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A Trip Through Japan's Nuclear Exclusion Zone


It's nine months since the nine-point earthquake the - hit off the east coast of Japan. The quake and the tsunami that followed combined to trigger a crisis at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which continues to leak radiation. More than 70,000 people in the surrounding area evacuated. In June, National Geographic sent AP photographer David Guttenfelder to exclusion zone outside the plant.

In November, he went to the plant itself. His photography is featured in the December issue of National Geographic. David Guttenfelder is chief Asia photographer for the Associated Press and joins us now by phone from his home in Tokyo. Nice to have you with us.

DAVID GUTTENFELDER: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And I know it's very early where you are. We appreciate your getting up so early to speak with us. I know you had a chance to talk with people who lived near the nuclear power plant. Where are they now?

GUTTENFELDER: Well, it's impossible to meet with them inside the nuclear exclusion zone because everyone is gone. The town around the nuclear power plant looks like ghost towns. It's a complete no-man's land and it's blocked off. But I can meet with the people where they're living now. As you said, 70,000 people have left the area. For the first several months, they were living in gymnasiums and living in any kind of public housing they could or with relatives. I found them, you know, squatting on gymnasium floors, living in cardboard boxes, living in small cubicles and hallways.

And many of them have begun to move out of those facilities, and they're starting to move into temporary housing or joining family members. But the question is really where will these people go? Because there's really no idea whether or not these people will have a chance to go back to their homes.

CONAN: And they can't go back to their homes. How did you get into the no-go area?

GUTTENFELDER: Well, National Geographic asked me to try to go inside the nuclear exclusion zone. There were really no pictures from inside the zone, and people were wondering what's happening there. There are people who are able to get in and out who have reasons to go into the zone, including a father and son team that I met who were animal rights activists. And they were concerned about the pets, domestic pets that were left behind and some of the farm animals.

People picked up and took off on the first day, and so all the pets, all the animals, cows - there's even ostriches living in an ostrich farm inside. And these guys decided to go in and try to rescue pets and try to bring them out and I followed them.

CONAN: So they tried to rescue pets from the exclusion zone. It's hard to imagine that people left their pets behind, but, of course, there's a panic. There's a well-drilled instinct in the Japanese people when the earthquake hits to head for high ground.

GUTTENFELDER: Yes. And also, I think people really thought they were coming back. The government told people at the beginning that the plant was not going to be leaking radiation. They told them just around the three-kilometer area from the plant that those people should pull back. So, you know, people left everything. They took just what they had on their backs, and they thought that they'd be coming back very soon. But then, of course, the power plant exploded. It sent a cloud of nuclear debris over this area the size of Chicago. And people really haven't been able to come back at all.

Some have been able to come back on short government-sponsored trips. They can go in for two hours and bring out things from their home, whatever will fit into a bag. But they were taken by surprise, I think. They didn't think they'd get a chance to come back and take their pets out. So these guys were working with some of the evacuees, identifying their houses sometimes by GPS coordinates. And they were going in unofficially through the mountains, around barricades at night to feed pets, to find people's pets and to bring them out.

And I followed them. And it started with me trying to show their activities. But overtime, they began to understand what I was trying to do, that I wanted to show, like, a more complete picture of what was happening inside the exclusion zone. And so they became, sort of, invested in what I was doing, and we began working as a team on going in and out of the zone. We also lived inside the zone. We were staying in Gold Gyms or abandoned gas stations or sleeping in our car.

CONAN: We're seeing here in the Grosvenor Auditorium a slideshow of your photographs. If people in the radio audience want to take a look, you could find a link to the photos at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. There's a link there to the photographs, which are astonishing, but it shows people in these protection suits, these white suits that they use to - I hope you were wearing one of those.

GUTTENFELDER: I was wearing one of those, yes.

CONAN: Good. What is the health of those who were exposed though during those first few days before the evacuation was complete?

GUTTENFELDER: Well, yes, people were stuck inside for a couple of days. In some cases, people didn't, you know, they had to find out about their situation just by watching the news like everyone else on television, make decisions about whether or not they would take their families out. You know, mayors led whole towns in an exodus out of the zone, so they were - they've spent the first - in some cases, the community spent the first 48 hours sitting in the open; eating, drinking, without protection around very, very high nuclear radiation levels.

In some cases, they've fled to higher grounds, (unintelligible) instinctively getting away from the reactors and moving into higher ground, which turned out to be a mistake because there was a - those pockets were - had a much higher radioactive level. In this photograph, these are people who are gathering in a gymnasium just outside on the edge of the exclusion zone, and this was part of a program the government was allowing people to go in to reclaim some of the things from their homes. So this would've been the first time they could go back into the exclusion zone.

They were being briefed on how to protect themselves, how to wear these white hazmat suits. They were given a small bag. The families would get together in the gym and decide together what kinds of things they'd want to bring out. They only had two hours and one bag. So you'd hear a mother and father and children talking about what were their priorities, and the child would say, well, I need my school uniform. And the father would say, well, I need the deed to our land or I need - the wife said, well, we should get my old wedding kimono, and they would go in and wearing masks and the whole suit, gather what they could in the two hours and come back out. And I was able to follow a couple of families, see them do this.

CONAN: We're talking with David Guttenfelder, chief Asia photographer for the Associated Press. Again, you can go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. There's a link there to the pictures we're talking about. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Later, you got a chance to go in on a sponsored visit to the zone, to the plant itself. Can you describe today what that is like and what it's like for the men and women who work there? It's still leaking radiation.

GUTTENFELDER: Yeah, they finally, a few weeks ago, put together a small trip of journalists, two busloads of journalists. We had to also be briefed on how to wear protective equipment, to carry dosimeters, the meters that register how much radiation you're absorbing, and we were loaded onto buses. I had to put cameras inside plastic bags and seal them. It was very difficult to shoot photos through a bus window with a camera inside a plastic bag, wearing this complete plastic face mask and a respirator. And we entered the grounds of the nuclear power plant and stopped the bus and we could see the unit number four completely blown apart. We stopped and looked at it from a distance.

And then they said, no, we're going in, and we drove down. We went right along the coast. I mean, the wave came in - at the time of the tsunami, there was a four-story tall wave. There was a seawall that was meant to protect against, you know, waves coming into the - along the coast, but it completely obliterated it. It flooded the nuclear plant. So we drove along between the sea and the plant. We were about 10 feet away from the wall of the building, so our dosimeters were, you know, beeping loudly. It was very high radiation level, and we just drove past.

We went inside the emergency center, and there are hundreds of people who are still working there. And there are people in Japan who, many of them construction workers, laborers, were going inside every day to try to, you know, solve this problem. They're trying to bring the temperatures down inside the plant, and they say that by Friday that they'll finally reach a cold shut down situation, which means that they'll bring the temperatures down enough and that the plants are no longer leaking enough radiation that they'll begin - they'd be able to begin to start cleaning up the area.

CONAN: David Guttenfelder, thanks very much for your time today. That's an amazing description. Appreciate it.

GUTTENFELDER: Thank you very much for having us.

CONAN: David Guttenfelder, chief Asia photographer for the Associated Press. He joined us by phone from Japan. Tomorrow, NPR commentator Ted Koppel, just back from Baghdad, on the risks of withdrawal from Iraq.

I'm Neal Conan at the Grosvenor Auditorium at National Geographic. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.