For more than a dozen years, I have been documenting the aftermath of the disasters at the Chornobyl and Fukushima nuclear power plants, the progress of the cleanup, and the decontamination and revitalization of the contaminated areas. During this time, I made many visits to the Chornobyl plant. Finally, it was time to visit the Fukushima plant.
Given my critical attitude towards nuclear power, as demonstrated by my published album about the tragic consequences of the two disasters as well as my photographs and films that have been shown around the world, obtaining permission was not easy or straightforward. However, after several months of trying and dozens of emails and phone calls, I finally managed to get approval.
Interestingly, I was told no photographer before me had ever had such an extensive itinerary for a visit. Despite this, I hope that my two-day visit will not be the last. The decommissioning of the power plant is a process that will take several decades, so I hope there will be more than one opportunity to return.
The Japanese are masters at following safety protocols, and that’s not limited to the recent COVID pandemic, masks, or other, similar situations. Driving around Fukushima demonstrated this to me time and again – nowhere else in the world have I seen so many workers guarding the exits of underground garages, building sites and intersections, or thousands of flashing bollards shaped like frogs, mice, and other animals. Sometimes, I felt like there was some kind of holiday going on.
It’s no different at the nuclear power plant. Given the nature of this place and the events that occurred here, this isn’t surprising. That’s why neither the sign stating how much time has passed since the last accident, nor the drawing of a Pokemon with the warning “Games such as Pokemon Go are prohibited on the premises,” make much of an impression on me.
All areas in the power plant are marked with three different colors indicating the level of contamination. Areas where workers can wear regular clothing and dust masks are marked as green. Yellow means areas where protective clothing and full or half-face masks are required. The most contaminated areas are those marked in red, where workers must wear protective clothing and full-face masks.
For security reasons, taking pictures of many places is prohibited. So much so that even before my arrival I received detailed instructions with illustrations on how to take photos. I realize how important it is to follow these rules at the very beginning of the visit when we go to the viewing point where we can see all of the power plant’s units.
It turns out that I can’t photograph any of the damaged buildings in their entirety. There’s always a door, fence, or security camera in the way, and none of these can be photographed. Additionally, a plant employee is constantly checking for proper framing and inspects every photo I take. He also has a folder with sample photographs with red lines indicating prohibited areas. Being unaccustomed to such a situation during my visits to Chernobyl, I have to use quite a bit of ingenuity to take photographs that meet the approval of my selector.
It’s the same with filming, so I quickly learn that it’s best to avoid long takes. After all, if there is anything forbidden on them, I risk losing the entire clip. After a while, my minder waves his hand and stops checking the photos. At first, I think it’s due to the warning beeps and the rapidly rising readings on my dosimeter. 200 µSv/h is, after all, about 1000 times higher than the norm. After a while, however, it turns out that it’s not because of the high radiation, but the fact that before leaving the plant all of my photos and video clips will be checked again by a security guard and those that do not meet the requirements will be deleted.
Similarities or Differences
Only when I’m standing in front of the damaged units do I grasp the scale of the tragedy and destruction. The first unit has no roof, as it was destroyed by a hydrogen explosion. Only the jagged remnants of the steel skeleton now protrude from it. There is less external damage to the second unit, but inside the meltdown of the reactor core produced a similar effect. When I look at the exposed roof of the first reactor building, comparisons to Chornobyl automatically come to mind.
Units 3 and 4 have already been covered with new structures that are intended to strengthen their substructures and enable the removal of the spent fuel inside. Probably to avoid comparisons with Chornobyl, these are not called sarcophagi, but they serve an identical purpose – they reinforce the damaged buildings, prevent radioactive substances from escaping, and serve or will be used to extract the fuel inside. At Chornobyl, one reactor was damaged, while at Fukushima it was as many as three.
On the one hand, in Chornobyl, the areas around the nuclear power plant are still closed 37 years later. The damaged reactor has already been covered by a second sarcophagus and the removal of the fuel inside of it is still a subject of debate. On the other hand, in Japan, after 12 years most of the areas around the plant have already been cleaned and returned to their residents.
The process of removing the fuel from the damaged reactors is expected to begin in 2024. This very complex and dangerous task will be divided into two separate phases. The first involves removing the melted fuel from the damaged reactors, while the second consists of removing the spent fuel stored in the spent fuel pools. Fuel remains in the first two units as debris is still being cleaned up and other obstacles blocking access to the interior are being removed. The next two units are in much better condition: the spent fuel has already been removed from the pools, and only one of them has had a nuclear core meltdown.
After a while, we drive up to the reactor buildings themselves. Standing next to the vertical walls of the structure, I realize their magnitude. For obvious reasons, I can’t go inside any of them. It’s a red zone, where the damage is greatest, and the radiation levels are deadly high.
Inside of Primary Containment Vessel
I also visit Units 5 and 6, which sustained less damage. They were shut down when the earthquake and tsunami hit, although there was still nuclear fuel in the reactors and spent fuel pools the entire time. Due to the power outages and the cessation of the cooling processes, they did not operate properly and had to be monitored constantly. After the damage was repaired and cooling restored, the remaining fuel in the reactors was moved to a spent fuel pool several floors above. Besides having the chance to take photos, visiting these units is an excellent opportunity for me to better understand how the disaster unfolded and the work to clean up the resulting damage, particularly the melted fuel from inside the reactors.
In Unit 5, I enter the safety enclosure known as the PCV (Primary Containment Vessel) that houses the reactor. This is already a yellow – more radioactive – zone, so once again I must change my clothes. The safety enclosure is shaped like a huge steel pear, more than 30 meters high. Inside it is the reactor, which is surrounded by hundreds of pipes, valves, and pumps. I squeeze between them and come to a small opening in the wall. This leads to a tiny room where the control rod drive hydraulic system is located.
