Reporter: Liz Hayes
Producer: Phil Goyen
When Japan was rocked by a massive earthquake and tsunami back in March, we told ourselves the worst was behind us.
Tens of thousands dead, an economy shattered, whole communities razed.
Surely the Japanese had suffered enough.
But all these weeks later, the crisis is far from over.
The crippled Fukushima nuclear plant is still leaking and, judging from the experience at Chernobyl, Japan's recovery won't be measured in years, but centuries.
LIZ HAYES: On Japan’s eastern shores where thousands of people once lived there are now only neat piles of rubble and an eerie silence to mark the tsunami that so devastated a nation. But it’s not long before that silence is shattered signalling there’s another disaster looming. What’s it saying, Frank?
FRANK JACKSON: It’s nothing like it’s said before.
LIZ HAYES: We’re heading for ground zero of Japan’s nuclear crisis the meltdown of the Fukushima power plant. It’s more than 20km away, but already we’re picking up its deadly fallout.
FRANK JACKSON: The radiation is building, the further we go in so it’s going to be too dangerous to carry on.
LIZ HAYES: So we actually have to stop here.
FRANK: Yep. I’m not willing to take you any further.
LIZ HAYES: Radiation expert Frank Jackson and his Geiger counters tell us we’ve already come too far. Even the protective gear is not enough?
FRED: Gamma is the strongest form of radiation it will go through most things apart from lead.
LIZ HAYES: Well, that’s the type of radiation we want to avoid.
FRED: It is. Yeah.
LIZ HAYES: Fukushima a major supplier of Japan’s power once looked like this. These shocking new images show the moment the tsunami smashed into the plant triggering a series of fires and explosions. Just 200 kilometres from Tokyo, three of the six nuclear reactors at Fukushima are now in meltdown and deadly radiation has already leaked into the sea and air.
MICHIO: They say the reactor is stable, yes, that’s true. Stable like you’re hanging on the edge of a cliff hanging by your fingernails and that one by one your fingernails start to crack. That’s stability. In other words, it’s a race against time.
LIZ HAYES: If you thought nuclear disaster had been averted in Japan, then meet physicist, Michio Kaku.
MICHIO: If you’ve been exposed because you’re an atomic worker, even after you’re long dead and buried your gravesite will be radioactive. Your great grandkids can come with Geiger counters and see that great granddaddy still has radiation at his gravesite.
LIZ HAYES: Are you serious?
MICHIO: I’m serious
LIZ HAYES: The death and destruction, the displacement of so many families has been quite shocking and radioactive contamination just adds another layer to what is already an unspeakable tragedy, these were obviously people’s homes but because the nuclear plant is just 20 kilometres the decision to return rebuild may well be out of their hands. More than 135,000 people have been forced to evacuate. The streets, in towns and villages are now mostly deserted. And locals have been told their food and water may be contaminated. Shall we test these?
FRED: There’s the same as an X-ray according to this.
LIZ HAYES: So every time you have a cabbage you have an X-ray.
LIZ HAYES: These are Japan’s radiation refugees, thousands who are now living in cardboard shelters sleeping on the floors of public buildings with few possessions and little privacy and facing a future that doesn’t seem to offer much more. When you look at this I do feel like I’m looking through someone’s window. People have gone to a lot of effort to try and make a cardboard box home.
CHIA: Yeah, I’m surprised to see there are photographs and all the book shelves built up.
LIZ HAYES: Many Japanese people, like Chia Matsumoto fear their country will never fully recover. Do you think you’ll ever be able to take food, water, the air you breathe for granted again?
CHIA: Ah, knowingly no, I don’t think so. I just have to believe that that’s safe to eat or drink. But somewhere in my mind I’m sure I know and I always suspect or always doubt is this, I have to ask myself “is this is okay, or if I do this, is it going to show in my health in a few years’ time. I already do.”
MICHIO: These are guinea pigs in some sense. Human guinea pigs to see exactly how radiation disperses in the environment and exactly how it’s incorporated into people’s bodies and into their children’s bodies and as the years and decades go by we’ll see an increase in cancer.
LIZ HAYES: To get some idea of what that means for the people of Fukushima, we’ve journeyed to the only other place on earth that has seen such a disaster. This is Pripyat – once a city of 53,000 people, purpose built for Chernobyl workers and their families now a ghost town.
