where the radiation used to be 100 micros it was now only 40. When I asked about Tomioka, they replied that the downtown there was typically 0.3 micros, which was far lower than the pancake frisker indicated. Perhaps they meant the air dose. Anyhow, they were full of good news.

According to the regulations, they were to follow our taxi and ensure that we did not deviate from the route plan, which I had been required to propose and clear several months earlier, at which time there had been an additional implication that I might not be permitted to get out of the car. In fact, these two men were wonderful guides and hosts. They drove ahead, leading the taxi through the central downtown and to a temple, then to the ocean, a river, a shrine, a highly radioactive place and finally to a vantage point from which Plant No. 1 would be visible. Whenever I wished, I told the taxi driver to stop, then walked about and frisked to my heart’s content. We were all supposed to have dosimeters, including the taxi driver, so I had an extra one for him, but nobody cared about that. By the way, he was forbidden to get out of the car. Following the rules, I now supplied myself, the interpreter and the driver (who declined) with shoe covers, painter’s union suits and masks. Those items were all manufactured with pride in the United States of America, and they began to tear almost immediately. Duct taping my imperfections at crotch and thigh, shuffling about ludicrously in the flimsy, wrinkled shoe covers, I watched myself fall in the estimation of those dignified officials. Fortunately, years of disappointing and even disgusting the Japanese with my American gaucheries had made me an expert in looking ridiculous with extreme tranquility, so on that understanding, we went downstairs and set out down the road. It was 9:09, and the dosimeter had accrued 5.0 micros exactly. I felt quite happy.

Those items were all manufactured with pride in the United States of America, and they began to tear almost immediately.

Approaching the red zone almost at once, we reached a narrow vertical warning sign of red characters on white; ahead stood a sign whose red and blue characters were facing in three directions. There were three sentries. Each one clutched a bright orange baton in his white-gloved hand. Unlike in the small village of Iitate, the obstacle course of barriers they oversaw was of a merely suggestive character; anybody could have stepped over or driven through. Behind a tall tripod from which a dark lamp-bulb depended, a pale accordion gate, evidently for night hours, stood collapsed into irrelevance on the righthand side of the road. Stepping out of the taxi, I frisked the air, and was pleased to find the very moderate level of 1.54 micros an hour. One of the officers checked our permits, and my passport. Then they bowed us through. We entered the red zone at 9:21.

We were now in Ogawa Ward, where a one-minute frisk down the street captured 750 counts per minute, or 2.58 micros an hour — a bit “hot,” to be sure, but hardly exceptional for a red zone; even in the yellow parts of Tomioka it would have been in place. I remember another gate, and a lovely lane overgrown with the usual pampas grass and tall goldenrod, houses pleasantly secluded behind the trees. I saw two men in protective gear at an abandoned Esso station. Inside the taxi van, the radiation was already more than 2 micros. We drove on, and then I asked to stop again. The air dose by some pampas grass was 3.27. The officials waited patiently in their car.

There were places where weeds were just beginning to break through the asphalt of what had evidently once been magnificently maintained streets, while at the roadside a clamor of ivy, goldenrod, and other weeds almost obscured the houses behind them, with only a few roofs still showing, like the forecastles of sinking ships. A meter above one bit of weedy pavement I measured a cool 5.0 micros.

The officials wanted to show me their town hall. They proudly considered it to be “a model decontamination,” and I do admit without reservations that it read only 0.826 and 0.816 micros — 800 times “hotter” than Portland, Oregon. They said that cesium was now found “normally,” as they put it, at three to five centimeters down, but no further, “because the nature of it has a particular affinity for clay.” My little excavation. Shigihara’s land in Iitate had detected what must have been cesium at a greater depth than that — but then the radioactivity had obediently fallen off. Perhaps the clay ran shallower in Okuma. — The officials remarked that removing five centimeters of farmland was easy, but expensive here, due to the asphalt, but (I detected understated pride) they had persevered in this spot all the same, to a depth of two to three centimeters. To decontaminate a garden, which they had also accomplished, one must excavate it all by hand. They were still “just learning,” they modestly said. I cannot now remember whether I complimented them on their hard work; I hope that I did.

