Fighting for a radiation-free Japan

Communities in the Tohoku region are struggling for information, decontamination and a say in future policies.

No Nukes protestors
A Geiger counter, used to measure radiation, has been made by engineers in Fukushima [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

Namie Town, Fukushima Prefecture – The deeply lush, green canopy that is Namie is the stuff of tourism brochures advertising paradise. Dense, stunning forests line narrow, winding roads hugging crystalline rivers. Mountains packed with trees pour into green valleys and farms.

It’s breath-taking, yes, but unfortunately, this gorgeous town is also considered dangerously radioactive and deemed uninhabitable by the authorities at the moment.

It’s nearly rice harvesting season, but in Namie, which once held 21,000 residents, the rice paddies are neglected, overrun with weeds and dry patches. It is now a ghost town, evacuated since the Daiichi nuclear power plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), caught fire, exploded and started leaking radiation into the air, water and soil after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit Japan six months ago.

The radiation contamination has created a pristine post-apocalyptic postcard, a place where no one is allowed to live and farmers are forbidden from growing anything. It will be years before the full extent of damage to area residents and ecosystem alike will be known.

For now, it’s just emptiness.

The hills of Namie – a town that is 70 per cent forest – are uninhabitable due to radiation [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

One Namie farmer, Haruji Suenaga, was forced to abandon his farm six months ago. He first went to stay with his daughter in Saitama for five months until temporary housing – one of dozens of pre-fabricated units built on a gravel lot in neighbouring Nihonmatsu – opened up.

I can grow it, but I’m not sure if it’s harmful to eat, he said of his crops, primarily rice, daikon radishes and scallions.

The remarkably spry 82-year-old told Al Jazeera that he did not feel the compensation thus far from TEPCO – just under $13,000 – has been sufficient. He said he’s not angry – rather, Suenaga has resigned himself to the facts as he knows them (his farm, his livelihood and his former life, are all gone). He just wants to be taken care of.

I’ve had to use my savings to buy food and things, he said, adding he’d go back to his farm if he could, but he worries that his produce will never be safe for consumption again. He said he recalls when TEPCO proposed building the power plant, and remember the promise they made: to help us if something happens.

I believe that promise, said Suenaga.

The emergency housing units are filled with people who feel they’ve been left in the lurch. Many lost their jobs at the same time as losing their homes, yet they have mortgage payments to maintain. Then there’s the matter of paying for food and utilities while in temporary housing.

People are better off in the emergency shelters, said Miyoko Kumano, 56, referring to the gymnasiums and schools that have been home to hundreds of thousands of evacuees from tsunami, earthquake and nuclear evacuation zones since March. All told, the TEPCO disaster has made radiation refugees out of nearly 88,000 people.

They take care of everything for you there. Not here, said Kumano, who lives in the portable structures with her husband, daughter, son-in-law and 12-year-old granddaughter.

When told that Al Jazeera had set up an interview with Namie’s mayor the following day, Kumano said, Please ask him when we can go back home.

Officials ‘cold, like stones’

The embattled Namie mayor, Tamotsu Baba, would very much like to know the answer to Kumano’s question – he’s been given no real timeline, and the decontamination process, he’s been told, is still under analysis. In other words, it’s unclear how well the decontamination will work.

Baba said he’s hoping people can return after two years, but then, he also said that was wishful thinking.

From his temporary city hall in Nihonmatsu, Baba is doing what so many politicians aren’t – he’s making a real ruckus about how poorly TEPCO communicated with his office (that is to say, not at all) in the initial critical hours of the nuclear crisis.

He’s been open with media outlets worldwide about the outrage he felt at finding out about the meltdown taking place just a few kilometres from his town when watching the news the day after the accident, saying the company’s negligence in handling the matter was tantamount to murder.

Read for more of our coverage of Japan’s disaster

When he pushed TEPCO for an official response to his complaint, the company took 40 days to get back to him, saying that the nuclear accident had caused a power outage, and so they couldn’t reach anyone at city hall.

This is a country with civilisation, and even though we have satellite phones, they didn’t communicate with us, said Baba. Moving ahead, does Baba feel that he – and all the other residents of Namie – can rely on the government and TEPCO to keep them safe and informed?

If you don’t get information at the crucial moment, you can’t trust them, no matter how much information you receive now, said Baba.

They have no sincerity; they don’t have empathy for the psychological pain we are feeling.

The government and TEPCO need to admit to the crime they’ve committed. Then they need to work on making amends. This accident was not a natural disaster. It was caused by humans,” he said.

They’re just dealing with paperwork. They’re cold, like stones, said Baba. And there is a lot of paperwork to be done. Displaced individuals are getting small payments, but businesses that have lost revenue as a result of the nuclear meltdown need to go through an arduous 60-page application process for compensation. Two TEPCO employees were parked in the Namie city hall for that very purpose.

But things are moving slowly, and Baba said that if matters like compensation and decontamination take longer to resolve, people will feel defeated, that their hearts will sink. In order to prevent that from happening, people need to have hope that things will go back to normal, the way they were before March 11.

