People interested in Fukushima have almost certainly heard of the ‘sensational’ post by Keow Wee Loong, a 28-year-old man from Malaysia who claims that he travelled illegally around Fukushima’s ‘no-go’ zones. It turns out, however, that his story is almost completely fabricated. Unfortunately, the story by this man, who hid his face behind a gas mask, was so convincing that people swallowed it whole and it rapidly spread around the world. His story and photos were published in on reputable services like TIME, CNN and hundreds of others. And, as the author himself admits, he gave 34 interviews in a single day. The entire story of his trip through the no-go zones, sneaking through the forest and avoiding the police is a fiction by a man seeking fame and attention, as opposed to the real popularity that he undoubtedly generated.
Keow Wee Loong’s story strongly recalls the story of Elena Filatova, a.k.a. ‘the Kidd of Speed’. This young woman claimed to have made an illegal solo motorcycle trip through the closed, radioactive zone in Chernobyl and hid her face under a motorcycle helmet. In reality, she never drove her motorcycle through the closed zone and all of her photographs were taken outside the zone or during a tourist coach trip, which she went on dressed in motorcycle gear and a helmet.
Keow Wee Loong’s story is similar. Besides having deliberately created a sensational text and portrait photographs depicting him alone in a gas mask with a shopping basket in hand, it quickly became clear that, in principle, his entire text is dishonest, his trip to the no-go zones untrue and the photographs were taken in areas that everyone can access.
I have visited Fukushima many times to document the destruction caused by the disaster at the nuclear power plant, and so I did not have any major problems identifying the sites where Keow Wee Loong took his photographs. It quickly turned out that all of the photos he took were not taken in the red no-go zones as he claimed, but only in the open green zone (sometimes orange) as well as on Road No. 6, which runs through the Fukushima prefecture. All of these places are open and accessible to all.
The green zone in the town of Namie, where the photographer took most of his pictures, have had this status for at least three years and have been open to all since 1 April of this year. In Tomioka, where Keow Wee Loong also took photographs, these zones were open even earlier. Anyone who wished could enter them freely already a few years ago.
Today, the streets of Namie and Tomioka are full of cars and people, which one cannot fail to notice. In Namie, there is a working police station, a petrol station and the first shops have been open. One can also see a lot of repair crews on the streets of Namie and Tomioka, as well as increasing numbers of curious tourists. Radiation in the centre of Namie is approximately 0.1 uSv/h, and is therefore normal; it does not differ from most other cities in Japan and around the world. One doesn’t need a gas mask there, much less a full-face one. It isn’t necessary to hide from the police or hike through the woods for hours to get to Namie or Tomioka. Anyone who wants to can go there without permission.
Only access to the most contaminated zones, referred to as red or no-go zones, located closest to the power plant and contaminated from the radioactive fallout require a special permit. Contrary to the claims of Keow Wee Loong, he never managed to get to these places. Legally or not. Contrary to what he says, a permit can be obtained in just a week – you just have to demonstrate and justify an important public interest. Evidently, however, Keow Wee Long could not justify any public interest.
Why am I writing about all of this?
My interest is not to trivialise the catastrophic consequences of the failures of nuclear power plants. When I was 14 years old, I had to drink liquid iodine, which would help stop the absorption of the radioactive iodine isotope coming from the damaged reactor in Chernobyl. For these and other reasons, I have devoted the last 8 years to the subject of Chernobyl (I have been there dozens of times), as well as with the subject of Fukushima from the moment the disaster in Japan happened (I have visited 4 times in the past year, spending more than a month in total there). During this time, I have seen the effects of nuclear disasters enough to be opposed to this form of energy production.
I am, however, a strong opponent of seeking sensationalism, 15 minutes of fame and the money that comes with it, which has become synonymous for me with Keow Wee Loong. Photographers and writers of unreliable and inaccurate texts, which are then replicated by hundreds of media outlets around the world, create a false picture of the current situation in Fukushima. This is particularly important here as, in contrast to Chernobyl, the consequences of the disaster are still fresh and painful. To date, nearly 100,000 evacuees are still out of their homes. Many of them are following the progress of the disaster recovery works and often base their decision to return (or not) on media reports.
I think that the international community, Japanese society and, above all, the evacuated residents should have reliable information about the places where they once lived and where I hope they will shortly be able to return.
P.S. I only very rarely ask for my articles to be shared. This is an exception because it’s really important. Share it!
Other articles worth reading about Keow Wee Loong:
An Open Letter to the “Fukushima Exclusion Zone” Photographer, Keow Wee Loong