Disasters & Accidents

The fearless surfers of Fukushima

By Antonio Hermosín Gandul

Minsamisoma, Japan, Mar 11 (efe-epa).- Neither the gigantic tsunami of 2011, nor the radioactive leakage from the Fukushima nuclear power plant have been able to stop the local surfers, who have returned to ride the waves on their beaches leaving behind collective trauma.

Beaches such as Kitaizumi, around 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, used to be part of the international surfing circuit and teemed with beach-goers during the summer until disaster struck on Mar. 11, 2011.

On that day, a massive 9-magnitude earthquake of struck northeastern Japan with its epicenter close to the Sendai coast and triggered a tsunami as high as 40 meters at some points, causing the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986).

“I will never forget that day,” Hiroshi Sato, a professional surfer who lived two minutes away from Kitaizumi, told EFE, narrating how he was having lunch after his daily surfing session when he heard a “horrifying rumble” emitting from the depths of the earth.

“As the sound was coming from the direction of the sea, I knew immediately that there would be a tsunami,” said Sato, who ran to his caravan and drove as far away as possible without waiting for the tidal wave warning that Japanese authorities issued minutes later.

The tsunami battered Kitaizumi and the entire northeastern coast of Japan with over 18,000 deaths and disappearances, and bodies keep being found even a decade after the disaster.

Over the years, Sato and other surfers gradually returned to the beach, which now has an anti-tsunami wall and various elevated spots for evacuation in case of tidal waves. Kitaizumi has also begun to host international longboard competitions once again.

“We cannot prevent natural disasters. But what we can do is to think how to respond in case they occur, and therefore we shouldn’t forget 2011,” said the local surfing expert, who runs a free school of the sport for youngsters.

The beach had remained closed and deserted until 2019, when local authorities reopened it to the general public after verifying that the radioactivity levels in the air and water were similar to pre-disaster levels.

“I feel very safe here, they haven’t detected excessive radioactive levels (…) even in the fish caught in the area,” said Sato.

However, the local surfing community is concerned over a plan by the Japanese government and the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to release around 1.2 million tons of partially decontaminated water from the nuclear accident – currently stored inside the plant – into the sea.

The problem of what to do with the polluted water, soil and other radioactive remains of the accident, packed in massive black containers that dot the Fukushima landscape, is one of the major unresolved issues and has led to conflicts between authorities and the local population.

Minamisoma, one of the farthest cities from the Daiichi plant to be evacuated after the disaster, has witnessed the return of around 70 percent of its 71,000-strong population, although its future continues to be uncertain like the rest of the area due to depopulation.

However, access to towns closer to the plant continues to be almost entirely restricted due to radioactive pollution, with around 36,000 displaced people still unable to return to their houses 10 years later.

Sato, who will be one of the athletes to carry the Tokyo Olympics torch as it passes through Fukushima later this month, believes that sports in general and surfing in particular can do much to attract youngsters to the area and return some of the former glory of this famous coast.

“When I was young, everyone went to the sea in the summer. Now, in my surfing classes, many youngsters are surprised to taste the salty water of the sea for the first time,” he said. EFE-EPA


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