THERE is a breathtaking serenity to the valley that winds from the town of Namie, on the coast of Fukushima prefecture, into the hills above. A narrow road runs by a river that passes through steep ravines, studded with maples. Lovely it may be, but it is the last place where you would want to see an exodus of 8,000 people fleeing meltdowns at a nearby nuclear-power plant.
Along that switchback road the day after the earthquake and tsunami on March 11th 2011, it took Namie’s residents more than three hours to drive 30km (19 miles) to what they thought was the relative safety of Tsushima, a secluded hamlet. What they did not know was that they were heading into an invisible fog of radioactive matter that has made this one of the worst radiation hotspots in Japan—far worse than the town they abandoned, just ten minutes’ drive from the gates of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. It was not until a New York Times report in August that many of the evacuees realised they had been exposed to such a danger, thanks to government neglect.
Negligence forms the backdrop for the first government-commissioned report into the Fukushima nuclear disaster, released in late December. Although only an interim assessment (the complete report is due in the summer), it is already 500 pages long and the product of hundreds of interviews. A casual reader might be put off by the technical detail and the dearth of personal narrative. Yet by Japanese standards it is gripping. It spares neither the government nor Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), the operator of the nuclear plant. It reveals at times an almost cartoon-like level of incompetence. Whether it is enough to reassure an insecure public that lessons will be learnt is another matter.