San Francisco filmmaker Steve Zeltzer watched his Geiger counter start to take off and show serioius radiation levels as he rode by the town of Fukushima on the bullet train eight months after the nuclear meltdown.
But that wasn't the most shocking thing for him. What really opened his eyes was that the Japanese government wasn't evacuating people from the region and was telling people it was safe.
"People are being contaminated and there's nothing they can do," he said. "They just have to sit there, while the government tells them it's all under control."
Zeltzer will show his film Fukushima Never Again at 7 p.m. Wednesday at 612 Ocean St. in Santa Cruz. Tickets are $5-$15, but no one will be turned down.
The film focuses on what was going on in Japan eight months after the devastating earthquake, tsunami and meltdown, during the country's national elections. Zeltzer and Japanese-American partner Kazmi Toril interviewed parents who became politicized out of fear for their children, activists and elderly people who have been concerned about nuclear energy since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
Zeltzer said people will be suffering the effects from the radiaton leak for decades, but few officials in Japan want to talk about it.
"The government tried to deny there was a serious health problem in Fukushima and refused to help evacuate people," he said. "It did no monitoring. People had to buy their own Geiger counters to measure the effects."
The video debuted in San Francisco last month and has been shown in Australia, Turkey and Hong Kong. Japanese people who have seen it told him they got more from the movie than they have gotten from the government or media in their own country.
Zeltzer, 62, has been making labor-inspired documentaries since he studied videography at Community Access TV in San Francisco in 1983. His Halfway to Hell: The Workers and Unions Who Built the Golden Gate Bridge featured Danny Glover and was shown on PBS.
He hopes that illustrating the problems in Japan will get Americans thinking about the effects of nuclear power.
"I think the nuclear industry and the government don't want people to know how dangerous this is," he said.
Two California reactors at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon are on or near fault lines and could suffer serious damage in an earthquake, he said. As with Fukushima, they have no emergency plans and are operating illegally without them, he said.
In Japan so many other structures were up to code, he said. Buildings didn't fall and the bullet train had sensors that stopped it as soon as a quake is detected. But the most dangerous building – the nuclear plant – wasn't prepared for the natural calamity.
He said people here are similarly ignoring the problem and he thinks the government has been co-opted by the big nuclear power companies.
Zeltzer said he knows that coal, which is the dominant source of energy in the U.S., is no better for the environment and hopes that his movie will inspire people to push for alternative energy sources.
"Why aren't we requiring all new construction to have solar power?" he asked. "Why wouldn't they have that requirement?"