Google Reveals Views of Japan's Nuclear Ghost Town

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Visitors to Google Maps can now roam virtually through the overgrown streets of an abandoned town where time has stood still since a tsunami crippled Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant two years ago.

The Internet giant's mapping site is offering views of the deserted streets of Namie, half of which sits within the 20-kilometre (12-mile) no-go zone around the nuclear plant, wrecked when the 2011 tsunami crashed into Japan.

With cooling systems knocked out by the wall of water, three reactors melted down, spewing radioactive particles into the air, soil and sea and forcing Namie's entire population of 21,000 to flee.

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The entrance ban will be lifted for a small part of the town from Monday next week, allowing residents to visit for a short time, but the vast majority remains highly contaminated and is expected to be uninhabitable for years.

"The world is moving on to the future after the disaster... but time has stopped in the town of Namie," said mayor Tamotsu Baba, writing on a blog for Google Japan Thursday.

"I hope these street views will show the people of future generations what the great earthquake and nuclear disaster brought," he said.

"We need many years and many people's cooperation to rise again from the nuclear crisis. We will never give up on getting back our hometown," he said.

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The natural disasters killed nearly 19,000 people, including those whose bodies are yet to be recovered.

Some parts of the town were swamped by the waves of March 11. Houses and other buildings damaged by the water can be clearly seen as site visitors click through the panoramic displays.

Along the coastline, the occasional boat lies in an untended field, dumped there by the waves that spread heavy oils and silt over rice paddies, where they also left the now rotted bodies of marine life.

But many of the buildings in the town are intact, tinged only by the invisible menace of radiation and abandoned when the sudden order to evacuate came two years ago.

Plant pots, their contents long dead or run wild, stand neatly outside some houses. Barber shops and hairdressers still display their welcome signs, offering haircuts to customers who may never return.

The images come from a heavily polluted part of the town, where residents are not allowed to venture, a town official told AFP.

"The town requested special approval for the Google crew to enter the zone," the official said. "The crew wore protective gear and stayed inside the car while shooting."

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Mayor Baba, who asked Google to come into his town, said he wanted the world to see what it looked like and wanted those who had been forced out to be able to virtually visit the places they grew up.

"Even two years after the disaster, we cannot walk into Namie freely," the mayor said. "Many people from the town say they want to see what state their hometown is in now.

"I am sure many people around the world will want to see the tragedy a nuclear accident can bring."

Tens of thousands of people in the area were forced from their homes by the nuclear catastrophe, the worst the planet has seen since the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl.

No one is officially recorded as having died as a direct result of the radiation, but scientists warn some areas may remain contaminated for decades, while those most heavily polluted could be uninhabitable forever.

The Street View function can be accessed through the map, which can be found here: http://goo.gl/VbxDY