Otherwise, they may never go home again.

Trying to ease the pain

It’s hard to comprehend the level of frustration and fear currently being experienced in Japan, especially in the Tohoku region, the area hit hardest by the earthquake, tsunami and radiation contamination.

As of September 10, the number of confirmed dead nationwide – that is, the number of found and identified bodies – is 15,781. An additional 4,068 are missing, and according to the National Police Agency, 3,250 bodies more bodies have been found and not yet identified (meaning that they are not counted among the confirmed dead or missing).

Over 80,000 people lost their homes in the tsunami and earthquake, and nearly 7,000 still live in emergency shelters. 

The culture isn’t one that encourages expressions of complaint and dissent, but there are signs that people are psychologically suffering and that they’re starting to seek help. For instance, a hospital in Kesennuma, where many still live in shelters, has started a clinic to deal with the psychological impacts of the tsunami that killed over 1,000 people there. They say that 10 per cent of the patients seen there are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and 50 per cent are clinically depressed.

In the shadow of all that, people in the region are also forced to learn the basics of nuclear safety, to try to find a way to trust their government and power company and then move forward. But the trust thing is holding them back.

That TEPCO withheld or was slow to share information has been established. The extent of the government’s culpability is unknown, but many feel that the state has not made their safety a priority. This has created pockets of activism in various communities, where people are taking matters into their own hands.

For example, fed up with the insufficient number of Geiger counters available, a group of engineers in Fukushima prefectures have created their own made in Fukushima gizmo. They will donate them to schools around the area, and make them available for sale at a reasonable price in a month or so.

Another team has invented a process that decontaminates soil and another for home use that can clean water contaminated with radiation.

A group of roughly 700 parents in Fukushima have formed the Fukushima Network for Saving Children from Radiation, an organisation that isn’t going to be happy with just a radiation testing station.

Mieko Toyama said that the group will be opening a Vegetable Café in October, a produce shop with vegetables straight from farms outside Fukushima (some of it provided at discount prices by farmers from Osaka and communities near Kobe, which was also hit by a major earthquake in 1995).

In short, some parents in Fukushima aren’t taking any chances.

Levels of food and drink radiation allowed by Japan’s government are higher than in other countries

The 500 becquerel (or bq, a unit of radiation) per kg of caesium-137 in food acceptable in our vegetables is much higher than the US, than Belarus, than Ukraine. But the levels accepted for imported vegetables are lower, said Toyama, adding that one should no longer assume that something is safe because it’s being sold in the supermarket.

If the level of caesium is less than 500 bq per kilo, then they just say it’s safe and doesn’t contain any radiation … even if it has 499 bq per kilo, it’s stamped as safe, and can be served in school lunches.

Even small operations are aware of this issue. The local famer’s co-op that sells its wares in a municipal centre of sorts in Touwa has invested in a becquerel counter (a piece of equipment that measures radiation) in order put people’s minds at ease with regards to their goods.

Masatoshi Muto, chairman of the local NPO (non-profit state organisation), said that the group has also been measuring more than 80 points for radiation using Geiger counters donated by a mulberry farm in Kyoto.

Measuring the level of radiation at ground level as well as in the food has given consumers some comfort.

But we do need to decontaminate the soil, Muto said. Then we will decontaminate people’s spirits from the anxiety of not knowing.

Indeed, for the Japanese, it’s been six months of anxiety piled upon anxiety.

Hiromichi Matumura, a Buddhist monk of the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji sect, deals with the public’s anguish on a very fundamental level.

“We go visit the community centres set up near the temporary housing areas, taking with us tea and snacks,” said Matumura, who is usually based in Kyoto and also works at the temple’s disaster relief office.

“As people relax and talk to us, then they might ask for help.”

What people ask for, mostly, he said, are prayers for the ones they’ve lost.

But in the face of such loss and so much work to be done still, what can people do to lessen their suffering?

“It might be a good chance to think about what we have been building by developing a civilisation that can be destroyed by earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear (accidents),” said Matumura, who spoke to Al Jazeera in Sendai City.

“If our happiness can’t be built by development of civilisation, what is real happiness?”

A precarious survival

The International Commission on Radiological Protection (the nuclear lobby and its cadre of experts) gathered in Fukushima City on September 11 and concluded that the risks of radiation exposure were largely misunderstood by the public. But the public, potential misunderstandings and all, is left to deal with daily life in Fukushima.

The meeting – closed to the public – provoked outrage among Fukushima residents, who feel that experts refused to hear their concerns at a conference held in their name.

But life goes on.

While towns like Namie – where residents have been forced to evacuate – remain almost entirely empty, some dare to remain in what is considered the “evacuation zone” – 30 km from the Daiichi plant. Here, residents are told to leave, but unlike what the Japanese refer to as the “exclusion zone” – 20 km or so around the plant – a few have made a case for remaining.

Driving through Iitate, which lies in the evacuation zone, is a lot like driving through a zombie town. Store windows are boarded up, no one walks around outside and the few cars moving zip by with purpose.

