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UM to Fukushima: Student journalists venture into nuclear no-go zone

Bags filled with radioactive materials line the streets of the sprawling site of the nuclear plant. it is not clear what will be done with tons upon tons of soil, wood concrete and steel contaminated by nuclear radiation. (Sydney MacDonald)

Editor’s note: Each year, Montana Journalism Abroad gives student journalists an opportunity to hone international reporting skills through on-the-ground coverage of a timely issue. This year’s class just returned from Fukushima, Japan, where students wrote about the effects of the nuclear crisis that followed the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. In the coming days, Missoula Current will present the University of Montana students’ work. You can access their complete report online at this site. We begin by going back to the day of the disaster.

Clear plastic taped across upholstered seats crinkled when we clambered onto the tour bus and sat down. All our backpacks and all but one camera were locked away, guarded by Tokyo Electric Power Company officials.

We left the town of Tomioka, where evacuation orders were just lifted two months ago, headed into the no-go zone.

Black trash bags of radioactive soil were stacked in fields along the road.

Residents left everything behind on March 12, 2011, after the nuclear meltdown was well underway at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Six years later, plants sprout through cracks in abandoned parking lots, and metal fences bar people from returning to their former homes.

TEPCO security guards screen employees coming in and out of the power station facility. The daily security routine includes a metal detector, bag screening and an ID check before entrance is permitted into the facility. (Sydney MacDonald)

We reached the power station, crossed through a security checkpoint and received our yellow press passes. Our TEPCO tour guide took us upstairs to look out of the only two windows in the building – thick, lead-tinted glass to shield workers from the radiation levels outside.

For our own safety, TEPCO made sure everyone wore pants, long sleeves and white gloves. They gave us individual dosimeters to clip to our press passes and had us carry our notepads in plastic bags.

On board the bus, Sydney MacDonald and Tate Samata passed our sole camera back-and-forth across the aisle, with a TEPCO employee barking when they were forbidden to shoot photos. Our tour guide explained the steps TEPCO was taking to contain the still-leaking radiation. We drove past more black bags, boxes with clothes awaiting incineration and giant water tanks that held radioactive water from the spent fuel pools.

Even though some of the radioactive elements in the water can be treated, it’s too expensive for TEPCO to remove tritium from such a large volume of water, so the current solution is to keep building water tanks to hold the ever-growing quantity of wastewater.

TEPCO employees pass out dosimeters, which are used to track the level of radiation exposure individuals accumulate while on the power plant grounds. (Sydney MacDonald)

We drove past all six buildings holding the nuclear reactors, where Units 1, 2 and 3 are actively undergoing nuclear meltdown. Outside Unit 1, a robotically controlled crane lifted a machine into the building to vacuum rubble left from the hydrogen explosion on March 12, 2011. The force of the explosion blew the roof off the building and left steel beams exposed and bent backwards.

Outwardly, the other reactor buildings looked in much better condition, but radiation counters on the side of the road hit hot-spots from the leaking radiation, surpassing 115 micro-Sieverts per hour, compared to the 0.1 micro-Sieverts per hour back in Tomioka.

At the base of the Fukushima Daiichi complex, we drove past buildings that still bore dark stains from the 46-foot-tall tsunami wave that topped the plant’s 19-foot seawall. The water struck with enough power to twist huge welded steel tanks and flood the emergency power generators – their failure allowing the reactor cores to overheat and trigger the nuclear explosions.

When TEPCO ushered us off the bus, we each stepped through a scanner that measured our total radiation exposure from the hour and six-minute tour. TEPCO officials gave a pointed statement about how safe our radiation levels remained – not that any of us had been concerned. We were more worried about which photos they might delete from our one and only camera.