The room is cramped and not even a meter high – definitely not a place for people who have claustrophobia. The reactor is just a few meters above me. It is identical to the ones whose cores melted down due to the power outages and lack of cooling. Under the extreme heat, their uranium fuel rods melted like candle wax and dripped to the bottom of the reactor casing. The hot mass then burned through the steel walls and seeped into the bottom of the containment enclosure, exactly where I stand now.
Because of these similarities, Unit 5 is currently being used to test various methods of removing fuel from damaged reactors. The first tests, during which remotely operated underwater robots were launched into the containment structure, were unsuccessful. More often than not, they got stuck while maneuvering underwater amid piles of debris, cables, and rusted structures. The extremely high levels of radiation (650 Sv/h) would destroy the vehicles’ electronic circuits in minutes. A person would die in seconds in such conditions.
Recently, one of the robots managed to reach the heart of the destroyed power plant, examine the places where the melted fuel is located, and assess the possibility of its extraction. It also was able to check the condition of the reactor’s foundations, as there are concerns that the structure, weakened by the high temperatures of the melted fuel, would not be able to withstand another earthquake. Removing the melted fuel from the reactor will not only begin the process of decommissioning the plant but will also help us understand what actually happened inside the reactor and help prevent similar events in the future.
Spent Fuel Pool
The melted fuel that escaped from the reactor was not the only or even the most dangerous problem that had to be dealt with in the first months after the disaster. There was another serious danger at the time, namely that the fuel stored in the spent fuel pools would catch fire.
According to a report by the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission – not disclosed to the public for fear of causing panic – in the event that the situation went completely out of control and the direction of the wind changed, there would have been so much contamination that it would have necessitated the evacuation of the 50 million people living within a 250 km radius of the plant, an area that includes Tokyo. Thus, the fact that the worst-case scenario was avoided is not only due to the superhuman efforts of hundreds of power plant workers, firefighters, and other emergency responders, but also to chance or, if you prefer, luck.
Although the danger was averted, fuel remains in the spent fuel pools in Units 1 and 2 (the most damaged ones) as well as in Units 5 and 6. I was allowed to enter the last of these. It stores over 1,600 fuel assemblies.
Treated or Radioactive Water
Those who have been following the ongoing decommissioning of the plant or are concerned about the adverse effects of the disaster on the environment and humankind know that the process of releasing the treated water used to cool the damaged reactors into the ocean began a few months ago. For many years, it has been stored in thousands of huge tanks at the power plant, which is slowly running out of space to accommodate them. Before the water enters the ocean, however, it is filtered through a series of sophisticated devices that remove all radioactive elements from it. The only exception to this is tritium, as its removal is not possible for technological reasons.
For this reason, the next place I visit is the laboratory where the chemical composition of seawater, groundwater, and treated water are analyzed. Its tasks are chiefly to monitor and confirm that the water is safe before and after its discharge as well as to disseminate its findings to the public.
The lab is very high-tech; all work is computerized and automated. Upon entering, I immediately notice that there are more than a dozen gamma spectrometers and other equipment used to identify and measure radiation. There are also devices much further in the room measuring tritium and other radioactive materials that emit beta radiation. From a lab employee, I learn that about 100 samples of seawater are analyzed here daily for the presence of 69 nuclides.
One of the analysts shows me the process of analyzing the treated water. She wears special smart glasses that allow her to see every stage of her work and follow the procedures displayed on a tiny screen. Holding a container of treated water, she reads aloud from a label on the container the date and time of collection while the camera attached to her smart glasses reads the QR code attached to it. When the analyst’s voice matches the entered data, the information is registered in the system and the actual analysis begins. The lab technician adds the reagents one by one, mixes vigorously, heats the bottle with the liquid, and then inserts it into a special device. With her mechanical movements and impersonal voicing of the commands, she reminds me more of a robot than a human, but thanks to this the risk of errors is kept to a minimum.
The next day, I visit the center where the power plant operators were trained. Abandoned for more than 10 years, the complex has already become completely overgrown. Covered by dried grass over a meter high, it is barely visible from the road. As I pass through them, I notice the entrance to one of the buildings. It’s guarded by a menacing Doberman that is looking straight at me. Fortunately, it’s just a plaster statue, but behind the glass door, it looks like a real one. Meanwhile, a model of a reactor standing in the entrance hall of the next building reveals that I’m in the right place.
The main reception area is a terrible mess. There are overturned chairs and hundreds of documents scattered on the floors – evidence of the earthquake and the hasty evacuation of the complex’s employees. In several other rooms, wall-mounted monitors and whiteboards with diagrams of various devices, as well as rows of chairs, indicate that training courses were held in them. The next room has no windows, so it’s pitch-black inside. It’s so big that my flashlight can’t illuminate the entire space. The first things to appear in its glow are telephone handsets scattered on the floor and panels that have fallen from the ceiling. After a while, I see bright green desktops with dozens of buttons, switches, and lights. I know immediately that I’m in the control room. All of the devices look identical to those in the damaged units.
I approach the main panel in the middle of the room. It has rows of buttons arranged in the shape of a reactor to operate the control rods. Mounted just above them are buttons and switches used for emergency shutdowns of the reactor. I carefully press one of them, as if in fear of accidentally triggering something. Nothing happens, but with the prevailing silence, darkness, and abandoned objects surrounding me, I feel as though I were really standing in the control room of one of the damaged units right after the accident. It’s an amazing, exciting feeling but, at the same time, depressing.
About the author: Arkadiusz Podniesiński is a Polish photographer and filmmaker, a technical diver, and a graduate of Oxford Brookes University in Great Britain. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his website. This photo essay was also published here.