Scenes seemingly from a dystopian sci-fi film that are tragically true to life

Contibutor: Arfakshad Shujauddin Munaim, Los Angeles, California, USA

Arfakshad Munaim was born in Kolkata, India and raised in Southern California. His qualification is as an architect and urban planner with degrees from the United Kingdom and the U.S. He is a Senior Associate at Schmitz & Associates, Inc. and focuses on urban development projects throughout Southern California. His notable contributions include research of ancient Egyptian architecture and al-Azhar Masjid in Cairo; documenting disaster spaces in Fukushima, Japan; the al Jamea-tus-Saifiyah in Nairobi, Kenya; and masajid designs, including al-Masjid al-Mohammedi in Fremont and al-Masjid al-Ezzi in Los Angeles, CA. Arfakshad is also a current contributing author to the My Liveable City magazine and Indo Gulf Times newspaper and a contributing author to BISHAMON II (2016), which highlights his ongoing research activities in Fukushima, Japan.

Natural and man-made calamity

It has been over six years since the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (FDNPP) explosion occurred after a tsunami caused by the 9.0 Mw Great Tōhoku earthquake on March 11, 2011. It devastated large portions of Japan’s northeastern seaboard, while simultaneously releasing an unprecedented amount of radioactive particles throughout the Fukushima Prefecture. Consequently, the federal government was forced to mandate a 20-km radius ‘evacuation zone’ around FDNPP, which displaced more than 150,000 people.

In a poignant account of his personal involvement with Japan disasters, Michael Brannigan describes Fukushima’s calamity as:

A terrifying unraveling of a natural disaster in a socio-technical environment combined with a tragic litany of errors, oversights, mismanagement, and outright deception that will forever scar the country and its people.

In February 2012, the Japanese government released “the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident,” which revealed critical perspectives of Japan’s cultural, scientific, and technological shortcomings. Koichi Kitazawa, the appointed chairman of this investigation, said that the government needed to learn from the accident during which, at times, there were major communication and technological failures. A lack of transparency, along with the unavailability of real-time data from the government has prompted local municipalities to seek alternative methods to evaluate the threat the nuclear fallout has had upon their communities.

The B.I.S.H.A.M.O.N. Project

Beginning in August 2011, residents in Minamisoma and Namie City faced problems due to the lack of information and difficulty in interpreting radiation readings. To aid the local governments and residents, Dr. Makato Naito voluntarily led a team of scientists, nuclear physicists, and doctors from the Radioisotope Center (RC) at Niigata University in developing the prototype BISHAMON (BIo-Safety Hybrid Automatic MOnitor Niigata) device to capture radiation readings in and around the evacuation zone. The BISHAMON device is a vehicle-mounted monitoring system consisting of a survey meter, GPS receiver and laptop computer. The GPS receiver measures the location of airborne radioactive particles, records the data to a custom-built application via the laptop, and translates them into dose rates (Sv/hour). These readings are imported into the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to generate maps. The monitoring of radiation is conducted daily. The advantage of BISHAMON lies in its capacity to measure the amount of radiation levels every second and sense where, when, and how much is present. It is at this critical juncture that my inquiry begins.

My first visit to Japan was in April 2014 as part of a program funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation at the UCLA School of Architecture and the Luskin School of Public Affairs. While preparing my thesis on the city design and infrastructure planning of Pacific Rim cities, specifically Tokyo, Japan, I was offered a rare visit to Fukushima by my faculty mentor, Dr. Yoh Kawano for a three-day tour inside the ‘evacuation zone.’ During my visit to Fukushima, I met with government officials, residents, and faculty from Niigata University to learn the problems and challenges facing the communities near the stricken nuclear power plant. Upon my return to UCLA, I established a team of students in Dr. Kawano’s graduate course in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) where we collaborated with faculty at Niigata University in developing a database that can visualize datasets of airborne radioactive particles present in elementary, middle and high schools around the Fukushima Prefecture. We mapped the data from August 2011 to the present day in order to determine whether the presence of radiation levels have increased or decreased over time. Our results and findings were presented to the Ministry of Education at Minamisoma and Namie cities for government officials to review. To further our research findings, Dr. Kawano and I were awarded a research grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the UCLA Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies to revisit the ‘evacuation zone.’

Inside the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Room’

In one of the most perilous environments in the world, a small sector at the epicenter of this catastrophe continues to employ as many as 6,000 workers a day, mostly men wearing full-body suits and gas masks, working feverishly to repair damaged structures, remove radioactive rods from contaminated areas, and undo what was supposed to never happen. Time Magazine debuted the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant as the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Room’ highlighting the daunting nature of Japan’s ongoing struggle to recover what has been lost and the lessons that continue to unfold from the disaster. When Dr. Kawano and I visited the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in December 2014, it was difficult to comprehend the magnitude of its destruction. At ground-zero, we witnessed no resemblance of the once-thriving community that was the pride of Fukushima.

