Christmas in the Radiation Zone

It’s the first thing you notice.  Electric orange, ripe and luscious hoshigaki hang from every bough.  As we drive through the country and over the glittering, snow-specked mountain range from Fukushima city to Soma on the northeast coast of Japan, we pass many persimmon trees dotting the landscape, all laden with fruit, ready for harvesting.  But this year, the persimmons of Fukushima prefecture will remain untouched.  Bounty only for microbial decomposers, they are a silent reminder of the slow-burning, far-reaching menace of a nuclear accident.

Since March 11, local people, long skilled in farming this verdant and fertile region, have added expert knowledge in radiation to their library of stored knowledge, and the persimmons are deemed unsafe; irradiated by the releases from the stricken nuclear plant at Fukushima-Daiichi, 25km south of here.  I am told the dried fruit, until now a local specialty, has particularly high levels of radioactive contamination.

As we drove through the glistening mountains I watched the readings of the omnipresent dosimeter dangling casually from the rearview mirror of Hiroyuki’s car first oscillate, then grow alarmingly.  Arriving in front of a children’s summer camp, and quietly handed a face mask, an ominous beeping sound began as the readings peaked above 1 micro-sievert per hour, corroborated by a second dosimeter brought by Yuuki to check the calibration.  We pass an old local incinerator at work burning refuse and the numbers spike again.

Once confined to nuclear facilities and university laboratories, the people of Fukushima prefecture have become amateur radiologists, tracking radiation from place to place as wind and rain transport it around in random patterns across the local landscape.

Worried and angry because they have not received accurate information from the Japanese government about the radiation threat and because they want the government to evacuate more affected areas, the people of Fukushima have had to take matters into their own hands.  The government’s own recently released Interim Report on the causes and lessons of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster highlights how poorly information was provided, “The following tendency was observed: transmission and public announcement of information on urgent matter(s) was delayed, press releases were withheld, and explanations were kept ambiguous. Whatever the reasons behind (this), such tendency was hardly appropriate, in view of communication in an emergency.”

According to the people of Fukushima, this tendency is continuing, especially now that Prime Minister Noda announced that the nuclear crisis has “been resolved”.

In Fukushima city the people are organizing to protect and monitor themselves.  In a slightly surreal experience, I am directed to one of the many Meccas to Japanese consumerism that are a feature of every town. But rather than shopping, inside the mall I am taken to the recently set-up Citizens Radioactivity Measuring Station.  Just inside are neatly arranged slippers, children’s toys and a blackboard.  Behind the counter there’s equipment to test food for radiation as well as a whole body counter where children and adults come by daily to check their body’s radiation levels.  It’s run almost entirely by volunteers who have received radiological health training from a French NGO and is free for anyone below the age of 20.

On entering an apartment building in Fukushima city, in contrast to your usual art work, neat hand-written columns of radiation levels are posted in the foyer. Data collected every seven days from the surrounding area shows fluctuating radiation levels; particularly high readings are circled in red.

The cows have been evacuated from here but apparently beyond the 20km compulsory evacuation zone it’s deemed safe for humans, even small and growing ones.  Hiroyuki, an employee at a children’s non-profit turned public health activist, evacuated his wife and four year old daughter first to Tokyo, then Kyoto.  He now sees them just once per month as he has stayed to ensure that the national and regional government takes the health risks of the people here seriously.  He is part of a growing campaign by the newly formed organization Fukushima Network for Saving Children from Radiation, to get the government to reverse its new radiation guidelines, evacuate more people from high radiation levels, especially children, and provide support for those who have voluntarily evacuated.

Radiation from the three severely damaged reactors that suffered explosions and core meltdowns at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant complex has spread far and wide. Apart from evacuating those within a 20 km radius, the government raised the allowable radiation does twenty times, from the internationally recognized 1mSv/year to 20.  This means that anywhere over 0.6 micro sieverts/h, an amount previously limited to people working in “radiologically controlled areas”, is no longer cause for evacuation, radically depressing the numbers of evacuees.

