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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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