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Fukushima's exclusion zone a ghost town

By Kyung Lah, CNN
January 25, 2012 -- Updated 1020 GMT (1820 HKT)
  • Tomioka was once home to 52,000 people
  • It sits in the southern section of the exclusion zone
  • Except for the livestock roaming the region, there are no people
  • Surface radiation meter climbs near entryway to exclusion zone

Tomioka, Japan (CNN) -- As we travel down the road toward the 20-kilometer (12-mile) exclusion zone, the entryway is blocked by half a dozen police officers and a large sign flashing red lights. The sign reads: "Keep out. Don't enter."

This is Japan's exclusion zone. No one lives here, a place where 78,000 people once lived. Nearly a year after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster, the exclusion zone remains off-limits due to high levels of radioactive contamination.

My goal today is to see the town of Tomioka, a farming and factory community which sits in the southern section of the exclusion zone. It's a town that was once home to 52,000 people.

It's hard to imagine that many people once lived here, as we drive into the center of town. That's what strikes you first about the exclusion zone -- what you can't see, the people. Even though I know the residents have been evacuated, it is still eerie to be in a town where it seems the people have simply evaporated. Bicycles near a bus stop lie tipped over, as if owners forgot to retrieve them. Cars sit in a shopping center, seemingly waiting to have groceries loaded into them. A 7-Eleven convenient store sits in disarray, the items shaken from the shelves from the March 11 earthquake. These communities are complete ghost towns, frozen in time.

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The signs of life can oddly be found among livestock roaming the region. We come up to cows grazing on the hill right off the main road. They stare at us, the visitors, and then return to grazing, as we drive off. We're surrounded by what appears to be farmland, overrun by brown weeds.

I'm carrying two radiation meters with me, one to measure surface radiation and one to track how much my body accumulates. The surface reader begins to climb, as soon as we drive past the entryway, even though I haven't placed it next to a contaminated surface, which residents hope will be decontaminated within a few years. The release of radiation from the plant primarily covered the communities to the north of the plant. Tomioka, in the southern end of the exclusion zone, has a lower level of contamination than towns to the north and northwest of the plant.

But a lower level doesn't mean it's safe to be here long. We stop in a neighborhood to check the radiation. On the pavement, the surface reads a radiation level of 0.042 millisieverts per hour, which is 10 times what you're exposed to in a dental x-ray. Not a significant problem since we're in the exclusion zone for a short visit and wearing protective suits. But living on this street carries possible long-term health risks, especially for children.

At a nearby park, contaminated soil sits under blue tarps. It's the first hopeful sign of progress we've seen, contained in this small park. But the rest of Tomioka sits empty, of people, of progress and an apparent future.

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