SERGEI: In the morning it was 34 hours after the accident, they told people to get document and get outside of the building.
LIZ HAYES: But the people of that town thought they were leaving for just three days?
SERGEI: For three days, yeah
LIZ HAYES: So they left everything?
SERGEI: Ah, basically yes.
LIZ HAYES: No one will ever go back there will they?
SERGEI: That’s for sure.
LIZ HAYES: In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the former Soviet country of Ukraine exploded. Sergei Ivanchuk was 16.
SERGEI: When it happened, nobody in this country in the world knew how bad it was, even the director of the power plant, even the people who worked there. I think the first people who realised that it was bad those fire fighters that you know the first victims that died first night.
LIZ HAYES: Those fire fighters were brought here to this now abandoned hospital. And down in its basement are their discarded contaminated uniforms their boots, coats and even a cap. You know, what’s shocking about this Sergei, is that 25 years later it’s still incredibly radioactive.
LIZ HAYES: It is a terrible reminder of the horrors those rescue workers faced of not just a fire but an invisible enemy. I actually don’t feel good about being here. I think we should go.
SERGEI: Yeah, sure.
LIZ HAYES: And when it contaminates a community, this can be the result. At Kiev’s radiation hospital, built specifically for Chernobyl victims children born years after the disaster are today battling cancer and other illnesses believed to be caused by the contamination. How do you feel about that? It’s something you didn’t see but affects you?
GIRL: I understand it was very terrible, this time it was so bad.
LIZ HAYES: The containment vessel in Chernobyl’s 4 number reactor ruptured during a safety test sparking a series of explosions and a fire spewing a cloud of radiated particles across Europe.
MICHIO: Helicopters came in with boric acid, sand, concrete to protect the crew and dumped 5,000 tons of sand, concrete, boric acid and just buried the reactor. It took years to do this and created a sarcophagus.
LIZ HAYES: Today reactor 4 is an industrial blight on the Ukraine landscape. The concrete cover you see a mere band aid over a molten core that’s still hot and some fear is still melting. And there are plans to build yet another sarcophagus as this cover is breaking down. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster is still far from over. To this day there is a 30 kilometre exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl. And visitors must first get government approval to come here, because high radiation levels are still being recorded. This device is purely to detect the radiation in the air and this area is supposed to be very radioactive. Now if I put it down here, it becomes very active. Mask on. Everyone who comes here must be tested for contamination because radiation is in the air and in the soil and in the food. How many people are being affected still to this day around Chernobyl?
IRYNA LABUNSKA: I think it’s since 1986 over five million people.
LIZ HAYES: Scientist Iryna Labunska has been testing food from areas affected by Chernobyl. The one thing I feel I now know and that I should know is where a nuclear reactor is anywhere in the world because it has the potential to affect me even if I don’t live in that country
IRYNA: Yes, because as you know Chernobyl fallout was over the world. Still now in England we have some pastures which are not used for grazing of animals because they still have contaminated with caesium from Chernobyl.
MICHIO: All of us have a piece of Chernobyl in our bodies. Realise that we could take Geiger counters, simulation counters and see and actually see that radiation from Chernobyl has been incorporated into our flesh and tissue.
LIZ HAYES: And that will be the same with Fukushima?
MICHIO: That’s right. In fact the whole world will be exposed to the radiation from Fukushima. It means that the radiation went over the Pacific Ocean, sailed over the United States and is now circulating around the entire earth.
LIZ HAYES: So we’re already getting it?
MICHIO: We are already getting radiation from Fukushima.
LIZ HAYES: Do you fear that Fukushima will become the Chernobyl of Japan, a dead centre and a place that people can never go back to?
CHIA: I think unfortunately it will become that way and has to be that way, or it has to be kept that way.
LIZ HAYES: This nuclear disaster brings with it an enemy its victims can’t see or smell yet has the power to take everything from them, a cheap reliable energy source that could now cost them dearly.
MICHIO: Every nation of the world that has decided to go nuclear has to reassess the real dangers. What’s going to happen over a 100 year, 500 year time frame? These things happen. They don’t happen often but when they do happen they could wipe out the economy of a whole nation and so nations have to democratically decide for themselves, are they willing to take the risk?