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Riding The Nuclear Wave: San Diego Journalist Profiles Fukushima Surfers

A well regarded surf spot about 15 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, March 11, 2014.
Kimball Taylor
A well regarded surf spot about 15 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, March 11, 2014.
Riding The Nuclear Wave: San Diego Journalist Profiles Fukushima Surfers
Riding The Nuclear Wave: San Diego Journalist Profiles Fukushima Surfers
Riding The Nuclear Wave: San Diego Journalist Profiles Fukushima Surfers GUESTS:Kimball Taylor, writer for Surfer MagazineTravis Pritchard, Programs Director for San Diego Coastkeeper

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. The effects of the earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan are still being felt. Many people have not been able to return to homes in the area, because of contamination by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Japanese officials are still monitoring groundwater radiation leaks, and even as far away as our coastline, scientists are conducting tests on kelp beds to see if any the Fukushima radiation has reached our shores. So, if someone told you that surfers had returned to the water just miles away from the Fukushima plant, you would think it was a joke. It is no joke, and the strange and stubborn story of the surfers is being told in the August issue of Surfer Magazine. I would like to welcome my guest, writer of the article After the Wave, Kimball Taylor. Welcome to the show. KIMBALL TAYLOR: Thank you for having me. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Also joining is Travis Pritchard, programs director at the San Diego Coastkeeper Organization. Welcome back. TRAVIS PRITCHARD: Thank you. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Kimball, did you know that surfers were back in the water there's Fukushima before you went to Japan? Or did this come as a surprise? KIMBALL TAYLOR: We knew that they had stopped surfing for a period of six months to a year or two years, and that as many as half of the original surfer population returned. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Remind us, if you would, because so many things happened and things get lost in the memory, of the facts and figures of Fukushima, and the kind of devastation the earthquake caused, as you go into detail into that at least in part, in your article. KIMBALL TAYLOR: One of the things I do not think the perceived on this side of the ocean was that it was not just one disaster or two, it was many. The earthquake was the fourth largest earthquake ever recorded, so even as far away as Tokyo, the Tokyo towers like the Eiffel Tower, the top of it broke under the shaking. The earthquake itself was severe. And then the tsunami was catastrophic. And then the meltdowns. There are also several gas plants that exploded and the explosions were dramatic. The port of Sendai was trashed, containers from all of the container ships ended up and down the coast. Sewage plants were overwhelmed and all of the effluent went into the ocean, it is hard to count all of the disasters that occurred. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What do you see years later on the beaches and neighborhoods around Fukushima? KIMBALL TAYLOR: On first approaching the beach, I thought this is nice, there is all of this grassland leading to the beach, all of this open space, it is fantastic. And then I turned my head right and left and I saw all of these slabs that were cleaned of houses, nothing has yet been built on them. I realized how dense that open land had been before the tsunami. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And were there areas that are still uninhabited? A lot of people did not return to homes, is that right? KIMBALL TAYLOR: Yes, a large swathe, the tsunami went as far as 6 miles inland in the Sendai area. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you still see remnants of appliances, cars, is there still a sense of devastation there? KIMBALL TAYLOR: Yeah, the neighborhood cars, they brought in some kind of compactor to compact the trash cars and they stacked these squares 3' x 3' into a big row that was probably 30 feet high, and 300 feet long, that is just one neighborhood. You see houses that are still standing, they are missing the bottom floors and only the beams are holding up the top four. You see out things like TVs propped up in fields as if someone was watching them. Bicycles, you name it. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Into this environment, this atmosphere, you find surfers heading out to the beach, you introduced a few of them in the article. Am I right in thinking that the surfers that we meet in your article are not necessarily young guys? Have been surfers for a while. KIMBALL TAYLOR: Yes, that has to do with their belief of what might happen to them from radiation or whatever risks they are running. A lot of older surfers figure that they are too old to suffer anyway before they die naturally. There is an older population, many of the younger surfers moved as far away as a Okinawa or Osaka, and many of them just quit. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Describe to us this attitude among the middle-aged or older surfers in reentering the waters off of Fukushima. They acknowledge that there is some danger, but not enough that they think that they can outlive it in some way? KIMBALL TAYLOR: That is one idea, there are many. It all has to do with personal ideology but many of the people that I talk to that is what they said. In large part, that is why I went over there, to investigate what they were thinking. On this side of the ocean we were inundated with stories about radiation. We were so concerned about radiation striking our shores. It has and will, but at levels far below. I was wondering what was happening at the source, what were those surfers thinking. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In the article you go into the fact that it is not really clear, science is not really clear how much of an actual threat this level of radiation poses to people in the water, because it is hard to make determinations based on an older population, especially when a significant number of them will die of some form of cancer anyway, is that right? KIMBALL TAYLOR: That is true, but I want to make a distinction of what is happening on the West Coast and what is happening there. The ocean is already radioactive. There is radioactive potassium that occurs naturally from eroding rock. The radiation that we will receive from that event is so far below the naturally occurring radiation in the ocean, that its only real is for scientist to figure out where that radiation came from, because they can look at what isotopes it was. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: They can determine where it came from, and how it was derived. In Japan, do scientists have a really clear idea of what kind of threat this water poses? KIMBALL TAYLOR: No, the science is not strong, the only studies we have been able to do what have happened around the original nuclear attacks on Japan, and also in Trenoble. There is not a lot of scientific work that has gone into this. