The Fukushima Daiichi disaster of 2011 sent more than 7,400 people fleeing from their businesses and homes amid fears of a nuclear meltdown. Although the evacuation orders were eventually lifted in some municipalities, some areas have remained abandoned for more than five years.
In June, Malaysian photographer Keow Wee Loong, 26, snuck into Fukushima’s so-called nuclear “red-zone” to document the aftermath of the catastrophe.
— CNN (@CNN) July 13, 2016
The haunting pictures, which include disturbingly pristine storefronts and shops fully-stocked with valuable jewelry and video game consoles, underline the fact that residents were forced to flee the area on a moment’s notice.
The Fukushima Daiichi disaster began on March 11, 2011, with a powerful magnitude 9.0 earthquake, which struck approximately 81 miles off Japan’s northeastern coast.
Photographer Keow Wee Loong sneaks into radioactive Fukushima to capture what’s left pic.twitter.com/KMmTbM8OSz
— Joel Franco (@OfficialJoelF) July 14, 2016
As a safety measure, electrical power to Fukushima Daiichi was automatically cut, and the nuclear power plant was forced to rely on diesel generators to cool the water surrounding the reactors. Unfortunately, as reported by Scientific American, the generators failed less than an hour later, when the region was struck with several strong tsunamis.
— New York Post (@nypost) July 14, 2016
Within hours, the Japanese government issued a mandatory evacuation of all residents and guests within a seven-mile radius of the nuclear power plant. Following a hydrogen explosion at one of the reactor buildings, the evacuation zone was increased to nearly 13 miles.
The 2011 Fukushima earthquake and subsequent tsunamis were blamed for an estimated 16,000 deaths and more than 6,000 injuries. The earthquake and tsunamis also contributed to the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, which remains the second most devastating nuclear accident in history.
Although residents were allowed to return to some of the municipalities over the last five years, several towns, including Futaba, Namie, Okuma, and Tomioka are still designated as nuclear red zones and remain off-limits to the general public.
Despite the government ban, Keow Wee Loong and his assistant, Sherena Ng, snuck into the exclusion zone to take photos of the abandoned towns.
In an interview with Time, the photographer admitted he was aware there was a risk of being arrested or being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. However, he said he simply “like[s] to photograph places where people don’t go.”
Loong said he and his assistant hiked into the red zone to avoid being caught by local authorities. Once there, the Malaysian photographer spent several hours snapping photos of abandoned businesses and homes.
As the occupants were forced to evacuate with little notice, Loong said many shops and houses were still eerily intact, with a surprising number of valuables, including cars, jewelry, and piles of money.
Although he was accompanied by an assistant, may of Loong’s photos were self-portraits. The photographer said he decided to appear in the photos “because a photo without humans in it is soulless.”
It is unclear how much, if any, radiation Loong was exposed to in his quest for a unique set of photos. However, in a Facebook post, he admitted he could “feel a burning sensation in [his] eyes and [a] thick chemical smell in the air.”
In an interview with Malaysian Digest, Loong said the aftermath of the disaster, which he documented in the photographs, is a grim reminder of the potential consequences of using nuclear energy.
“The radiation level is still very high in the red zone. Not many people seen this town for the last 5 years… like it vanished… this is the devastating effects of using nuclear energy. Resident lives in Fukushima will never be the same again. Say no to nuclear energy today.”
Although he did not wear the recommended clothing to prevent exposure to radiation during the four hours he spent in the Fukushima Daiichi red zone, the photographer has not reported any lingering side-effects or illness.
[Image via MTaira/Shutterstock]