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Japan: at the heart of the 'red zone'

The exclusion zone around the Fukushima nuclear power station has an end-of-the-world feeling about it. The villages are now desolate ghost towns. Our reporters went into the heart of this post-apocalyptic danger zone.

It took a while before we dared venture into the “red zone”, the 20 km area surrounding the Fukushima nuclear plant. It’s the most famous and terrifying no-go area since Chernobyl. We very gradually approached the “gates of hell”. 

Our first stop was Koriyama, a town located 60 km from the plant, followed by a rural village 45 km away, and then the 30 km zone. We thought that if people lived here 24/7, we could easily spend three days with them. “When you see a snake, there is no point running away, you just need to take a step back,” a café owner in the containment zone advised us. Before setting off, we made sure we had a dosimeter to measure the radioactivity, as well as masks and protective clothing. As this other type of snake is particularly elusive and treacherous.
 
Our journey inside the wider 30km containment zone first took us to Minamisoma. A farming couple offered us coffee which we drank gingerly – wondering all the while where the water came from and if it was contaminated. The city centre was deserted, but the residents who had decided to stay appeared to be living their lives normally, talking and laughing as always. The Japanese seem to have an enormous capacity for calm.
 
We hadn’t planned to go deep into the red zone. It was Koji, an off-licence owner turned volunteer civil defence organiser who suggested the idea. We accompanied him as he made his rounds. At first he asked us to wear our masks at all times and to stay inside the car. We managed to persuade him to loosen the rules, but sitting in the back seat, I kept a close eye on the radiation monitor.
 
The entrance to the red zone wasn’t monitored. Within the perimeter, the towns were empty. We came across a city that appeared frozen in time, like a modern day Pompeii. The door of the laundrette was wide open; we could have washed our clothes if we had wanted. Piped music could still be heard playing over the intercom of a bank. But there were no clients to hear it. There wasn’t a soul in sight. And these conditions could last for months or even years. 

By Marie LINTON , Guillaume BRESSION

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