They showed me the former health center. This edifice I did assure them now looked very nice.

The more talkative of the two was named Mr. Suzuki Hisatomo; the interpreter remarked that he was “very cultured.” I asked him which accident had been worse, Fukushima or Chernobyl. He said that in terms of the amount of radiation released it was Chernobyl, by far. Neither one of them showed any worry about today’s excursion. They wore dark galoshes, perhaps to keep from tracking home radiocontaminants, and they put gloves on and off at will, but declined to trouble with masks; as the morning warmed up they rolled down their hazard suits to the waist, revealing the crisp municipal tunics beneath.

vollman

The Okuma air dose monitor was not grated off as Iitate’s had been, but likewise crowned with a slanting plane of solar panels. It appeared to be turned off, for its display showed four zeroes in microsieverts per hour; behind it, dead leaves huddled against the curb, weeds grew up out of the sidewalk, and the hedge hung shaggily over them. And why not? All 11,000 residents remained evacuated.

We drove on. In a certain long commercial street, which strange to say had one parked car every block or so (perhaps the owners had fled by other means), the rectilinear geometries of sunlight and shadow emphasized its forsakenness more than did the relatively few weeds and vines; the place was being cared for after a fashion; and the shards and flotsam of the earthquake had been raked to one side. The radiation was 2,060 counts per minute, which is to say 6.9 micros an hour, so that was getting up there; a year of it would make for 60.44 millis — well above the maximum for nuclear reactor workers. Like an eager puppy, I frisked about the central district’s shuttered shops. The almost immaculate pavement was cut by multiple jagged shadow-diagonals, and sometimes pierced by tall weeds. Broken pots lay on certain sidewalks. Fewer windows were broken than in Tomioka, perhaps because the higher radiation discouraged thieves. I sometimes saw tattered scraps of cloth hanging from abandoned facades, broken boards and bricks heaped on sidewalks here and there — but the streets were clean save for those weeds. (In one street, it is true, I discovered a sort of beach of broken tiles, all swept up against the curb but on the asphalt nonetheless.) From behind an air conditioner or space heater on blocks on the sidewalk grew one of those ivy-vines I was always seeing in Tomioka; it crept up the side of a shop, gripped a drainpipe to whose radioactive effluent it must have been partial, then insinuated itself through a door’s crack and behind some establishment’s dark window. What it did in there I cannot tell you. Ivy flourished over and through a barbershop’s barred gates. Other weeds bowed, spreading their many fingers over the asphalt. The air dose there was usually around 4 micros — 35 millis a year. We drove to another part of the same district, and here several windowpanes had gone; behind wrinkled curtains lay books, crates, rectangles of corrugated siding. In one place that reminded me of the retail block across from the garment shop in Tomioka, the lower part of the blinds had been twisted down at a 90-degree angle and then mostly torn away, so that in the dark cell just behind it I could see a table on which sat a teacup beside several closed laptop computers. What had happened there? Had the proprietor drunk a last cup of tea before he evacuated, and had he feared that his computers might be contaminated? How had the window gotten broken? Most lives are unfinished stories (suicide perhaps comprising our best chance to “complete” a life), so the red zone’s plethora of such scenes of interruption as this was in a way extremely ordinary…but to have all these lives so interrupted at once! — A crate lay beneath shuttered lattice windows. A great weed in full summer flourish rounded off that block, and then more closed doors and weeds decorated the next. It looked slightly tidier here than the neatest street of Tomioka.

Now proceeding to a more suburban-looking neighborhood, we came upon more hidden and thus more apparently similar interruptions, for here no windows had been shattered to reveal whatever wreckage, panic or quiet sadness lay within. As I paced the empty street, with a fresh-trimmed lawn giving way to pampas grass on the side of it, and a castle-like apartment tower rising behind everything, the air dose measured 2,060 counts per minute and 6.9 micros — almost as much as the interior of Mr. Shigihara’s dairy barn in Iitate. A power pole leaned over a parking lot. Over a weedy drainage grating by some decrepit apartments the level was 8.79.