Tadao Munakata sets up one of Safecast’s mobile radiation detection devices on his car in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima

Hiroyuki Sasaki, managing director of the Iitate nursing home, where the average age of residents is 84.7 years old, is among the few who have decided to keep coming back into the evacuation zone.

The decision to keep the nursing home operating within the evacuation zone was neither unilateral nor easy to make. Patients and their families were consulted. Alternative accommodations were sought. Risks were weighed.

“We had to think of the comfort and security of the residents,” said Sasaki. “The level of radiation inside is not bad … also, when the residents of another home were evacuated, several of them died because the move was difficult,” he said.

“So we stayed here, where it’s easier for the families to visit the residents.”

Still, even though he doesn’t volunteer the information, it’s clear that Sasaki is concerned. Some staff quit after the radiation began leaking. The remaining staff members carry Geiger counters with them. And he worries about what to do if the situation worsens and he’s forced to evacuate the 100 or so residents of the home.

“Maybe I can’t find a place for everyone and I will have to split them up into smaller groups,” said Sasaki. Of course, in addition to being stressful for the patients, the most mobile 10 per cent of them being wheelchair-bound, this would pose a major staffing issue as well, because each group would need its own nurses and facilities.

Even if he could pull it off, that amount of change could be harmful in and of itself.

“This way, the environment will stay the same for the residents,” said Sasaki. Of course, his environment will never be the same.

The long haul

The work of gathering information they trust while pushing towards a nuclear-free Japan is bound to be a long one, and activists are digging in their heels for a lengthy battle.

“This sort of thing isn’t just for today or tomorrow. It has to be done for the next 20 years,” Tadao Munakata, one such activist, told Al Jazeera.

Munakata, who is the president of TeleJapan Corp., is also a volunteer for Safecast, a group that has been crowdsourcing radiation readings since April.

Munakta spends much of his days driving around the prefecture, going down country roads, bombing through highways and drifting through empty streets in evacuated towns with a radiation monitor he’s borrowed from Safecast, adding that he hoped automated detection posts would be installed throughout the country.

But he’s not holding his breath, which is why he logs 200 km a week with a radiation monitor strapped to his 1999 Volkswagen Golf. The monitor is hooked up to a laptop inside the car, and records radiation levels in the air every five seconds.

With the laptop on the passenger seat and a map on the iPad on his lap, Munataka, who is also involved in a venture to manufacture Geiger counters made in Fukushima, helps do what he thinks the government and TEPCO aren’t doing: Provide correct, timely information on the rate and movement of radiation.

After all, some parts in the exclusion zone, within 20 km of the plant, have lower radiation levels than some areas outside.

“It makes me sad, seeing all these empty houses, knowing that people will probably never be able to come back to them,” he said, passing by a cluster of abandoned homes in Namie.

He’s sceptical of what he’s being told by the Japanese government and TEPCO.

“So I have to do this. I can’t just watch what is happening,” said the Koriyama City resident, whose home is around 60 km from the damaged plant.

The potential for having to deal with other damaged plants in the seismically active country are considerable: There are 54 nuclear plants in Japan at the moment, with at least a dozen more reactors planned for construction around in country, including in Namie. Forty-one of the plants are currently closed for inspection.

Congressman Takano still lives in an emergency shelter six months after the earthquake [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

Given their druthers, anti-nuclear activists – who want to move to wind and solar energy as soon as possible – would keep them shut, forever. Plans for a wind farm near the Daiichi plant have been announced, but much more will be needed to meet Japan’s energy needs.

Hiroshi Takano, a congressman in Onagawa, a coastal town left in tatters by the tsunami, is worried about the nuclear plant in his town. The plant, he said, is “old, like Fukushima’s”. He’s bracing for a long fight, which is remarkable, given that he’s already been in the trenches for 30 years.

That’s when Takano said he decided he was against nuclear energy, after speaking to a professor who told him the metals used to make the containment tanks at nuclear plants would eventually crack – it was just a matter of time.

“He said if the cracks were inevitable, so then was a meltdown,” said Takano, 68, who is still living in a shelter – a gymnasium – six months after the earthquake.

Takano is one of two congressmen in his district – and one of very few in the country as a whole – who has been speaking out against the dangers of nuclear power for decades. He’s been trying to shut down the nuclear plant in Onagawa for years, worrying about what could become of his district in the event of an incident.

But perhaps the crisis at the Daiichi plant has given him some credibility with his critics, perhaps even won over some of his opponents in congress?

“No,” laughs Takano. “I think they’re waiting to see what the prime minister will say about it. Then they will agree,” he said, adding that at best, his colleagues tend to be indecisive.

But even though Takano isn’t getting much support in the Japanese government for his campaign to shut down the country’s nuclear power plants, he is getting more attention from the public, and for now, that’s good enough, as he wants to mostly spread the word on a grassroots level, beyond his community and beyond the Tohoku region.

“I was going to retire,” he said. “But I think I will run again, just for this,” said Takano.

“I can’t stop now.”

Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @DParvaz

Source: Al Jazeera