Even though the emergency evacuation centers are said to be “temporary”, it is likely that thousands of the 110,000 people who have been evacuated, in particular those from around Fukushima-Daiichi and downwind of the radioactive plume, will never be able to return to their former homes due to long-lived radioisotopes contaminating the ground, food and water.  Indeed, the Interim Report concludes with “bearing in mind that many people are still obliged to spend restricted life in evacuation for a long period of time, suffering from radiation contamination or fears of health due to exposure, contaminated air, soils, water and food.”

Even before the report, some people I met are now referring to themselves as the “Fukushima Diaspora” rather than “evacuees” because they don’t believe they will ever be able to return.

We arrive in the small community of Isobe on the coast.  Or at least, what remains of Isobe.  We are met by Toshiko Kooriki at her new temporary housing, orderly rows of small prefabricated living quarters.  She takes us to see the stubby concrete remnants of her original house. They jut a couple of feet up from the barren moonscape that was once a small close-knit community of 400 families just inland from where the tsunami hit.  She points out the different rooms and tells us that she comes here from time to time and cries.

Japan, long a study in contrasts, yields another as we meet Hatsumi Terashima, a fisherman for 54 years though he is no longer a fisherman.

Hatsuma Terashima recounts his experience with the tsunami, standing inside all that is left of his house.  The flat expanse of mud in the background is where the rest of the village used to be. He lost two of his grandchildren, a son, his son’s wife and his mother-in-law in the tsunami.

Immediately after the earthquake, he was inside rearranging fallen items when the tsunami struck.  Due to the shape of the land, there is an old saying in Isobe that no tsunami could hit here.  In disbelief, he watched as a dark wall of water rushed toward him and he was dragged 3km inland by the first wave.  His knee broken, a rope caught Hatsumi and he was heaved to safety, unlike five of his family members who were among the 264 who perished.  But he can’t fish because the ocean here is too radioactive.  He passes his time on the sea catching not fish but rubble and other detritus left by the crushing force of the tsunami.

Iatate, a town directly in the path of the radiation plume but outside of the 20km zone, has been evacuated as a high radiation area.  However, this was done only after the heaviest radioactive releases from the initial explosions because the government’s computerized radiation early-warning system, set up specifically for this purpose, the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information, (SPEEDI) was down as “communication links were disrupted and inoperative due to the earthquakes, and the SPEEDI could not receive the basic source term information of discharged radioactivity.”

While SPEEDI could have provided some crucial data and helped with a swifter evacuation so that people were not exposed to so much radiation, the information it could have given to local officials and the public to plan evacuations never reached them because

the local NERHQ [Nuclear Emergency Response Head Quarters] lost its functionality, the Government NERHQ or NISA [Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency] should have taken the role of providing the SPEEDI results to the public. But none of them had the idea of making use of this information. MEXT [Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology], the competent ministry for SPEEDI, did not come to realize to providing the SPEEDI information to the public by themselves or through the Government NERHQ.

As we pass through Iatate on our way back from Soma, the town lies silent and dark.  The only lights are from streetlamps and the still occupied old people’s home, housing those too old and vulnerable to be safely moved, cared for by workers on strict shift rotations.

We stop outside the town’s high school.  Inside the car, the readings have ranged from 0.14 micro-sieverts/hour to 1.8.  We step outside and Yuuki and Hiroyuki bend down to train their Geiger counters on the soil; the displays jump to six micro-sieverts per hour.

Despite the devastation and loss of life caused by the earthquake and tsunami, the people I meet in Fukushima prefecture, rather than talk of the those events, discuss radiation levels and how their land has become polluted with an invisible, enduring danger and made the people fearful as the government tries to convince them that it is safe.

Japan is often portrayed abroad as probably the country most capable and prepared to deal with a nuclear accident.  Yet reading the government-ordered Interim Report, I came away with the clear impression that the agencies responsible for emergency planning had made a whole set of false assumptions which led to mistakes that increased the severity of the crisis and people’s exposure to radiation, and there were a series of operational errors at the plant itself as well as communication breakdowns and general lack of planning. It is highly critical of the emergency preparedness, the actions of TEPCO and the improper use of SPEEDI.

