IWAKI, Japan — Every day, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., a part-time worker at one of Fukushima’s most well-known beaches walks toward the shoreline and lowers a dosimeter to the water. The device measures radiation, and its readings this summer have delivered the best news that one can hope for 40 miles south of a still-leaking nuclear plant:
The levels are normal.
Nearly 21 / 2 years after a series of meltdowns at the coastal atomic plant, normalcy has become the Fukushima prefecture’s scarcest commodity, and those who live here cherish it — or anything approaching it — in whatever form they can find. Local officials describe Nakoso Beach as a symbol of recovery, its seasonal opening day two weeks ago feted with hula dancers and hopeful speeches. But the officials acknowledge that Fukushima’s recovery is tenuous, and only by the standards of a traumatized region does Nakoso Beach feel normal.
At Nakoso, beachgoers are greeted by two signs: one advertising Fukushima’s sunshine, the other announcing the water’s latest radiation levels. The lone surfer on a recent Monday — a chiseled 38-year-old — spends his workdays blasting radioactive contamination from residential rooftops. The 56-year-old who handles the dosimeter is a former fisherman, put out of his job by a regional fishing ban on 41 species. Occasionally he still takes his boat 20 miles offshore and trawls the ocean floor for tsunami debris.
“I’ve found washing machines, bicycles, parts of trucks, even housing material,” Nobuyuki Ueno said.
Some days, Nakoso provides a sneak preview of a full recovery — a thousand people, maybe more, packing the mile-long beach. But, in general, crowds have dwindled, tourists are way down, and trepidation about being outdoors is higher — particularly because some nearby areas remain highly contaminated. At the very least, those who come to Nakoso, where radiation readings are about the same as those in New York City, have contemplated the risks and decided that they are minimal.
On a recent overcast afternoon, only one beach umbrella was pressed into the sand at Nakoso. Three snack bars, selling ramen and doughy fritters stuffed with octopus, were nearly empty. A few teens held foot races along the shore. Izumi Seya, 21, drove an hour with her friend to the beach from her home inland, having been warned by her mother not to go into the water.
She went in anyway.
“A normal summer,” said her friend, Masumi Shiota, 22.
Iwaki is the southernmost city along Fukushima’s coast, and before the triple meltdown of 2011 spread radioactive material across the region, beaches were one of its major selling points. Other communities in the prefecture spent millions building massive (and ultimately useless) coastal concrete fortifications, intended as protection against tsunamis. But Iwaki had 40 miles of white sand — nine beaches in total. Every year, about 180,000 people visited.
Iwaki’s coast, like most of northeastern Japan, was pulverized by the disaster. During the March 2011 earthquake, the largest in the nation’s recorded history, the ground in Iwaki shook for 190 seconds. A tsunami wave traveling at the speed of a plane bulldozed beachside homes. The ground sank under the churning water. Concrete barriers guarding the beaches were twisted and uprooted. In Iwaki alone, more than 300 people died. Some of them ran the inns and restaurants that catered to beach tourists.
Seven of Iwaki’s beaches remain closed because their infrastructure was so badly gutted. After some quick cleanup, the city reopened Nakoso last summer for a truncated season. The other beach to reopen, Yotsukura, did so this year.
North of Nakoso, surfers still use at least one unsanctioned beach, which stretches in front of a partly damaged neighborhood. But other beaches, like Usuiso, look like ghost towns. Only the rusted lifeguard tower is standing.
Officials in Iwaki admit that they’re lucky in one respect: Contamination of their beaches hasn’t proven as serious as feared. About 50 percent of Iwaki’s land needs decontamination work — a process that will take at least three more years — but no beach yet has yielded worrisome radiation levels. This despite the several hundred tons of contaminated water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility that has seeped or been dumped into the ocean.
Experts say that some of the contamination has been penned in by man-made barriers around the plant. The rest has diffused or fallen to the ocean floor, binding to clay and silt. The surface water, the experts say, is far less dangerous than the depths.
“The environmental contamination is enormous around the plant, but not so much beyond it,” said Tatsuhiko Kodama, a professor at the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo.
Iwaki’s problem is as much about perception as contamination. Because of the partial fishing ban, for instance, fishermen at one port in Iwaki catch only one-third the volume they did before the disaster. But those fish have one-fifth the value because of consumer fears.
The city relishes any chance to show that life here is normal. All major factories here have reopened. Warren Buffett visited. So did Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn, who called the recovery of his plant in Iwaki “spectacular.” The city recently hosted one of Japanese pro baseball’s three all-star games.
“Still, just this word — Fukushima — makes people a little hesitant,” said Hiroshi Satoh, director of regional promotion at the Iwaki Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, admitted a few days ago that contaminated groundwater seemed to be flowing into the ocean, something experts had suspected. The company couldn’t identify the source of the leak, a spokesman said, but the worst area was confined to the waters around the plant.
In Iwaki, several managers in the city tourism office held an emergency meeting. They decided to enlist a new research lab to double-check the local monitoring. They also chose not to close the two open beaches.
“Our monitoring data has not changed,” said Joji Kimura, deputy director of Iwaki’s tourism division. “Even if radiation is leaking from the plant, it’s becoming diluted by the time it reaches our beaches. Realistically, there could be some impact” from the new discovery, with a drop in the crowds. “But we will not know until the end of the summer.”
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.