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Fukushima: Inside the Exclusion Zone

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In June, National Geographic sent AP photographer David Guttenfelder into the exclusion zone around the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station, which was badly damaged in the earthquake and tsunami earlier this year. He captured images of communities that had become ghost towns, with pets and farm animals roaming the streets. Later, in November, Guttenfelder returned to photograph the crippled reactor facility itself as members of the media were allowed inside for the first time since the triple disaster last March. In some places, the reactor buildings appear to be little more than heaps of twisted metal and crumbling concrete. Tens of thousands of area residents remain displaced, with little indication of when, or if, they may ever return to their homes. Collected here are some images from these trips -- the first six are from the December 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine, now on newsstands, and more photos can be seen at the National Geographic website. [20 photos]

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After the disasters of March 11, tens of thousands were ordered to leave their homes in the vicinity of the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station, some of their footprints now frozen in the mud. (© David Guttenfelder /National Geographic)
After the disasters of March 11, tens of thousands were ordered to leave their homes in the vicinity of the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station, some of their footprints now frozen in the mud. (© David Guttenfelder /National Geographic)
Two dogs scrap on Okuma's empty streets. In the early days of the crisis the no-go zone was alive with roaming farm animals and pets: cows, pigs, goats, dogs, cats, even ostriches. Often defying police patrols and barricades, volunteer rescuers rounded up and decontaminated some pets, returning them to their owners, and fed others. But by midsummer, a number of the pets had perished of starvation and disease. (© David Guttenfelder/National Geographic) #
Futon bedding is usually folded and stored in closets each morning. But residents had no chance to put their homes in order before their hasty exodus, prompted by evacuation orders on televised news conferences before dawn on March 12. This bedroom is in Okuma, less than three miles from the damaged nuclear plant. Town officials in the area have accused power company Tepco of violating its duty to warn them of the crisis. (© David Guttenfelder/National Geographic) #
In a gym in Hirono, residents in protective suits are briefed before being escorted to their homes for a June 8 visit and to retrieve a few small items. (There's no room on the bus for larger things.) Although the trips in were strictly controlled, a town official says that for the decontamination process - disposing of shoe covers, suits, caps, and masks and being screened for radiation - everyone and everything was waved through. (© David Guttenfelder/National Geographic) #
Evacuation drills are common in Japan's earthquake zones. So when the real thing happened in March, the children knew what to do - and expected to return in a few days. Months have gone by since the students fled. Still sitting in the classroom cubbies are the leather book bags that can cost several hundred dollars apiece and are one of a Japanese child's most valuable and cherished possessions. They will likely never be reclaimed. (© David Guttenfelder/National Geographic) #
An evacuee relaxes in her makeshift dwelling on the floor of the Big Palette convention center. The crammed emergency quarters lack privacy, and disease can spread rapidly. Older residents, who spent their lives in tight-knit rural communities, are often reluctant to move into temporary housing, isolated from friends and family. Social workers are trying to prevent a wave of kodoku-shi, or lonely death, among solitary seniors. (© David Guttenfelder/National Geographic) #
A deserted street inside the contaminated exclusion zone around the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station, viewed through a bus window near Okuma, Japan, on November 12, 2011. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder) #
A deserted field and buildings inside the contaminated exclusion zone around the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station, near Okuma, Japan, on November 12, 2011. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder) #
A deserted neighborhood inside Japan's contaminated exclusion zone, near Okuma, Japan, on November 12, 2011. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder) #
Units five and six of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station, viewed through a bus window in Futaba, Japan, on November 12, 2011. Media allowed into Japan's tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant for the first time Saturday saw a striking scene of devastation: twisted and overturned vehicles, crumbling reactor buildings and piles of rubble virtually untouched since the wave struck more than eight months ago. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder) #
The Unit 4 reactor building of the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station, in Okuma, Japan, on November 12, 2011. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder) #
A closer view of the Unit 4 reactor building of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station, seen through a bus window in Okuma, Japan, on November 12, 2011. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder) #
Workers in protective clothing walk to enter a radiation screening post after arriving at J-Village, a soccer training complex now serving as an operation base for those battling Japan's nuclear disaster at the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, on November 11, 2011. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder) #
An official from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. wears protective plastic bags over his shoes inside the emergency operation center at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station in Okuma, on November 12, 2011. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder) #
Officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Japanese journalists pass by a newly built sea barricade next to the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station in Okuma, on November 12, 2011. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder) #
Parts of the heavily-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station, viewed through a bus window in Okuma, on November 12, 2011. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder) #
In this November 12, 2011 photo, workers in protective suits and masks wait to enter the emergency operation center at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station in Okuma, Japan. The March 11 earthquake and tsunami caused massive death and destruction across northeastern Japan. But those who live near the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant face a burden atop the losses they've already suffered: a fear of radiation that experts say could prove more unhealthy in the long run than the still-low levels of leaked radiation itself. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder) #
Damage inside the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station, seen in Okuma, Japan, on November 12, 2011. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder) #
A man is checked for radiation after arriving at a vehicle decontamination center at J-Village, a soccer training complex now serving as an operation base for those battling Japan's nuclear disaster at the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, in Fukushima prefecture, Japan, on November 11, 2011. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder) #
A worker is screened for radiation after removing and discarding his protective suit as he arrives at J-Village, near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, on November 11, 2011. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder) #
An excerpt from "Japan's Nuclear Refugees" in National Geographic:

"Perhaps the most heartbreaking thing about the town of Namie is that at first glance nothing seems amiss. The blue-green meadows look lush. The gently flowing Takase and Ukedo Rivers glitter in the sun. The barbershop, train station, and fried-pork restaurant seem ready for business, a universe apart from the havoc and wholesale destruction visited on towns farther up the coast. In the states of Miyagi and Iwate, clocks washed ashore frozen at roughly 3:15 p.m., when the tsunami swallowed towns whole; in the humble fishing town of Namie the clocks go right on ticking.

Namie is one of five towns, two cities, and two villages that lie partially or wholly within a 12.4-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant--designated by the government as a no-go zone. Like all the towns in the nuclear exclusion zone, it essentially no longer exists. Of its 21,000 residents, 7,500 have scattered across Japan. Another 13,500 live in temporary housing in the Fukushima region. They're among more than 70,000 "nuclear refugees" displaced by the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl."


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