Michael Ignatieff writes: Four years ago, the fishing town of Namie, on the northeast coast of Japan, lived through an experience of malediction biblical in scope. Beginning at 2:46 PM on March 11, 2011, without warning, the town’s population of 23,000 was struck by a triple disaster in quick succession: an earthquake measuring nine on the Richter scale that severely damaged the upper town, a fifteen-meter tsunami that carried away the entire lower town, and finally, in the days that followed, a blanket of radioactivity, from explosions in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant just six miles away, that settled over the town’s ruins.
Today grass grows on the sidewalks in Namie. There are no cars, no people, anywhere. Through shop windows you can still see goods that tumbled off the shelves and remain on the linoleum floors gathering dust. Everything is as it was left in the panicked evacuation. In one building, the earthquake has left behind a three-inch fissure in a wall, a vase lies in pieces on the floor of a sitting room, and the windows of a sunroom have collapsed in shards. Nearby a store sign—in English—“Suzuki watch, jewelry, optical”—lies collapsed on the sidewalk; the bus shelter where the municipal buses turned around is empty; a sign saying “Louer: Total Beauty Salon” still hangs over a shuttered shop; and at the town’s main intersection, the single traffic light is still blinking on and off.
Four years after the calamity, no one from Namie can return home. It remains in the “red zone,” a contaminated area fifty miles by ten where the winds and rains carried a plume of radioactivity in the days after the disaster. Today there are parts of town where radiation measures twenty-six times the Tokyo level. Caesium-137 is washed down by the rains and accumulates in the weeds that grow near the gutters. Yet Japan — along with much of the world — still considers nuclear power an essential part of the energy mix necessary to meet the challenge of climate change. [Continue reading…]