Just before ten, we were at Ono Station, the only Japan Rail stop for Okuma; for some reason, there had not been an Okuma Station and might not be for a while now. Mr. Suzuki said the target reoccupation date for Okuma’s less contaminated areas was three years; here it would take 10.

* But there were sunnier ways to calculate those 23.2 micros. Magill’s Survey of Science, published in 1993, advised me that “those working with radiation are required to keep their dosage below 5 rems [= 50 millis] per year, which is…25 microsieverts…per hour for a 40-hour work week. No ill effects have been observed at several times this dosage.”

In the year previous to the reactor failures, Ono’s air dose had varied between 0.041 and 0.042 micros an hour. Above a grating in the street before the station I now measured 4.20 micros. Two steps away, another grating, frisked from about eight inches, read 23.2 micros, which in one hour would have given me what it took nearly a month to absorb back home. I was a little shocked; a year’s worth of that would be 203.3 millis.*—But when I raised the frisker slightly, to 10 inches, the count dropped to 21.9. At a foot and a half it fell to 11.52, which I considered spicy enough. Meanwhile the stairs within the earthquake-damaged station were only 1.604. I think that if I had to dwell in a red zone I would find a thick-walled place and keep within it as much as possible. In this connection I might note that during those three hours in the Okuma red zone my dosimeter accrued 9.1 micros of gamma radiation.† Call it 3 micros an hour. I should say we were in those two vehicles for at least half the time, so of course the “real” average dose one could expect to accrue in Okuma would have been significantly higher. But if one mostly lurked inside and managed on a budget of 3 hourly micros, which might not have been much worse than the working hours of an international airline stewardess, then 26.28 annual micros would be one’s portion.

† Between 9:21, when we passed through the gate, and 12:25, when we departed the red zone, the display altered from 5.0 to 14.1 micros.

The weeds around the overgrown tracks were 9 and 7 micros. Here they had truly been left to themselves, which encouraged my appreciation of the work which was being carried out against nature in the radioactive city; for in the long narrow zone of fenced-off tracks the pampas grass rose high above masses of whiskery weeds. As soon as I approached the fence to frisk it (about 10 micros), contaminated stickleburrs festooned the legs of my paper suit.

* Under the category “treatment of contaminated wastes,” the ftinistry of the Environment included “captured wild harmful animals,” for which the “executing agency,” Kyowa Kako Co., Ltd., stood ready to supply a “demonstration of the safe composting system for treatment of dead bodies of captured animals.”

Mr. Suzuki remarked that he saw wild boar around here every day; yesterday they had trapped three; I presume they killed them.*

At one corner where weeds were growing mightily from broken pots and from right out of the asphalt, a white hard hat lay in the street. I pointed it out to Mr. Suzuki. With a smile, he said that the crows had carried it there.

The officials had explained that “former resident families” could return 15 times a year for up to four hours each, but I never expected to see them. Not far past the station, however, the officials stopped their car to introduce us to an evacuee named Mr. Tazawa Norio, who had once been a colleague of theirs. (Later I learned that his wife was inside the house cleaning, but I never saw her.) He was all dressed up in a mask, gloves and a white hazard suit so that he could trim the weeds in front of his home. Something like a shower cap crowned his head with a mushroom slit. From a narrow stripe of exposed but shaded face his eyes squinted sadly at me, although when he attacked the weeds with his clippers (they were taller than he), his eyes widened as he gazed upward. His dosimeter, Japanese-made, hung from a lanyard around his neck. It was an odd sight to see him beside Mr. Suzuki, who was barefaced but for sunglasses and whose coveralls had been rolled neatly down to his hips. Since that latter person entered the red zone nearly every day, one would think that he would be less raffish about his exposure. But perhaps radiation damage is merely another harmful rumor.

