It started with a wave.
Within 50 minutes of the initial earthquake, the first wave crested the nuclear plant’s 10-meter high sea wall.
The plant’s emergency power generators, in the basement, were soon flooded, knocking vital cooling systems offline and causing reactor fuel rods to begin to meltdown and leak deadly radiation into the surrounding area.
Sixteen hours into the disaster, the fuel rods in one reactor had almost completely melted, with the other two close behind.
It would be another 88 days until the government admitted that a meltdown had taken place, the worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl incident.
While water caused the meltdown, it was also the only way to stop it. Since the disaster, TEPCO has been pumping hundreds of tons of water into Fukushima to cool the reactors and stop the outflow of radiation.
Some 800,000 tons of highly-radioactive water now sit in hastily-built tanks at the site, enough to fill 315 Olympic-sized swimming pools, with around 400 tons added to the tanks every day.
The government has also spent more than $1.5 billion collecting radioactive soil and earth from the surrounding area, which now sits in thousands of industrial-sized black bags looking like the world’s deadliest grain harvest.
How the water and earth will be disposed of isn’t clear. TEPCO estimates that cleanup operations could take up to 40 years.
“There’s still an enormous amount of radioactivity there which is not controlled, in liquid form, leaking into the underground, and slowly moving into the ocean,” said Greenpeace Japan campaigner Jan Vande Putte.
“And that’s very dangerous for the future.”
While a 2012 World Health Organization report found that “predicted (health) risks remain low” following the Fukushima disaster, in the two locations where residents experienced the highest doses of radiation, the WHO said a 4% to 7% greater risk of developing certain forms of cancer such as leukemia was expected.
For those living near the exclusion zone, health concerns are high on their mind. A Geiger counter sits in the grounds of one nursery school in Fukushima prefecture, and teachers regularly check the radiation levels of food the children eat.
Head teacher Michiko Saito said that the precautions are “absolutely necessary,” due to the potential threat posed by invisible radiation.
Parent Toshiki Aso, whose two children attend the school said, “Any parent would worry about what kind of impact low dose radiation exposure will have on our children.”
How many countries are still building this ticking time bomb’s instead to support solar energy and other environmentally friendly energy solutions. Do we need an other Chernobyl or Fukushima?