Into the Forbidden Zone

Armed with a capricious radiation detector, National Book Award winner William T. Vollmann ventures into the hot zone mere days after Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster.

  1. I: Picaresque Wanderings of a Dosimeter

    The golden rule of journalism—keep one’s dental appointments—I had now neglected for a couple of years, but in obedience to the current practicalities of Japan I made haste to cultivate my hygienist, who pressed the X-ray camera’s snout against patients’ cheekbones and therefore wore a dosimeter badge clipped to her pinkish smock. Thanks to her, I grew acquainted with the phone number of Carol (on subsequent dialings I got Ginger), who connected me with a salesman named Bob, who allowed that he did still have one Geiger counter in stock—or, more precisely, a post–Geiger-Müller sort of gadget which, said Bob (who had not actually inspected it but seemed to be interpolating from some data screen), resembled an electronic calculator. Current and cumulative exposure, X-ray and gamma, a programmable exposure alarm—oh, delicious! Never mind its inability to detect alpha or beta particles; wouldn’t those be approximately innocuous so long as I refrained from ingesting them? (Within the body, remarked my radiation incident guide, “alpha and beta emitters are the most hazardous” since they “can transfer ionizing radiation to surrounding tissue, damaging DNA or other cellular material.”)1

    Five hundred dollars plus shipping, credit card only; thus spake Bob, who must have known he was sitting pretty, for the other companies I had contacted accepted only back orders, two weeks having already lapsed since the reactor accident. In Japan, so I heard, one couldn’t buy dosimeters at all. I w...

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