Mr. Suzuki Hisatomo

Mr. Tazawa Norio

“Three years ago my house was almost new,” said Mr. Tazawa. “What I now have left is nothing but a mortgage.” He was trying to pay it off as quickly as he could, to avoid burdening his descendants. “Birds come here, and their feces contain seeds.”

While I talked with him, those obliging officials began pruning and weeding for him with their ungloved hands. That seemed very sweetly Japanese. I could not imagine some American ex-colleague of mine ever troubling to do the same for me.

He said: “I was a worker in public relations promotion of nuclear power.”

“And now?”

He looked up at the sky. “If you have this kind of accident, then…I wish there were any kind of renewable substitute for nuclear.”

In his baggy white suit, with his paper mask covering him from around his chin almost to his eyes and his headgear resembling a shower cap, Mr. Tazawa stood on the street by the white line, determinedly working his pruning shears while the weeds rubbed against his legs. When he took a step forward, he was in those weeds all the way to his armpits. The stone gateposts of his home were nearly sunken in vegetation.

Glancing down at my own so-called “protective gear,” I saw that my torn paper pants, like the interpreter’s, now bristled with radioactive stickleburrs (1 to 3 micros). I was glad to keep them away from my inner clothes.

Weeds and their perfect shadows were conquering the asphalt, guarding what must have been the entrance to an apartment building (no weeds yet grew upon its stairs). We got back into the taxi van, where the frisker read 1.7 and 1.9 micros per hour, then turned onto a narrow weed-lined road, the empty fields looking the same as before. At 10:16 our interior count began to increase: 3.8, 3.95, 4.16, 4.37, 4.76, 4.41, 5.60 NORMAL micros per hour — “since we are approaching Daiichi,” said the taxi driver when I told him. He smiled; he too was enjoying the adventure. Our next stop was a temple called Hen Jo, meaning unknown. The flight of entrance steps ascended a sort of inlet in the vegetation-crowned stone wall, some of whose bricks were disarrayed. Shrubs had begun to take over the steps, although someone had trimmed them partially back. At their summit were two character-engraven pillars, and then, set back within its flat yard, the red-roofed temple itself, whose white facade stood unevenly decomposed down to the inner wood. The place felt peculiar: abandoned and yet not exactly neglected; consider for instance the temple grounds, stripped down to sand, or perhaps stripped down and then sanded, by well-meaning decontaminators, with armies of goldenrod standing at attention in tall close-packed array just behind the wall. No weeds grew here, at least not for the moment. The decontaminators had aimed to make the tombs sufficiently safe for former residents to come and briefly pay their respects to the ancestors. Mr. Suzuki informed me that the air dose here had been 19 micros but after decontamination it became “officially 5.05 as of September.” A sign from September recorded a reading of 5.06, and today the frisker found even less to chirrup about: 3.9 micros an hour. Behind two metal- lipped incense wells, a stone statuette stood clasping together its palms and dreaming, with a tall tomb-slab at its back. Everything was as still as the folds of its stone robe. Close-eyed, serene and baby-bald, inhumanly patient, it waited for nothing that I could ever imagine. Bending down and extending the frisker toward that figure, I encountered the unpleasant value of 7.0 micros. Had I been condemned to stay here until I reached the nuclear worker’s five-year maximum of 50 millis, I would have served my sentence in no less than 10 months.

Hen Jo Temple (7.00 micros)

Now we drove past house-islands in the great rich sea of goldenrod. Some of the homes had been swept away to their foundations by the tsunami. Disobeying a do-not-enter sign, we descended a narrow asphalt road as goldenrods towered on either side, more and more of them. So we arrived at the ocean, about three and a half kilometers from Daiichi. It was 10:45. The air dose had become an almost benignly mild 1.374.

* “Inside the port,” of course, the levels read at monitoring stations were breaking records again: 1,900 and 1,400 Bq (their prior respective prize-winners had been 1,400 and 1,200)

How radioactive was the water? In May an unnamed site “outside the port” and three kilometers away (there was a fifty-fifty chance that it was right here) had measured 4.3 becquerels of tritium.* Remembering the difficulties that Eli had laid out before me when I asked to sample that very same contaminant, not least of them the fact that water is a neutron shield, I forebore to frisk the waves. Perhaps I could have scooped up some mud, waited for the water to evaporate, then measured what was left — but if H2O evaporated, why wouldn’t H3O? Wishing not to harm myself and others through ignorance, I abandoned that project.

