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Google Street View maps Fukushima nuclear ghost town

By Peter Shadbolt, CNN
updated 5:26 AM EDT, Thu March 28, 2013
The Google Street View car takes images with its roof-mounted camera amid the devastation of Namie-machi. The Google Street View car takes images with its roof-mounted camera amid the devastation of Namie-machi.
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Charting a ghost town
Charting a ghost town
Charting a ghost town
Charting a ghost town
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Google Street View has taken street pictures of Namie-machi, Fukushima
  • The city has been a ghost town since the Fukushima nuclear meltdown two years ago
  • Mayor Tamotsu Baba wanted a way for residents to see their properties
  • Japanese authorities set up a 12-mile evacuation zone around the stricken power plant in 2011

(CNN) -- Cars remain where they were crushed by falling walls two years ago, drink vending machines stand in gloomy isolation outside shuttered shops and traffic lights still blink amber in deserted streets.

It might sound like the Hollywood setting for a post-apocalyptic dystopia but in Namie-machi, Fukushima, the scene of desolation is all too real.

Two years after Fukushima's nuclear power plant meltdown forced the 22,000 residents of Namie to flee -- snap-freezing the ordinary Japanese town at the moment the disaster struck on March 11, 2011 -- Google Street View has posted striking images of the devastation inside Fukushima's 12-mile evacuation zone.

"Most of the damage that we all remember and saw was the tsunami damage because it was much more drastic," said David Marx, head of product communications, Google Asia-Pacific, who accompanied the Google Street View vehicle as it took 360-degree pictures along Namie's gloomily abandoned and overgrown streets.

Nuclear fallout leads to 'ghost town'
Ghost town: Japan's exclusion zone

"The earthquake, even though it was big, there was very little seen of just earthquake-damaged buildings -- so many buildings were either completely demolished or tilted or bent."

He said the scenes became even more dramatic as the Google vehicles approached the city's waterways.

"That area right next to the river is just covered in boats -- there are just huge piles of wreckage that haven't been cleaned up," he said. "It's pretty intense to see."

Google's Street View cars began taking the images this month at the invitation of the city mayor who wanted a way for evacuated residents, many of whom are still in temporary accommodation, to take a virtual tour of their abandoned properties.

"Two years have passed since the disaster, but people still aren't allowed to enter Namie-machi," Mayor Tamotsu Baba said on Google's official blog.

So many buildings were either completely demolished or tilted or bent
David Marx

"Many of the displaced townspeople have asked to see the current state of their city, and there are surely many people around the world who want a better sense of how the nuclear incident affected surrounding communities."

Marx said the Google drivers took precautions and their cars were monitored in line with the Fukushima Prefecture and Namie-machi guidelines.

"I was wearing protective gear," he said. "The good news is that it's safer to be in a car than out."

While a recent WHO report says the cancer risk from Fukushima is low, Japanese authorities are taking no chances. The 12-mile exclusion zone is likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future and Mayor Baba concedes that generations of Namie residents may never see their homes again.

"Those of us in the older generation feel that we received this town from our forbearers, and we feel great pain that we cannot pass it down to our children," he said on the blog. "We want this Street View imagery to become a permanent record of what happened to Namie-machi in the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster."

Authorities took more than a month to begin looking for bodies in Namie due to the danger of radiation.

"After being set off-limits, we have not been able to clean up the wreckage on the side of the road, including the many fishing boats that were washed several kilometers inland," Baba said

"Ever since the March disaster, the rest of the world has been moving forward, and many places in Japan have started recovering. But in Namie-machi time stands still. With the lingering nuclear hazard, we have only been able to do cursory work for two whole years."

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