NAMIE, Japan Feb. 6, 2012— -- What's most striking about Japan's nuclear exclusion zone, is what you don't see. There are no people, few cars, no sign of life, aside from the occasional livestock wandering empty roads.
Areas once home to 80,000 people are now ghost towns, frozen in time. Homes ravaged from the powerful earthquake that shook this region nearly a year ago, remain virtually untouched. Collapsed roofs still block narrow streets. Cracked roads, make for a bumpy ride.
In seaside communities, large fishing boats line the side of the road, next to piles of debris. Abandoned cars, dot otherwise empty fields. It's a scene reminiscent of tsunami-battered prefectures Miyagi and Iwate, last March – except those communities have cleaned up a significant amount of the debris since, in preparation for rebuilding efforts.
We had been trying to get our cameras inside here for months, eager to document the fallout from the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, 11 months on.
While workers of the Fukushima plant are bused in daily, the government has maintained a 12-mile no-go zone around the area for everyone else, only allowing for brief, supervised visits home for residents who still have homes here.
Few Signs of Life in Fukushima Exclusion Zone
"There are police cars patrolling every corner," we were warned. "As soon as they spot your camera, you will be arrested."
On Saturday, a local driver with a special permit agreed to sneak my cameraman and I in, so long as we didn't reveal his identity.
We put on thin, white hazmat suits and masks as a precaution, grabbed a Geiger counter and dosimeter to monitor radiation levels, then slipped past police guarding the exclusion zone entrance, onto the main road running through Japan's nuclear wasteland.
That road, Highway 6, seemed remarkably, unremarkable. We drove past miles of empty parking lots, barren land, closed storefronts. Something you'd expect in any small town, early on a Saturday morning.
Then, the Geiger counter quickly reminded us of where we were. As we approached the road to the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, the numbers ticked up. Less than a mile out, the counter read "27.62 microsieverts an hour" – not a dangerous dose in the short amount of time we were there, but nearly five times the acceptable limit for U.S. nuclear workers, if consumed over a year.
We passed a bus full of Fukushima plant workers, as we drove further away from the reactors. The numbers started to tick down again.
In the the town of Namie, we met Masami Yoshizawa, a rancher who has defied government orders to euthanize more than 200 of his cows. His cattle, raised for premium wagyu beef, used to fetch $13,000 a head. Now they are contaminated with cesium.
Yoshizawa witnessed the reactor explosions from his farm, located just 9 miles from the plant. Radiation concerns forced he and fellow ranchers to evacuate soon after – his, boss opting to unleash all of the cows, thinking he would never return.
Yoshizawa said he couldn't abandon the cattle, completely. He obtained a permit to re-enter the exclusion zone, so he could feed the animals. He's been driving an hour and a half from his temporary home every day since, to look after them.
"The government didn't even try to save the animals," he told me. "They just wanted to kill them. I am filled with rage."
He displays the rage outside his ranch, where he's handwritten angry messages on large, pieces of plywood. One sign placed near a cow's remains reads "Stop killing our animals."
The government has said it will take at least 30 years to decommission the crippled reactors. While Yoshizawa insists he isn't going anywhere, the reality is, this nuclear wasteland may not be livable for decades.
As we hopped back in our car, to drive out of the exclusion zone, our driver asked if he could take us to the town center in Futaba. There was something he wanted to show us.
We drove past the main train station, past small office buildings, and retail stores, until we saw a sign marking the entrance to the main shopping district.
It read, "Nuclear power – the bright future of energy."