The seashore at Okuma. Note the sheared-off crown of the pine tree.

The breakwater was wrecked, of course. A pine leaned toward the bright blue sea, its top pollarded by the tsunami. Birds flew up in flocks from the river’s mouth. Seeing a small dark beetle on the sleeve of my paper suit, I asked my usual question about whether the radiation was killing any creatures.

* In 2016, in Namie, whose radiation was supposedly “15 times the safe standard,” the internal organs of irradiated cows “so far have shown no significant abnormality particularly linked to radiation exposure,…but it’s too early to draw conclusions about thyroid cancer and leukemia.” Meanwhile, a Greenpeace study mentioned “DNA-damaged worms in highly contaminated areas.”

“I don’t know what your impression was,” said Mr. Suzuki, annoyed, “but no animals died.”*

The driver, wearing no protection at all, was happily wandering the seashore, which he had not seen since before the accident.†

† If you would like to envision the expression on his face, I refer you to the booklet “Atom Fukushima No. 86” (November 1990), in which a wide-eyed cartoon couple admires the ocean view at one of Tepco’s Fukushima plants, perhaps even Daiichi, the pigtailed girl clasping her hands to say: “Wow, beautiful!,” to which the boy brilliantly replies: “What a wonderful environment it is to have to nuclear plant here, isn’t it?,” after which a helpful old man remarks: “That’s right. All nuclear plants in Japan are located at the coast.”

I still remember the smooth grey rocks and pebbles of that beach, with here and there a paler stone, and a line of wet sticks and even a little kelp, and then the foam where those low slow waves of greenish-grey came in. Sometimes a jade wave was a little higher than its cousins, and spray leaped up from its shining white shoulder just before it struck. Even then the impression I got was one of gentleness. This looked to be a place to wade with small children. Perhaps it used to be. It was clean. The pancake frisker showed 4.16 micros an hour as I stood facing the ocean breeze, then rapidly went down to half a micro. To the land-ward, russet marsh grass struck an appropriately autumnal note on this magnificently clear day with the forest ridges very blue and distinct to the west. A raptor glided slowly above a broken tree. On a little rise a few steps from the shore, several other trees (pines, I believe, although I did not have time to go see them) seemed to flourish, never mind that their crowns had all been evenly sheared off; Mr. Suzuki explained that the tsunami had reached just so high, and as I gazed up at them, trying to imagine being right here and watching the approach of a wave of that height, some of the horror of March eleventh came back to me. The tidal wave had killed 11 people in Okuma; the 12th had not yet been found, and so there was an ugly mound of broken board, sheet metal, rags and other detritus on the beach where the bulldozers had gone corpse-hunting. Another of Fukushima’s incomplete stories was told by two dark sodden sneakers, and a single white shoe. What had happened to the other one, and was its owner alive or dead? Dark birds went swarming in a low flock over the blue lagoon. Among those mismatched shoes lay a woman’s purse, miserably sodden, and a framed photograph glittering with moisture; I had neither the heart nor the right to invade any of these in search of information. Clambering up what remained of the wrecked breakwater, I measured 5 micros and more in a puddle of rainwater or seawater on the steps. Angling the frisker up into the sea air as I neared the top, I encountered the dislikeable value of 10.14, and turned away. Mostly the levels there at the shore were less than a micro. I had asked to see a river, and so we all strolled to the mouth of the Kumakam. As we neared its wide bend in the marsh grass, myriad white birds arose, almost silently. Caught between my obligations to the frisker and to my companions, whose every remark must be tediously interpreted to and fro, I had not the time to make out what species they were. They ascended to no great height, then quickly settled back; evidently, our presence did not much disturb them. Mr. Suzuki said that this place was famous for salmon, and indeed in that shallow, grassy, gently curving river, which in my country we would have called a creek, oblong palenesses wriggled in the crinkling water: spawning time.

