Soichi Saito was in hospital when the earthquake hit.
The 65-year old had just undergone surgery for prostate cancer and was recuperating when the walls of his 6th floor room began to shake. Medical equipment came crashing to the floor.
For almost six minutes on March 11, 2011, the 9.0 magnitude earthquake — the worst to ever hit Japan — rocked the country.
The quake was so strong that it permanently moved Japan’s main island, Honshu, more than two meters to the east. The impact also raised huge waves up to 40 meters high that, as people were still reeling from the aftershocks, began crashing into the country.
More than 20,000 people died or went missing in the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, while hundreds of thousands more lost their homes.
The earthquake and tsunami were just the beginning however.
Saito recalls staring helplessly out of his hospital room window as waves inundated the town beneath him. His first thought was of the nearby Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
“If the tsunami caused the plant to lose power to cool the reactors, it would be a disaster.”
Back home, Saito’s family received the order to evacuate as fast as they could, abandoning the farm where they grew spinach in tidy rows of greenhouses.
The urgency was such that Saito’s wife left their dog Maru tied to a pole near the home.
“She thought maybe they’d have to evacuate for a couple days at most.” (Maru was rescued by animal protection workers and, months later, reunited with his family.)
But what Saito’s family, along with the rest of Japan, didn’t realize, was that the situation in the Fukushima plant was quickly becoming a disaster of its own, one that would shock the country as much as the earthquake itself.
It started with a wave.
Within 50 minutes of the initial earthquake, the first wave crested the nuclear plant’s 10-meter high sea wall.
The plant’s emergency power generators, in the basement, were soon flooded, knocking vital cooling systems offline and causing reactor fuel rods to begin to meltdown and leak deadly radiation into the surrounding area.
Sixteen hours into the disaster, the fuel rods in one reactor had almost completely melted, with the other two close behind.
It would be another 88 days until the government admitted that a meltdown had taken place, the worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl incident.
While water caused the meltdown, it was also the only way to stop it. Since the disaster, TEPCO has been pumping hundreds of tons of water into Fukushima to cool the reactors and stop the outflow of radiation.
Five years into Fukushima's 40 year cleanup project
Some 800,000 tons of highly-radioactive water now sit in hastily-built tanks at the site, enough to fill 315 Olympic-sized swimming pools, with around 400 tons added to the tanks every day.
The government has also spent more than $1.5 billion collecting radioactive soil and earth from the surrounding area, which now sits in thousands of industrial-sized black bags looking like the world’s deadliest grain harvest.
How the water and earth will be disposed of isn’t clear. TEPCO estimates that cleanup operations could take up to 40 years.
“There’s still an enormous amount of radioactivity there which is not controlled, in liquid form, leaking into the underground, and slowly moving into the ocean,” said Greenpeace Japan campaigner Jan Vande Putte.
“And that’s very dangerous for the future.”
While a 2012 World Health Organization report found that “predicted (health) risks remain low” following the Fukushima disaster, in the two locations where residents experienced the highest doses of radiation, the WHO said a 4% to 7% greater risk of developing certain forms of cancer such as leukemia was expected.
For those living near the exclusion zone, health concerns are high on their mind. A Geiger counter sits in the grounds of one nursery school in Fukushima prefecture, and teachers regularly check the radiation levels of food the children eat.
Head teacher Michiko Saito said that the precautions are “absolutely necessary,” due to the potential threat posed by invisible radiation.
Parent Toshiki Aso, whose two children attend the school said, “Any parent would worry about what kind of impact low dose radiation exposure will have on our children.”