Google Begins Mapping Japan's Nuclear Exclusion Zone

More than 21,000 residents evacuated town after Japan's nuclear disaster.

ByABC News
March 4, 2013, 10:39 AM

NAMIE, Japan March 4, 2013— -- Two years after Japan's worst nuclear disaster displaced 21,000 residents of Namie, much of the town remains the same.

Just miles from the Fukushima nuclear plant, roofs that collapsed from the magnitude 9.0 earthquake still litter roads. Newspapers from March 12, 2011 - the day after disaster struck – are stacked high at the paper's office. There are shells of homes, but no sign of life inside.

The desolation has largely been hidden from public view, behind checkpoints set up to cordon off the government mandated nuclear exclusion zone. But Google is hoping to bring the displaced residents back home – at least virtually – using its street view technology.

The tech giant began today the process of digitally mapping neighborhoods closest to the nuclear plant, dispatching its street view car to Namie for the first time. With a specialized camera mounted atop its vehicle, Google drove through the empty town, steering around collapsed homes and cracked roads to capture a 360 view of the damage.

ABC News accompanied Google in its mapping route today. No special clothing is worn, but the crew was out of zone within three hours.

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The entire process is expected to take several weeks. Google plans to unveil Namie's street view map in a few months, according to product manager Kei Kawai.

"There's nothing that compares to actually coming in and seeing [the damage] for yourself," Kawai said. "But we can at least show what these places are like, to the people who [evacuated] the city, to the world."

The street view cars have logged more than 27,000 miles, since the triple disasters first struck Japan's coast two years ago. They were immediately dispatched to areas hardest hit to capture the tsunami's aftermath.

But the idea to digitally map Namie came from town residents themselves, Kawai said.

Namie Mayor Tamotsu Baba said his town has yet to begin the process of decontamination. Recovery has not begun. He hoped the Google images would show the world the reality.

"We still have to wear hazmat suits and get government approval, just to go home," he said. "How can we even begin to rebuild under circumstances such as that."

More than half of Namie's residents have relocated to other cities in the Fukushima prefecture. Baba now works out of a temporary city hall set up in the city of Nihonmatsu, roughly 40 miles away.

He has spent the last two years trying to keep the community together, but he sees it slowly drifting apart.

Last week, he released a phone book, listing the name and contact information of displaced Namie residents, including those living outside of the region, in a desperate attempt to keep the town together.

"It's absolutely frustrating," he said. "That 'smell' of life, the smell of the kitchen, the smell of gasoline in the streets, all of that is gone now. There is just silence."

Baba says it will take at least a decade for residents to return home.

Kawai says Google plans to continue tracking the rebuilding process through its "Memories for the Future" site, which includes a unique digital archive project that gives users a virtual tour of the most devastated buildings.

"This is not over. This is not even the beginning," said Kawai.