I was astonished to learn that people could sell some fish from here — but of course the bottom feeders remained off limits.

I strolled up beside the taxi driver, who was taking deep breaths of the sea air, looking out across the white sand at the lovely lagoon and the low blue mountains beyond it.

Returning to our vehicles, we proceeded inland, more or less following the river. Within the taxi van the frisker within three seconds went from 1 to 1.8 to 2 micros. On a bridge I asked to stop. We could see spawning salmon wearily swimming upstream, and often simply weaving in place against the current, like long dark windblown leaves attached to some invisible stalk; a few were dead and drifted down; one kept turning over and showing its bright belly. In one minute the frisker scintillated 1,286 times: 4.26 micros per hour.

Now for a brief distance, we retraced the route we had taken to the ocean. Along that immaculate empty road, on which a puddle vaguely reflected the clouds, and weeds were just beginning to rise up along the concrete blocks where cars had once parked, a glorious plain of goldenrod underlined the mountains, and in that yellow lake stood a few lonely white islets: abandoned houses. — How does one know that no one is at home? — When there is no way to it — Silver-white plumes of pampas grass reached higher than their roofs. One three-story white house with a fine balcony rose more distinctly from the goldenrod, in part because it was especially close to the road, and also because the tsunami must have hissed through here, for between the house’s wide-splayed legs was a dark cave where most of the ground floor had been carried away. When I walked up toward it, I began to see sky and pampas grass within the jaggedly peeling lips of that vacancy. Upstairs, one window-half was curtained, and the other dark; perhaps that darkness was the inside of the house. The frisker read between 5 and 6 micros. Less than one of my three allotted hours in this red zone remained. I had stopped too often. Approaching the roadside, I aimed the frisker at some goldenrod, and read 6.73 micros — only 112 times higher than my studio back home.

I took two steps into the goldenrod: 7.40 micros.

Tsunami-wrecked house (7.40 micros)

Hastening back to the taxi van, I asked that we drive a little more quickly, in order to see the reactors if we could, and we soon reached another checkpoint, with men in white protective gear bowing us through on either side of the road.

Everywhere the lovely weeds were more beautiful than anything humans could do.

Inside the taxi van as we rode up a low hill our radiation level climbed: 3, 4, 5 and all the way to 9.23 micros as we crested that hill. Now we were rolling through the lovely goldenrod wilderness of a former industrial park. To the right lay decrepit and sometimes broken building-cubes, and that pale blue ocean.

At 11:18 they showed me a tsunami-destroyed shrine: 2,551 counts per minute, 8.52 micros. Here was another of those places where the grass and flowering weeds massing along the edges had begun to creep onto the pavement itself. When I frisked the road, extending that pancake head at chest level, I found a patch that measured more than 20 micros, and I felt as I had when I first saw that gnawed-away house with the blue mountains showing through its missing first story. Mr. Suzuki, unimpressed, reminded me that the level used to exceed 100 micros at the time of the accident.

He pointed, and I got my first glimpse of those infamous blue and white tanks: Daiichi. There were grey tanks also. Grey meant bolted while blue meant welded, which leaked less; Tepco was trying to replace grey with blue.

At 11:25 we reached the former fish hatchery, or, to give it its due, the Fukushima Prefecture Aquaculture Association, where the air was 3,260 counts per minute and 10.86 micros. Once upon a time, the two officials had been quite proud of this establishment. Mr. Suzuki explained that the water used to be warmed for the hatchlings with waste heat from Plant No. 1. I agreed that that had been clever. Ruined houses grinned at me from the weeds.

The fish hatchery

Trolling the emptiness of the cracked pavement by the weedy buildings there where the land slanted down toward the seashore, I performed my usual involutions. The wounded half-cylinder of the hatchery gaped open high above the pampas grass. Sometimes the air dose was 6 micros and sometimes it was nearly 10. The pampas grass at the roadside read only 2 or 3 micros. I knelt down and frisked the air above the pavement: 29.5 micros. The white heads of pampas grass were shining beyond the bridge’s guardrail, which had been half pulled away like the top of a tin can. Wild thickets of pampas grass towered as high as the new trees, suffocating lost walls and foundations.

