Radiation from crippled nuclear plant upending lives in eastern Japan

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), has been leaking radioactive materials into the environment for over a month since the crisis began in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that rocked eastern Japan on March 11. On April 12, the assessment of the nuclear disaster was raised to “Level 7,” the highest ranking on the international scale and the same as the worst nuclear accident in human history, the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Radioactive contamination continues to spread in the air, in the soil, and in the sea, gravely affecting a wide spectrum of society, including the agricultural and fishing industries. Residents living within a radius of 20 kilometers from the nuclear plant have been forced to flee their hometowns and are now lingering in a scatter of evacuation centers. I traveled to the affected area to witness the reality of the people whose daily lives have been torn from their foundations by the invisible peril of radiation.

Iitate Village: Farmers agonize over fate of their cows

It was shortly after 7 p.m. and Sadanori Harada, 55, a dairy farmer in the village of Iitate in Fukushima Prefecture, and his wife Kimiko, 51, were feeding their milk cows in the cattle barn.

“I feel bad about giving them such plain feed,” Kimiko said with regret. “We normally give them plenty of a rich mix of home-grown grass, nutritious feed, and other nutrients. Added Sadanori: “With the situation persisting for the past month, our cows have gotten thin and their hides have completely lost their shine.”

Although the cows had eaten, they continued to bellow. Their calls, which have a sad sound, are pleas for more food.

“Because of the radiation from the nuclear plant, we milk them only in the morning now. Before the accident, we were milking them twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. And after limiting the amount of their feed, they don't produce a lot of milk,” explained Sadanori, chagrin in his voice. He told me that about 30 liters of this milk is given to eight calves, just one or two months old, but the rest of the milk is emptied into the fields.

Lying about 40 kilometers northwest of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, against a backdrop of mountains, the village of Iitate has recorded the highest levels of radiation in Fukushima Prefecture due to its geography and the direction of the wind. On March 15, the first day that readings were conducted in the village, the radiation level measured 44.70 microsieverts per hour, about 560 times higher than natural radioactivity in surrounding areas. A sample of milk produced in the village was examined and radioactive iodine, exceeding the designated limit, was detected, thus immediately prohibiting milk shipments. A radiation level of roughly five microsieverts continues to this date.

The Harada family keeps 25 milk cows and normally ships about 420 kilograms of milk each day. This is equivalent to 40,000 yen. If the milk cannot be sold, they will accrue only expenses, such as the cost of feed. Apart from their milk cows, they have 15 Japanese Black Cattle, raised for their meat, as well as 15 other cows of the same breed, including the newly-born calves, that they plan to sell. Five more calves are being carried by their mothers, their births imminent.

“Only male calves have been born this year. We were happy about that, thinking we should sell them at auction and pay off debts that we accumulated when we made earlier investments,” said Kimiko, concerned that the prices of the cows will now fall due to fears of contamination.

“But the situation has progressed to the point where we can't even worry about such things,” Sadanori said, broaching the subject of the “planned evacuation” announced by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano on April 11. “The central government has decided that all residents of Iitate must evacuate within one month.”

Sadanori and Kimiko have been married for 25 years. When they took over the dairy farm from Sadanori's parents, they had debts of as much as 10 million yen. To repay those debts, and raise their two children, they labored every day from early morning to late at night. Over the past decade, they expanded their business from milk cows alone by adding the Japanese Black Cattle, finally gaining some financial stability. As the scale of their operations grew, they bought a new tractor and built a cattle barn and a compost shed.

“Although our electricity and water were cut off for three days following the earthquake, there was virtually no damage in the village,” they told me. “During that time, we had no access to newspapers, TV, or radio so we didn't know about the tsunami and the accident at the nuclear power plant.” Therefore, they had thought that they would be able to return to their usual work routine right away.

“We never dreamed of such a disaster happening nearby,” said Sadanori, his shoulders slumping. “We thought that the sort of accident which took place at Chernobyl was someone else's business.”

The population of Iitate is 6,100. Among the 1,800 households there, 1,200 earn their livelihoods through agriculture, including dairy farming, and cultivating rice and vegetables. On land where iodine and cesium have contaminated the soil, no crops or feed grass can now be grown. At the same time, a plan to compensate the affected farmers is not yet in sight nor has an evacuation site been determined.

“This is not the fault of the farmers. Why do we have to endure such misery?” Kimiko said, eying her skinny milk cows. “We try not to go to the bathroom at night. When the cows sense our presence, they start to moo for more food. The people at the Tokyo Electric Power Company who told us repeatedly that the plant was safe, and others from places like the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, they can't comprehend what we're feeling now.”

If the couple evacuates, and leaves their cows behind, the animals will die of starvation. They both feel strongly that they cannot turn their backs on the cows to which they have lavished so much care. But they wonder what sort of evacuation site could take in their cows as well. As they ponder such questions, they are faced with the reality that their future is unknown.

As I was leaving, I sensed an aftershock, and Sadanori said, “Radiation is a tsunami that never rolls back. And it might get worse.” I could find no reply to his words.

