Christmas in the Radiation Zone

It’s the first thing you notice as we drive over the glittering, snow-specked mountain range from Fukushima to Soma on the northeast coast of Japan and pass the many persimmon trees dotting the landscape, all laden with fruit ready for harvesting. But this year, the persimmons will remain untouched. They are a silent reminder of the slow-burning, far-reaching menace of a nuclear accident.


As we drove, I watched the readings of the omnipresent dosimeter dangling from the rearview mirror. Arriving at a children’s summer camp, I am handed a facemask as an ominous beeping sound begins and the readings peak above 1 micro-sievert per hour. We pass an old local incinerator burning refuse and the numbers spike again.


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, the people of Fukushima have had to take matters into their own hands. The government’s own 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.” According to the people of Fukushima, this tendency is continuing, especially now that Prime Minister Noda has 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 visit one of the many mecca’s to Japanese consumerism that are a feature of every town. But rather than shopping, inside the mall I am taken to the Citizens Radioactivity Measuring Station. Behind the counter, there’s equipment to test food for radiation as well as a whole body counter where children and adults come 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. It is free for anyone below the age of 20.


The cows have been evacuated, but apparently beyond the compulsory evacuation zone of around 12.42 miles, 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 sees them once a 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 the Fukushima Network for Saving Children from Radiation which is campaigning 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 has spread far and wide, yet the government raised the allowable radiation doses 20 times from the internationally recognized 1mSv/year to 20. This means that anywhere over 0.6 micro sieverts/hour, an amount previously limited to people working in “radiologically controlled areas,” is no longer cause for evacuation.


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 will never be able to return to their homes due to long-lived radioisotopes contaminating the ground, food, and water. Indeed, the Interim Report concludes: “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—at least what remains of Isobe. We are met by Toshiko Kooriki at her new temporary housing in the midst of 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.


We meet Hatsumi Terashima, no longer a fisherman after 54 years. 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 a mile inland by the first wave. His knee broken, a rope caught Hatsumi and he was heaved to safety, unlike his family members who were among the 264 who perished. But he can’t fish because the ocean is too radioactive. He passes his time on the sea catching 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 12-mile 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 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.”


As we pass through Iatate on our way back from Soma, the only lights are from street lamps 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 train our Geiger counters on the soil. The displays jump to six micro-sieverts/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 those events, discuss radiation levels and how their land has become polluted and made the people fearful as the government tries to convince them it is safe.


Japan is often portrayed abroad as the country most capable and prepared to deal with a nuclear accident. Yet, reading the government-ordered Interim Report, I come 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. Also, there were a series of operational errors at the plant, as well as communication breakdowns and general lack of planning. The Report is highly critical of the emergency preparedness, the actions of TEPCO, and the improper use of SPEEDI. According to the report, along with many other operational and emergency response failings, NISA (Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency) staff were not even dispatched to TEPCO’s headquarters to gather information in order to report effectively to the prime minister, even though TEPCO is just down the street from the METI and NISA offices. In echoes of the lack of preparedness of BP to cope with the Gulf oil spill, measures by TEPCO to protect their nuclear plants from tsunamis were only “voluntary.” Being a capitalist entity run in the interests of profit rather than safety, “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.”


Female Leadership


In a male-dominated society, the female leadership of the movement against the government and the nuclear utility, TEPCO, has become distinctly noticeable. In one of the many meetings organized around the radiation levels and evacuation of children, I spoke with a group of women who decided to stay for jobs and the stability of their families, but who are angry at the government and frightened of the consequences of their decision. One woman had started meetings for people she trusts to talk about their experiences and strategize. She showed me her government-issued papers, radiation monitor, and a long and detailed form she is required to fill out daily, describing 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, 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 led a discussion of the October sit-in outside the ministry of economy, trade, and industry, METI, which contains 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 U.S. 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 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 percent of its energy requirements from renewable sources by 2020, easily surpassing and making redundant the 30 percent that is provided by nuclear power (though only 6 of the 54 reactors are currently operational). With Japan set to shrink from 125 million people to 100 million by 2050, the only impediment to a sane and safe energy policy is political.


The meeting of activists ends as attendees gather in a circle to hold hands and sing—evocative of another circle 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.  


Chris Williams is an environmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket, 2010). 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. His writings have appeared in Z Magazine, Counterpunch, the Indypendent, Dissident Voice, and Climate and Capitalism. He took the photos in this article.