A grating by the fish hatchery (18.03 micros)

Over a well within a rusty grating I lowered the frisker from waist level to about three inches, and its count rose from 20 to 30 micros.

* You may remember from p. 308 that the maximum recorded radioactivity at any inhabited place in mid-April 2011 was 16,020 microsieverts accrued over 21 days, or an average of 31.79 micros an hour. — But here I must quote from the [August 22 of this or last year’s] blog of Mr. Yoshikawa—that is, my friend Aki from yesterday’s tour — so that you will see how the other half lives: Tepco had brought “Appreciate FUKUSHIMA Workers” out to Plant No. 1. At Reactors 4 and 5, “we did not need a mask or gloves. Several hundred workers were taking a rest…as if they were at an ordinary construction site. This is outdoors…In front of No. 4 reactor, the radiation level was about 50 micros [per hour] in the bus [my italics]. Ordinary people may find it tremendously high, but…I regard it [as] surprisingly low for a reactor that exploded. For your information, when I used to work at the site before the accident, it was not unusual at all to get 100 micros within a nuclear facility building.”

Not far from here I took my highest measurement in Japan: 41.5 micros. This very nearly reached the lower boundary of the radiation in outer space.*

On the bright side, by 1973 Okuma had achieved the highest per capita income in Fukushima Prefecture, all thanks to nuclear power! Wasn’t that worth a few gamma rays?

My highest measurement in Japan (41.5 micros)

Inside the taxi van at 11:36, heading straight toward Plant No. 1, I found our air dose to be fluctuating between 10 and 12 micros. The two officials had planned this tour superbly, for in four minutes we had arrived at my final requested point of interest: an overlook on Plant No. 1. This proved to be the grounds of an old age home, and here I finally lost one of my torn and wrinkled shoe covers. Consoling myself that I could hardly make a less dignified impression on my hosts than before, I resolved to keep that foot out of any vegetation for the duration.

In the three-quarters of an hour from the river bridge to the old age home, the dosimeter had accrued 4.6 micros. That calculated out to an unpleasant irradiation rate of 5.75 micros an hour. But thanks to dosimeter, frisker and this moving vehicle, I felt more or less in control of our exposure. Although the plant was merely 2.2 kilometers away, the air dose here rarely exceeded 2 or 3 micros an hour.

* I sometimes wondered whether a longer established radioactive community such as Chernobyl would show greater variety in its plants and animals. “As with all kinds of stress,” says my college ecology textbook, “reduction in species diversity is associated with radiation stress.” All the same, provided that the dose rate was less than obscene, it seemed plausible that plants, animals and some insects would adapt. Surely the trees would come back; if it were too “hot” for pines it might not be for oaks. — Or do you from the future for whom I write dwell mostly upon rolling plains of goldenrod? Were I a biologist I could tell you more; and you would surely rather read scientific observations which might somehow ease your predicament than my merely descriptive emotings. But when I was alive, those were what they paid me for.

In the courtyard, goldenrod grew higher than the windows, sometimes bending and leaning against the walls.* The grass was not wildly overgrown, so the place seemed almost cheerful. One window was open, and the white curtain pulled back to show off its darkness. Given 10 more minutes’ time I would have gone inside, but it was already the stated departure time. In the other windows, trees, weeds and sky reflected themselves. Some of the grass was golden. A tennis shoe lay in it, sideways. The seedheads and flowers of those tall weeds blocked the doorway, invading the parking lot and reaching up toward the dark window beneath a roof overhang that was vertically streaked with blackish grime and fallout. Proceeding to the road on the northern edge of the hill where the two officials waited, I read 2,200 counts per minute, or 7.38 hourly micros. Down below through the waving pampas grass I could see a horizon of ocean, cranes, tanks and low, wide buildings. They were guarded by a belt of dark green trees, which perhaps were those famous pines of the reddish trunks. Between the trees and our hill lay a few houses and some fields whose verdant yellow-green I suspected must be goldenrod. —Mr. Suzuki now very precisely gave me the lie of the land: “On the right is an exhaust tower; next is Reactor No. 4, and left of that, two pillars in, then below that is Reactor No. 3. The white building to the left with the blue pattern is No. 2, and to the left of that is No. 1.”

