Five years after the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, Japan still faces another four decades or more of cleanup. One of many problems is what to do with the massive amount of contaminated soil from the site—which is now in a growing pile of bags stacked on former farms in Fukushima.
A new photo series from Japan-based photographer James Whitlow Delano documents the sprawl of nuclear waste.
As of 2015, the government reported that there were more than 9 million bags in the prefecture. Some of it will be moved inside the no-entry zone next to the nuclear plant, which is so radioactive that the government has given up on decontamination for the moment. But Japan is also sending radioactive waste to other parts of the country.
“The Japanese government decided early on in the decontamination process that all prefectures in Japan should share the burden of storing radioactive waste with Fukushima Prefecture,” says Delano, who has been photographing the disaster since it happened in 2011. “This resulted in firm pushback by communities in other prefectures that are adjacent to sites that were selected.”
They have reason to be concerned: In September of 2015, when there were floods in Nikko, Japan, hundreds of bags of radioactive soil were washed into the local river.
Even in Fukushima itself, in villages where many residents may not be able to return for a decade or more, no one wants a radioactive dump next to their former homes. The dumps are supposed to be temporary and moved in 30 years, but people are skeptical that will happen. “They feel like the presence of the site will be like the last nail in the coffin for their communities,” he says. “So, no one wants this contaminated soil.”
In some areas, a few people have started moving back. “When I used to sneak inside the old 20-kilometer-radius nuclear no-entry zone, I would enter a neighborhood in Minami Soma that was half inside the zone and half outside and hop the barrier to document the absence of humanity,” says Delano. “About one and a half years after the earthquake and tsunami, the no-entry zone was readjusted to reflect the actual radiation levels, instead of being an arbitrary 20-kilometer radius. That meant that the whole neighborhood would be decontaminated and prepared for families to return, if they wanted to do so.”
Some resident returned, but now the fields next to the neighborhood are being cleared for a dump filled with bags of contaminated soil. “People fear the presence of this soil and the dust that every breeze will carry into their neighbor,” he says. “It creates fear and doubt. Many families, especially those with young children, are not returning to this region of Fukushima Prefecture.”
Delano was reluctant to spend much time in the area himself, and carried a Geiger counter and wore a mask while he worked. “I always do my work and get out,” he says. “For example, one hot spot I found in 2012 would expose you to the equivalent of an additional year of natural radiation exposure within 24 hours, if you were to sit there. For obvious reasons, I did not linger there.”
For him, the disaster was personal—he’s lived in Japan for two decades and has Japanese family. Even in Tokyo, the food supply has been affected, and foods are now labeled with the prefecture where they were grown. “You can be careful, but once you go to a restaurant or buy a bento box lunch, all bets are off,” he says.
He also wanted to show how much the area—which was once a peaceful, Vermont-like region of farms—has changed. “It is some of the most beautiful country in Japan,” he says. “This natural beauty only reinforces the sense of loss.”