Hirakata Fishing Port: Radioactive materials found in fish

Following my visit to Iitate, the next day I went to Hirakata Fishing Port in the city of Kitaibaraki in Ibaraki Prefecture, which shares a border with Fukushima Prefecture. About 50 five-ton fishing boats were moored neatly at the small port. The scene was vastly different, though, at Onahama Fishing Port in Iwaki City, located 15 kilometers north. At Onahama Fishing Port, some ships weighing over 100 tons were stranded on the pier or listing on the water, like they were sinking.

“The fishermen of Hirakata took their boats out to sea right after the earthquake struck on March 11. We were all very aware of the terrible tsunami caused by the earthquake in Chile 51 years ago,” explained Takashi Suzuki, 62, a fisherman who lives near the port. He added, “But although we saved our boats, there's nothing we can do with them as long as the contamination in the water prevents us from fishing.”

It is now the best season to catch launce, a small fish favored by the Japanese. But a large amount of radioactive waste, which was released from the nuclear plant in Fukushima, located about 70 kilometers north, has drifted down south on the Oyashio Current. Launce caught by members of the Hirakata Fisheries Cooperative revealed radioactive iodine of 4,080 becquerels per kilogram. Later it was found that other launce also contained radioactive cesium.

“Although no contamination was detected in flounder and angler, damaging rumors have cut the selling prices down to less than half of the usual prices. We can't even pay for fuel with those prices,” Mr. Suzuki lamented.

The Ibaraki Prefectural Fisheries Cooperative, along with the Fukushima Prefectural Fisheries Cooperative, have suspended their operations altogether until they are able to declare that conditions are safe. This will require that the situation at the nuclear power plant be stabilized and the contamination of the sea ended.

Mr. Suzuki told me that the contamination of the sea has been doubly distressing for him. Apart from his fishing boat, he also owns a 19-ton sport fishing boat that was an investment of 80 million yen when he bought it 10 years ago. “It's now the season when both the number of fish, and the number of people wanting to fish, are usually high. The members of my family, including my brother and my two sons, stake our lives on the sea. But because of the crisis at the nuclear plant, my clients have been canceling their reservations. We have no reservations at all.”

Despite the disruption in his income, Mr. Suzuki must nevertheless continue to meet his loan payments of 600,000 yen a month for the sport fishing boat. He must also shoulder the costs of restoring his home, which was damaged by the tsunami, as well as for some fishing equipment that was washed away.

“Nuclear power plants are of no benefit to fishermen. When someone mentions iodine-131 or something, it doesn't register. But we're all aware of Hiroshima and Nagasaki so we know that radiation is dangerous,” Mr. Suzuki said, wearing a frown on his tanned face.

“Fishermen must catch fish. That's all we know. If the situation continues like this for another month or so, we'll all be making noise,” he added.

Whether these fishermen, including Mr. Suzuki, are able to resume their work soon is impossible to say.

Kazo City, Saitama: Uncertain future for displaced residents

Some 1,400 residents of the town of Futaba, located within a radius of 10 kilometers from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, have evacuated to the former Saitama Prefectural Kisai High School in Kazo City, Saitama Prefecture. The school, which had already been closed prior to the earthquake of March 11, now serves as a shelter with rows of futon mattresses and other items packed tightly in the gymnasium and classrooms. These are cramped living conditions for the displaced residents.

Behind the school were a number of people, sitting on the ground, chatting and smoking, apparently to escape the confines of the building. One of them was Yasutsugu Takakura, 62, who runs an iron works. Mr. Takakura told me with emotion: “Because of our location near the nuclear plant, the town received subsidy money and we were able to build new facilities, like a community center. I myself owe a lot of my work to the plant. We were told it was absolutely safe, but this disaster has cost us everything.”

Mr. Takakura’s home and factory, located 200 meters from the seashore, were washed away by the massive tsunami. He barely escaped himself. He was able to help some others into the bed of his truck and drive to higher ground. His wife, 58, who had been outside near their house, fled by car and also survived. Mr. Takakura and his wife now spend their days together at the evacuation site.

“The people staying here were thinking that we evacuated because of the tsunami,” Mr. Takakura said. “That's why we assumed we could return to our homes in a few days. But now nobody talks openly anymore about when we might be able to go back.”

The population of Futaba is about 6,900 people. Most of them are reportedly now staying at evacuation centers in Fukushima Prefecture, with about 20 percent of its residents evacuating to the city of Kazo.

Mineo Kurita, 71, is retired from the iron works owned by Mr. Takakura. “A large number of people are missing,” he said. “The relatives of those people will have trouble believing that their loved ones are dead unless they can see their bodies. The fact that we can't return to our hometown due to the high level of radiation there is painful.”

Mr. Kurita’s house lies 3 kilometers from the nuclear power plant. Situated on a patch of higher ground, the house was partly damaged inside, but is still livable. Fortunately, the three members of his family escaped the tsunami's wrath. “I wish I could go home tomorrow,” Mr. Kurita said. “But if I can't go home now, I want the length of time, whether five years or ten years, to be announced as soon as possible. The situation like this is prolonging the agony.” The people around him nodded their heads in agreement.

A life deprived of privacy, while facing an uncertain future, is fueling the stress and anxiety of the evacuees.

(Originally published on April 18, 2011)