Along with many other operational and emergency response failings, according to the report NISA staff, for example, were not even dispatched to TEPCO’s headquarters to gather information in order to report effectively to the prime minister and the country, even though TEPCO is just down the street from METI and NISA offices.  In echoes of the preparedness of BP to cope with the Gulf Oil Spill, measures by TEPCO to protect their nuclear plants from tsunamis were only “voluntary”, so, off course, being a capitalist entity run in the interests of profit rather than safety, they didn’t take them: “TEPCO did not implement measures against tsunami as part of its AM [Roadmap of Accident Management] strategy. Its preparedness for such accident as severe damage at the core of reactor as a result of natural disasters was quite insufficient.”

In a male-dominated society – only 10% of the Japanese Diet is women, strong female leadership of the movement against the government and nuclear utility, TEPCO, is distinctly noticeable.  In one of the many meetings that I attend organized around the radiation and evacuation of children, I spoke with a group of women who have decided to stay for jobs and the stability of their families but who are wracked by anger at the government and frightened of the consequences of their decision to stay.

One woman, who would only give her name as Nihonmatsu, the town she is from, for apprehension of recrimination for continuing to raise the issue of radiation in Fukushima city, has started meetings for people she trusts to talk about their experiences and strategize actions.  She shows me her government issued papers and radiation monitor.  A long and detailed form, she is daily required to fill out the many boxes with the movements and food intake of her daughter.  When complete, she will mail it back to the government for analysis, along with the dosimeter that her daughter is required to keep on her at all times.  Nihonmatsu asks, “If it’s so safe here in Fukushima, why did the government give us these?”

A second woman, Jinko Mera, who gives her age as “about 50” nods in agreement, “We always have to think about how much radiation our food has.  We want to live free from that.  And the healthiest food is from your own region but we can’t dry persimmons, we can’t eat our peaches, we cannot eat our own food.”

At another organizing meeting on Christmas Day, women lead a discussion of the October sit-in outside the ministry of economy, trade and industry, METI, which contains the Japanese nuclear regulatory body, NISA.

Amidst speeches and reminiscences, we watch the 1983 documentary Carry Greenham Home, about the 19 year women’s peace camp and occupation of the US nuclear missile base at Greenham Common, England.  A new generation of women half a world away are inspired by the songs and collective battle of a different type of anti-nuclear struggle.  They want the government to protect them and their families from the immediate nuclear crisis, but they also don’t want anyone else to go through what they are enduring. They are part of a new campaign to permanently close down all 54 nuclear reactors and eradicate nuclear power from Japanese shores.

According to a recent report by Greenpeace (Japan) and the Tokyo-based Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, Japan could generate 43% of its energy requirements from renewable sources by 2020, easily surpassing and making redundant the 30% that is currently provided by nuclear power (though only 6 of the 54 reactors are currently operational).  With Japan in radical population decline, set to shrink from 125 million people to 100 million by 2050, the only impediment to a sane and safe energy policy is therefore political.

The meeting of activists ends with emotional intensity and spirit as attendees gather in a circle to hold hands and sing; evocative of another circle all those years ago, when 30,000 women formed a ring around the nine mile perimeter of Greenham Common air base and said, They Shall Not Pass.  We sing Furosato, a Japanese song of longing and remembrance:

Someday when I have done what I set out to do,
I will return to where I used to have my home.
Lush and green are the mountains of my homeland.
Pure and clear is the water of my old country home.

The next demonstration of the women of Fukushima is already planned, one bus almost full with exhortations to bring friends and fill more.  On the 28th of December, the people of Fukushima will march once more.

Chris Williams is a long-time environmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket, 2011). He is chair of the science dept at Packer Collegiate Institute and adjunct professor at Pace University in the Dept of Chemistry and Physical Science. Read other articles by Chris.