Cities in Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures, located to the north of Fukushima Prefecture, reported the highest degree of damage from the earthquake and tsunami. However, numerous cities located in Fukushima were subjected to a different fate. Today, the ‘evacuation zone’ is accentuated by many things that have gone wrong such as societal disruption, technological failure, and political dysfunction. The sudden interruption of livelihoods, displacement of families, and abandonment of buildings and towns all led to the massive breakdown of the everyday functions of society. Japan’s failure to prevent the nuclear explosion was compounded by human error in developing the necessary technological infrastructure that ensures the safety of the power plant. The various political oversights that occurred in the response to the disaster, along with the communication breakdowns between TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company are the owners of the nuclear facility), the federal government, and local municipalities left members of the affected communities not knowing who to trust. Immediately after the explosions, citizens forced to evacuate had minimal information from the central and local governments as to where and in what direction they were supposed to go. While TEPCO and the federal government seek to prolong the evacuation, local governments are eager to bring their city spaces back to normalcy. Amidst all this, the community members are split between those who seek to return, and those who have decided to make their exodus permanent.

While these factors contribute to Fukushima’s high-risk environment, it is the invisible presence of radiation that is the cause for its continued abandonment. Namie City is one such example—a coastal community located eight kilometers from FDNPP—that had a population of 20,000 residents. Its seaport was ravaged by 15-meter high tsunami waves destroying agricultural fields, residences, and schools. Official records hold that seawater travelled nearly five kilometers inland, bringing with it dozens of fishing vessels. The urban center suffered no direct impact from the waves but was utterly ravaged by the earthquake. For the past six years, reconstruction activity and trucks driven in and out carrying tons of contaminated debris characterized the space that was once a thriving fishing village. Security guards were the only people present in the area. Man-made sounds are absent, and in its place, one can hear wind, water and wildlife. Namie City’s unfortunate proximity to the power plant has led to insufferable delays in recovery, and although reconstruction efforts are continuously underway, it is entirely dependent on the validation that it is once again safe to resume normal life.

Rebuilding Fukushima

Drive through Fukushima and one will see thousands of numbered black bags containing contaminated debris in what were once agricultural fields. In the coastal region of Namie City, a seven-foot high blanket wall covering nearly 30-hectares accommodates a shelter for disaster waste. As you move inland to urban centers, one is confronted by the destruction of storefronts, train stations, schools, community centers, garages, gas stations, restaurants and neighborhoods. We spent more than a week in Namie City with Dr. Jun Goto, Dr. Yugo Shobugawa, and Dr. Yoshi Amaya from Niigata University to conduct extensive ground-level excursions. Our fieldwork generated more than 7,000 images and 25 hours’ worth of film and sound waves allowing us to survey the conditions of roads, vegetation, boats, houses, and other artefacts—all verified with GPS coordinates and correlated with past and existing airborne radiation levels using the BISHAMON device. Our research also captured over 15 narratives from those affected by the disasters, including interviews with TEPCO officials, government employees, and residents. Each person shared their experience during and after the disaster, which provided an understanding for their ongoing trauma and recovery.

The increased use of rich media—maps, photography, video composition, and big data—allowed us to develop a web-based application that visualizes the data and create a website that documents our continuing research with behind-the-scenes footage of the disaster. Another objective was to be a case study on integrating qualitative and quantitative data sets, and inspire students to develop their own methodologies. Since returning to UCLA, we collaborated with the Institute for Digital Research and Education (IDRE) by providing lectures and workshops to academics with hands-on instruction to create a custom-built mapping interface by merging data from the science, humanities, and design fields.

For the past three years, Dr. Kawano and I have been working on developing a fully integrated and interactive platform to map the radiation data and visualize the recovery progress in a way that would benefit scholars, governments and relief organizations in taking responsive actions. For the long-term, our goal is to use the lessons we learned from Fukushima and create an interactive platform through our research methods and the BISHAMON device that can retrieve real-time information for prevailing urban conditions and help guide response and recovery, not limited to a nuclear disaster, but any type of disaster anywhere in the world.

In July 2016, the Radioisotope Center (RC) at Niigata University hosted a conference where Dr. Kawano and I met with the BISHAMON team to discuss our ongoing research in Namie City and surrounding municipalities in the Fukushima Prefecture. A revisit to the Fukushima Power Plant and the ‘evacuation zone’ allowed us to witness the active response and stages of recovery undertaken by TEPCO and local government officials. In an interview with Namie City official, Mr. Satoru Shirato disclosed that in the short-term contaminated debris will be sequestered near the coastal zone, but long-term planning remains uncertain. In March 2017, Namie City opened for the first time to the public; yet, some remote locations will not fully recover for the next 30 years. Even in its inhabited state, Namie City embodies many uncomfortable realities for long-lasting effects on human health and ecosystems—contaminated soil, sea and potable water, natural resources, food and agriculture are among the numerous causes of societal and environmental concern.

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UCLA, Fukushima

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