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Vollmann Writes About Fukushima's 'Quiet Horror' In 'Harper's Magazine'


The last time we checked in with the journalist William T. Vollmann, he had made an alarming discovery. He made a freedom of information request to see any government documents that pertained to him. And wouldn't you know it, he learned that the FBI had suspected him of possibly being the Unabomber.

Strange things seem to follow Vollmann or maybe it's that he follows strange things. He's gone to extremes to put himself in the middle of stories about war and crime, this time, a nuclear fallout. It's been nearly four years since an earthquake and tsunami triggered the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in a large exclusion zone known as the red zone now exists around Japan's Fukushima's nuclear plant. Vollmann visited and writes about the quiet horror of the place in the March issue of Harper's Magazine. He describes many former residents as nuclear refugees.

WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN: They are very, very attached to the place where they were born. And they're hoping someday to go back. You know, decontamination is making some progress in many, many areas. But the fact is they can't really decontaminate the forest, the mountains and so forth unless they were to clear-cut everything.

GREENE: And so the people you're talking about who are attached, are they going back to their homes even with the great risk?

VOLLMANN: Most of the people in the red zones are allowed to return very, very briefly once or twice a year to their homes to take care of them. In October, I went to the city of Okuma, and I met one resident who had returned. He was dressed up in his anti-radiation gear, and he was pruning the bushes in front of his house. But it's very, very quiet in these places, very eerie. You sometimes see wild boar walking down the streets. Residents tell me there are many rats in their houses. I've seen rat droppings, but I haven't seen the rats.

GREENE: Some of your writing here was just so apocalyptic where there was just this invisible thread that you couldn't see or feel. I mean, can you paint me just a portrait of one of these places that you saw?

VOLLMANN: It's beautiful in a way sometimes. You know, the Goldenrod is covering a lot of these houses that were wrecked by the tsunami. You see wild birds. The salmon sometimes are spawning, and it's hard to believe that it's dangerous. But then you find, oh, you know, this drain pipe, that sewer grating, this grassy area that looks very, very inviting, it's insanely radioactive and I better stay away from it. And then in the centers of the cities, everything is sad and broken. There are weeds growing through the sidewalk, and the feeling of horror just kind of grows as you go back and back to these places.

GREENE: Is there an encounter with a person that sort of stands out in your mind?

VOLLMANN: There was a very kind man, Mr. Endo, who agreed to take me to his house in Tomioka.

GREENE: This is inside the red zone.

VOLLMANN: Yes, and I remember looking inside his house, and it was just a jumble of wreckage and rat droppings that had been shaken up by the tsunami. And one of the crazy things about being a nuclear refugee is that you are still on the hook for the mortgage of your radioactive house...


VOLLMANN: ...Unless it is more than 50 percent damaged by the tsunami. So poor Mr. Endo is still having to pay his mortgage and saying, you know, it would've been so much better for me if my house had collapsed. He has no real hope of ever going back and living there. He's in his 60s.

GREENE: William Vollmann, I'm just curious. I mean, last time we spoke, we talked about how the FBI thought you might be the Unabomber. You've traveled with the Mujahideen. You've smoked crack with prostitutes in California. I mean, you have a certain style of sort of your reporting where you want to be in the middle of something, so to speak. And here, you're exposing yourself to radiation. I mean, what drives you?

VOLLMANN: Well, one time I read an E.O. Wilson book about the ants.

GREENE: E.O. Wilson. You're talking about the famous Harvard naturalist and professor, right?

VOLLMANN: That's right. Yeah. He says that it's common in ant colonies for the older female ants to take more and more risks. They've already reproduced, and if they don't come back, it's no real loss to the ant colony. And I'm an older person. I'm 55. I've reproduced. I'm going to die in any event, so I have less to fear. And I would really like to try to do some good in the world before I die and, you know, if I get cancer as a result, it's no real loss. The more I see of, you know, the disasters that nuclear power can cause, the more I think I would really like to describe this and help people share my alarm.

GREENE: We've been speaking with author and journalist William T. Vollmann. Mr. Vollmann, thanks so much for coming on the program. We appreciate it.

VOLLMANN: Oh, thanks for having me back. I appreciate it, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.