Hiroshima Memo: Report from Fukushima

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

Fears of radiation exposure and contamination continue

One year has passed since the accident occurred at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant, operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company. But even today the fears of exposure and contamination involving the spread of invisible radiation remain, and many people in Fukushima Prefecture must bear unreasonable burdens wrought by the unexpected disaster. For these residents, the future is still unknown.

At the end of February I paid another visit to the affected area.

Matsukawaura Fishing Port in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, is located about 50 kilometers north of the crippled nuclear plant. As heavy snow fell, about 50 fishermen were waiting for the return of a fishing boat to port.

“It would be nice if the boat was coming back with its flags raised, the sign of a good catch. But, actually, it went out there to get samples of various kinds of fish so we can test the levels of radiation,” explained Koichi Matsumoto, 57, president of the local trawlers association. Packed in the boxes of ice unloaded from the ship were about 20 types of seafood, including flatfish, octopuses, snow crabs, cod, and rock trout.

Fishing for samples has been carried out weekly. The accumulated levels of radioactive Cesium 137 and 134 are determined and this data is released to the public through the local media and other channels.

The radiation levels of most types of seafood fall well below the level of 500 becquerels of Cesium per kilogram, the provisional standard set by the Japanese government. The levels found in some fish, however, such as rock trout, are exceeding that standard. Starting in April, the standard will be tightened significantly to the level of 100 becquerels, one-fifth the current level.

Not one fisherman in Fukushima has been able to take his boat out fishing since March 11 of last year. This March, too, the Fukushima Prefectural Fisheries Cooperative Association made the decision to refrain from any fishing.

“To be honest, it’s not the compensation we’re looking for,” Mr. Matsumoto said, speaking for the other fishermen there. “The fulfillment we get as fishermen comes from catching fish in the sea. How long can we continue life like this? In these conditions, we can’t have any hopes or dreams,” he added, lamenting the lingering problems they face. Though the sea holds its abundance before their eyes, they are unable to fish the waters and their feelings of frustration and bitterness continue to simmer.

The village of Iitate, with a population of roughly 6,000 people, was evacuated last April due to fears of contamination. The entire village, with the exception of elderly nursing home residents, were forced to leave their homes. Among the town’s livestock farmers, a major industry of Iitate, all 11 dairy farmers had to halt their operations and just ten percent of the 80 cattle farmers have managed to sustain their work in the region. The other cattle farmers have relocated to less-contaminated parts of Fukushima Prefecture or to other prefectures.

Sadanori Harada, 56, has been able to continue his cattle farming by rebuilding some disassembled cattle sheds in the village of Nakajima, located in the southern part of Fukushima Prefecture. “Right after the war, it was said that the nation was decimated, but its mountains and rivers remained. But now, though the nation might be prosperous, we’ve lost the mountains and rivers,” Mr. Harada said, referring to how his hometown has been contaminated by radiation.

The village of Iitate has devised its own decontamination plan and aims to have villagers return to their town in two years. But most farmers, including Mr. Harada, are skeptical. Decontaminating mountains and farm land is not an easy task. No one knows how long it really takes for the environment to be restored so that farmers won’t face harmful rumors in connection with their products and can engage again in their work with a sense of security. And for families with children, steering clear of possible exposure to radiation is a higher priority than returning to live in the village.

For the residents of municipalities located near the Fukushima plant that have become heavily contaminated, such as the town of Futaba which once had a population of about 7,000, the reality is that their return cannot be envisioned.

Even today, the ramifications of the nuclear accident on the cultivation of rice, vegetables, and fruits, as well as the fishing industry, are immense. I must assume that no one in Fukushima Prefecture would say that the nuclear accident is “over.”

The lives of evacuees continue in temporary housing and temporary schools. This fact alone is enough to exacerbate stress levels. Meanwhile, in Fukushima Prefecture, ties can become strained between those who wish to evacuate outside the prefecture and other local residents due to conflicting views over the dangers faced by radiation. I heard that some families have left the prefecture very quietly because they were wary of attracting the attention of others.

In all, about 150,000 residents of Fukushima Prefecture have become evacuees, both those forced by government orders and others who have left their homes voluntarily. Among this number, over 60,000 have moved to areas outside the prefecture and an exodus of 1,000 people a month continues.

The people of Fukushima, whose former lives were shattered by the accident at the nuclear power plant and now must bear a host of fears, are calling strongly for the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company to provide them with compensation for their losses. At the same time, these residents hope to build on the lessons learned from the accident by transforming their prefecture from the traditional reliance on nuclear energy into a leader of renewable energy resources. This new orientation has been articulated in a vision statement put forward by Fukushima Prefecture with regard to its recovery.

On March 11, 2012, the one-year anniversary of the accident, the residents of Fukushima will hold memorial services for the many victims of the earthquake and tsunami. At the same time, a large rally will be held in the city of Koriyama to call for the elimination of nuclear power in Japan. Among the organizers of this event are the presidents of the Fukushima Prefectural Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives and the Fukushima Prefectural Fisheries Cooperative Association.

During my visit, the message of the people of Fukushima came through loud and clear: We must not allow others to suffer the sort of anguish we have experienced as radiation sufferers of the Fukushima accident. I believe most residents understand the responsibility now facing this site of radiation exposure.

I hope the bond between the people of Fukushima and the people of Hiroshima will continue to grow.

(Originally published on March 8, 2012)