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You are a surfer, did you go into the water? KIMBALL TAYLOR: No, I didn't. That was the whole point, just to give a picture of what it would've been like, the big coastal city Sendai would be like San Diego. As we went up the coast towards the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, that would be like going towards San Onofre. We are checking the surf all along the way, behind us there are snowcapped mountains and snow flurries on the beach, the water is in the mid-40s. I have radiation paranoia, going around with my guider counter, measuring tsunami trash on the beach, getting excited and thrilled with dread at the same time, I'm looking at 2 foot surf that is 40∞, I didn't want to. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: No, it was not that tempting anyway. You write about a sort of strange, spiritual, emotional reason that kept some surfers out of the water for a while, that is about the people who were lost, and the whole essence of the community that was lost, and how that might have affected the water, tell us about that. KIMBALL TAYLOR: For me that was a big cultural leap I had to make. Coming from the Western culture and the news we were receiving about radiation, that was my big concern, what were they thinking? When I started to meet surfers and talk to them, I would start to ask them about radiation concerns and they would say things like I don't think about that, I decided not to think about that. I would save you are not thinking about radiation, why did you not surf for a year or two, or whatever the amount of time was? One guy looked at me squarely and said because of the ghosts on the beach. It took me a long time to realize what was really happening, 17,000 people died in this tsunami in a very small area. When you go to get into the water you see their socks, children's toys, family pictures. When they say ghosts, they don't mean an apparition, they mean the loss. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ghosts, just sort of in memory of those people that kept the surfers out of the water, because it was too fraught with emotional power. We spoke to surfers at Old Man's Beach right next to the San Onofre nuclear power plant, and there is very little comparison between what happened at Fukushima, and anything we have here. But we asked if any of the surfers had any concerns surfing near the shuttered reactor, and here is what this longtime surfer had to say. [AUDIO FILE PLAYING] NEW SPEAKER: We surf right out in front of the plant, there is no problem with it. It is a real crying shame that they shut that down. [ END AUDIO ] MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Travis, should people still be concerned about surfing near San Onofre with nuclear waste still on-site? TRAVIS PRITCHARD: San Onofre is not a current concern. There was a leak, it was an atmosphere leak, very little, if any, got into the ocean. It is not the kind of situation with the disaster in Japan. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm interested in your reaction to what Kimball has been telling us. We are so concerned here in San Diego about the quality of our water, and just thinking about something like this and having surfers go when, it must send you trembling. TRAVIS PRITCHARD: Well, in the case of a large earthquake, I am not all that familiar with the power plant, I don't know what would happen. Until then, we do not have the radiation problems like they do in Japan. Our problems are more like getting sick with urban runoff, sewage spills, the kinds of problems you would have with swimming anywhere, we do not have the major disaster or radiation. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me bring both of you in on this, the surfing mentality here as opposed to the surfers that you met and write about in Japan, I think surfers here are willing to take some risks to get back into the water, perhaps sooner than they should if there is some sewage runoff, but I think overall there is a real concern about the safety of the water here, wouldn't you say? KIMBALL TAYLOR: Yes, that was one of the ignition points of this whole issue, that the climate change events, disasters, contamination, pollution, that is all in the water and so are the surface. If we are not the canaries in the coal mine, we are witnesses to the changes taking place globally. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What are the biggest water threats here in San Diego? TRAVIS PRITCHARD: The most common you could get in the water are gastrointestinal distress, rashes, ear and eye infections, that sort of thing, cramps, from sewage contaminated water. The main source of the problem here in the summer in San Diego is sewage spills and urban runoff. Currently there are no active sewage spills. Urban runoff should be mostly contained since it is not raining. That is why we want better stormwater infrastructure to contain pollutants coming down into the ocean. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How often is our water in the coastline tested? TRAVIS PRITCHARD: The County Department of Environmental Health tests up to seventy beaches once a week, five days a week. One of the problems with the tests, though, is that it takes twenty-four hours to get results. They are looking at indicator bacteria and you have to culture those out. When they close a each due to high bacteria levels, what they are saying is, yesterday the beach should have been closed. Today it should probably be closed also. New technologies are out there to bring that time down to four hours so we can potentially be able to close to beach by noon, and the County of San Diego is currently looking to move forward with those new technologies. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Anybody in Japan think about closing the beach? KIMBALL TAYLOR: Municipal organizations and social organizations there are very different. There are surf clubs, which is very strange to surfers in the United States because we think we are so individually minded, but surf clubs will say the beach is closed, so younger surfers will say okay, we will not surf that place. In this instance, most of that occurred at beaches were a lot of life is lost, and not necessarily because contaminants. It had to do with respect for the disaster. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It has been a fascinating take. I've been speaking with Kimball Taylor, his article about the surfers of Fukushima is called After the Wave, it is in the August issue of Surfer Magazine. And Travis Pritchard, programs director for San Diego Coastkeeper, thank you both very much.

It's been three years since an earthquake-triggered tsunami caused a meltdown of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Many residents who were evacuated still have not returned to their homes.

San Diego journalist and author Kimball Taylor traveled to the region and found that while there are concerns globally about contaminated water spreading, surfers in Japan have returned to the water.

Ground water contamination continues to be an issue in the region. Scientists have yet to develop a long-term solution to the problem and are currently in the process of filling massive storage tanks with the irradiated water.

Taylor spoke with surfers living in the city of Sendai, the largest costal city near the nuclear plant. There, he explored the unique cultural beliefs of the Japanese surfers who said they were more afraid of the "ghosts" from their friends and family than any nuclear radiation.

His feature "After the Wave" will be published in the August issue of Surfer Magazine.

Kimball Taylor is the author of Return by Water: Surf Stories and Adventures, as well as, Drive Fast and Take Chances: Fair Warning from Surfers. He’s a longtime contributor to Surfer Magazine. Taylor has co-authored history books on Pipeline and Jeffreys Bay.