Like so many culprits, they bore an unimpressive, even innocuous appearance. If I could only have gotten closer I would have seen the pipes, opened walls, rubble and crumpled latticework; and then, still unseen but conjectured, the liquefied and resolidified reactor cores, lumped and twisted around the reactors’ skeletons. And what a thrill it would have been to frisk Tepco’s underground trenches! Three days ago the poisoned cloaca beneath Reactor No. 1 measured at 161,000 becquerels of cesium, which once again made the highest reading ever. Tepco blamed the recent hurricane.

Since I had detained the two officials for an unscheduled half an hour, we now sped out of the red zone, passing a place where the taxi driver had seen wild boar four or five days ago, then a row of beautiful trees in red and yellow leaf, a plain of goldenrod with grey berms in the former rice fields, and to the right a cemetery surrounded by goldenrod; then we departed the last gate.

Plant No. 1, Reactors No. 1, 2 and 3

Reactors No. 3 and 4: Pacific Ocean on right*

* Left of Reactor No. 1 lay Reactors No. 5 and 6, which were screened from us by pines and pampas grass.

† You may recall that in Fukushima I found a fairly close correlation between counts per minute and 300 times microsieverts per hour. These officials’ factor was 558, not 300. In other words, my conversion of their 240 cpms would have been 0.8 micros instead of 0.43. On this subject let me note that the arithmetical average of the 92 readings I made in the Okuma red zone was 7.14 micros — 16.6 times higher than their 0.43 micros. Of course the frisker was measuring gamma waves in addition to alpha and beta particles; all these people presumably cared about was the particles, which could continue to do harm after being removed from the zone. Here I want to say that whenever I had a chance to com- pare my frisker’s reading with that of a Japanese government scintillation meter (as at Hen Jo, and in the 41.5-microsievert patch by the fish hatchery), the measurements closely agreed.

Mr. Suzuki and his colleague drove straight back to the office, but the interpreter and I must now undergo decontamination screening at a roadside checkpoint. With great pleasure, I tore off my coverall, mask and remaining shoe cover. Then they frisked me with their magic wands. They remarked that today’s surface contamination was 240 counts per minute, or 0.43 microsieverts per hour.† They measured me at a mere 230 cpms, which exempted me from abandoning any of my possessions or taking an immediate shower. The central government standard was 13,000 cpms for any object’s surface, not for the human body, which rated a flat 20 millis per year. (To me this sounded like apples-and-oranges obfuscation.) If a car was above 13,000 cpms, it must be washed or abandoned. Of course they did not inspect the taxi at all, nor even the driver.

“Yes, I never got out of the car,” the driver laughed.

Decontaminating the interpreter

Since the taxi driver was willing to earn more money (he cost me something like $700) and Tomioka, my metonym for Fukushima, lay so conveniently near, I proposed to take more measurements and photographs there — only in the yellow zone, of course; we lacked permission for the other. The ever agreeable interpreter acquiesced, and as soon we stopped she slipped her mask back on. That was when we got our laugh, to see that this time she’d worn it inside out! Some of those radioactive particles from Okuma which the mask had previously filtered out must now be in her lungs. Such are the amusements one finds in nuclear zones. As for me, wishing to emulate Aki, Mr. Kojima, Mr. Suzuki and Mr. Shigihara, I went maskless here as in Okuma; so it was an even bet whether she or I would get cancer first. Well, despite those harmful rumors there was no immediate danger.

* * *

From No Immediate Danger: Volume One of Carbon Ideologies by William T. Vollmann, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. © 2018 by William T. Vollmann.