The hottest drive: Safecasting the newly reopened Route 114 in Namie

Above: National Route 114 runs through the current exclusion zone in Namie. The area remains evacuated but the road was recently reopened for public use.

National Route 114 in Namie was reopened to public access on Sept 20th of this year. The route, also known as the Tomioka Highway, is a primary thoroughfare which runs east-west in Fukushima, primarily through the mountainous sections of Namie. Prior to the accident it was the major lifeline connecting Fukushima City in the west with the center of Namie and other coastal towns in the east. Since April 2011 the road has been officially closed to public access, as the entire town of Namie was placed under evacuation orders. However, Joe and Kalin shot this video on Rte 114 in Namie in May, 2012, so it was still at least partly accessible then, and to the best of our recollection remained so until Spring of 2013. In March this year, the previously more populated eastern portion of Namie was reopened for residence. But the rest of the town, through which Rte 114 runs, remains part of the “Difficult to return zone” (kikan konnan kuiki), usually marked in red on evacuation maps. It’s been difficult for us to get access to this area in the past, but longtime volunteer KM Aizu recently Safecasted the reopened road. He measured dose rates at 1 meter of up to 5.91 µSv/hr along one stretch. This is somewhat higher than the 5.53 µSv/hr shown by an official survey in August, as reported recently in the Asahi Shimbun.  It is also significantly lower than the 19.6 µSv/hr we measured there in Oct-Nov 2011.

KM Aizu commented that while driving on the road, which took about 45 minutes end-to-end, he thought, “It’s been a long time since I’ve been anywhere with dose rates this high.” The portion of Route 6 in front of Fukushima Daiichi is still up to about 5 µSv/hr, he noted, “But this is now the highest dose rate anywhere that is publicly accessible in Fukushima.”  As with Rte. 6 and the Joban Expressway, both of which cut through the “Difficult to return zone,” the government advises people not to stop along the way but to enter and leave the area quickly so as to minimize their radiation exposure. Barriers blocking access to side roads have been placed at over 80 locations along Rte 114, and according to our volunteer, the road is regularly patrolled by police cars. (KM Aizu noted that as with other law enforcement teams patrolling and manning roadbocks, the ones he saw were from other prefectures). He also noted that while Rte 6 is lined with houses and businesses to which somewhat efficient decontamination could be done before and after reopening it, Rte 114 runs almost entirely through forested hillsides.  The hillsides immediately flanking the road have been remediated to a distance of about 10 meters, but the remainder is essentially untouched. “If people went even a fairly short distance into the mountains,” he observed, “I’m sure the doses would be much higher.”

The reopening of Rte 114 will definitely make travel between Fukushima City and the coast easier for people and goods, and in that sense it will bring benefits and is probably justified. There have been increasing discussions about reopening Rte 399, which runs north-south between Iitate and Katsurao, intersecting Rte 114 in Namie, as well. This would essentially restore the basic road network through the area. Locals generally seem to acknowledge and accept the risks the potential exposures present, but nevertheless we urge people intending to travel in the region to be aware of the situation and to exercise adequate caution.

About the Author

Azby Brown

Azby Brown is Safecast’s lead researcher and primary author of the Safecast Report. A widely published authority in the fields of design, architecture, and the environment, he has lived in Japan for over 30 years, and founded the KIT Future Design Institute in 2003. He joined Safecast in mid-2011, and frequently represents the group at international expert conferences.