Day 6

Photographer Giles Price captures ghostly images of Fukushima with thermal technology

Fears of radiation linger 9 years after meltdown disaster, as Japan repopulates area ahead of the Olympics

Posted: March 06, 2020

Weeds grow in an abandoned apartment complex in Futaba, Japan, the site of the Fukushima nuclear plant that was destroyed in a tsunami nine years ago. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

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The Japanese government has spent tens of billions of dollars trying to decontaminate the Fukushima region in the nine years since the nuclear disaster there. Photographer Giles Price has been documenting those efforts and how those affected by the disaster are picking up the pieces.  9:40

Nearly 10 years after an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown devastated Japan's Fukushima region, Giles Price travelled there to document its slow repopulation process.

He saw scenes of both "decontamination and reconstruction" that are still underway even as Japan touts its recovery ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

"Normal life is not what it was before," the photographer, who visited the region in 2017 and 2018, told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

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"The people who have now moved back, they can't fish, they can't farm, they can't hunt. They can only live in certain decontaminated areas. So the life you move back into is ... radically altered from the life it was before."

Price entered Fukushima by travelling through the country's Highway 114, which is still swathed in radiation.

He wasn't allowed to open his window or stop moving while travelling along the road. He and his team were issued a mandatory Geiger counter to keep track of nearby radiation.

A photograph from Giles Price's Restricted Residence. Price shot his images using infared thermal technology. (Giles Price/Courtesy of Loose Joint)

His new book Restricted Residence includes photos he shot with an infrared "thermal technology often used in medicine and surveying," according to publisher Loose Joints, dousing the landscapes in cold blue-green hues and illuminating people in red-hot hues.

It's an eye-catching method of representing residents' worries about a potential threat to their health that remains unseen.

"Of course … there's no way of perceiving radiation or fallout. You can't physically see it, taste it, smell it, touch it in any capacity," he said.

Protesters hold placards during a demonstration against the Olympics, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and nuclear energy on Feb. 29, near the J-Village which will host the start of the Olympic torch relay in Naraha, Fukushima, prefecture. (Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images)

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Price drew parallels to current worries about the COVID-19 outbreaks around the world, which are also top of mind as the Olympics draw near.

"There's an aspect of you know, perception and anxiety, just because you don't know what you're interacting with and whether that may be harmful to you."

Lingering anxieties

On Wednesday, the Japanese government partially lifted an entry ban on Futuba, the last town to remain off-limits, which lies about four kilometres away from the wrecked nuclear plant.

Officials say prospects for the return of Futaba's former residents are grim because of lingering concern about radiation. Many residents have also found new jobs and communities after evacuating, and only about 10 per cent say they plan to return.

While the government has assured residents that background radiation in the newly reopened areas are safe, it hasn't alleviated everyone's anxieties.

"There's a lot of debate from the likes of Greenpeace and other sorts of organizations that they've set the limits too high," he said.

Price visited the Fukushima region in 2017 and 2018. The area was devastated by an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant meltdown in 2011. (Giles Price/Courtesy of Loose Joint)

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Price spent most of his time in two towns called Namie and Iitate, which he says had a total population of about 28,000 before the meltdown.

"My last trip there, which was early spring 2018, there were about 500 people living back there," he said.

He spoke to people who decided to return to the area after being told the radiation levels in their towns were once again safe.

Some told him they had no other options; older residents were less concerned about potential long-term health implications, "by default of their age," he said.

Decontamination efforts continue

According to The Associated Press, it will take decades to decontaminate and eventually decommission the Fukushima Daiichi facility.

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The government is currently building temporary storage for massive amounts of debris and soil held in massive, "hay bale-type containers" that "litter the landscape all throughout the area," said Price.

And fishermen and residents fear possible health effects from radioactive water the government plans to release back into the sea.

"Over the last nine years, there are millions of litres of this water — toxic water — which they've been able to decontaminate most of the elements out of it, but there are still a few elements in there that they can't get rid of," said Price.

Unit 3 and 4 reactor buildings stand at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant on Jan. 29, 2020 in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

He says he was drawn to Fukushima for his latest book and photography project because there's an ongoing, "wider conversation" about climate issues and environmental disasters — and how to either recover from, or simply learn to live with, the repercussions of the latter.

For his own sake, however, he says he wouldn't choose to move to the Fukushima region any time soon, given the facility's current state. 

"I think if the reactor was fixed, then that might be another, you know, train of thought."

Image from Giles Price's Restricted Residence. (Giles Price/Courtesy of Loose Joint)

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.

To hear more from Giles Price, download our podcast or click Listen above.