Fukushima: Uncertainty is the new norm

Living with the ‘known unknowns’ for three years is taking its toll on residents near the damaged Daiichi plant.

Michie Masukura lost her family and home in the tsunami and now lives in temporary housing [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]
Michie Masukura lost her family and home in the tsunami and now lives in temporary housing [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

Fukushima City, Japan – As the winter sun sets over the rows of 208 portable housing units – home to 350 evacuees – Michie Masukura, 61, counts the cash she has collected from taking newspapers to the recycling depot.

At ¥6.5/kg ($0.65/kg), a lot of heavy lifting yields little profit.

The Japanese can-do spirit is willing, but alas, empowering oneself in the three years since the earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 20,000 people – and the subsequent nuclear disaster that forced the evacuation of tens of thousands – that mission has become a daily grind.

Masukura is a member of a committee formed at the housing centre charged with organising events that help cheer up the occupants of this particular cluster of tiny porto-cabins (there are many in the region), but the ¥1,000 ($10) per unit per year they receive from the government does not go far in funding such endeavours.

The committee relies on donations, some cash that comes in from the city office, and then recycling whatever they can for money.

Masukura, 61, who lost her mother, sister, brother-in-law and home in the town of Namie to the tsunami, has been living in her temporary home since July 2011.

“All the young people are gone – they’ve gone to work in other places. Those with children also left,” said Masukura, whose improbably cheery and energetic demeanor cut a sharp contrast to her daily reality. Her three sons are all living in nearby towns.

“The hardest is when we were so cold and were living in a gym. We just had what we were wearing, nothing else, eating cold rice balls, no baths,” she said.

She moved to three other places, some better than others, before she landed here, where her windows are now double-glazed and she can take regular hot baths. The plan is to move people out of these temporary homes in about three years, but the committee chortles and offers a collective shrug to that.

“Some people can’t decide if they want to go back [to their evacuated towns] because they’re not sure of what’s going to happen,” said Sadami Namie. “But I’m 80 anyway. I don’t have much of a future three years from now.”

Screening for… what?

It is hoped, however, that the children of Fukushima will have a long and healthy future.

To that end, the prefecture, with the help of Fukushima University’s medical school, has screened children for thyroid cancer, as that is the kind of cancer to which they are the most susceptible from radiation. 

After all, information is power, right? Well, not always, it seems.

During a recent sub-committee meeting held in a wedding hall – complete with a disco ball hanging from the ceiling – a panel of prefectural workers, physicians with Fukushima Medical University and the national health insurance company each presented their findings. There seemed to be some confusion as to what they were looking for and what they had found, and, indeed, why they were looking for it in the first place.

Will there appear to be a rise in thyroid cancer in Fukushima because researchers are now screening for it?

Their reports were scrutinised by a panel of medical experts from hospitals and universities, almost all of whom had questions about the methodology of some of the information presented:

Looking at Chernobyl data, did the size of the tumours found indicate that they had been present prior to the accident? (Undetermined)

Were all hospitals screening for cancer operating under standard protocol? (Yes)

What about baselines of exposure to radiation prior to the accident – can they offer any solid basis of comparison? (No)

Is the current number of screenings even enough to say anything definitive about how many cases of thyroid cancer might be directly caused by radiation exposure from Fukushima? (No)

Yuko Hino, senior staff communications planner from Fukushima University’s medical school, said: “While the numbers cannot establish any direct connect relationship between the cancers and radiation, they can study the size of the tumours and compare the data with future data from areas with low dose or no dose of radiation to see what they can determine.”

Criticism from the panel, she said, was welcome. “It’s very important to have input from a third party – it will be taken into consideration as we continue the study,” said Hino.

Kenji Shibuya, professor and chair of the department of Global Health Policy at Tokyo University’s Graduate School of Medicine, said the “numbers are not enough to determine whether they are connected to radiation”.

One stated reason for the screenings is to help eliminate fear among people worrying about becoming ill as a result of radiation exposure.

However, the absence of a control group – screening data from Fukushima prior to the disaster – further complicates trying to extract useful information from the current statistics, leaving Shibuya to ask how figures with no real conclusion can help people.

But it was clear that for some on the panel, some data – any data – would serve to calm the public.

Burying contamination

The Fukushima City Contamination Information Plaza is a quiet room filled with information no one is really looking at these days, mostly because they can neither understand it nor do much about what it tells them.

On the wall there are charts showing decontaminationgoals and slow progress, lots of displays, videos and interactive screens for residents to use when trying to figure out what kind of radioactive substance has leaked, where, and how long they will have to deal with radioactive debris.

Burial site for radioactive debris in Okuma [D. Parvaz[Al Jazeera]

While the office centre is a cheery space and volunteers who staff it are knowledgeable and affable, here’s the awful truth: The contamination caused by the leaking, seeping Daiichi plant isn’t going to just go away.

Contaminated soil and material is being bagged up and buried in a number of sites, with an intermediate storage date of 30 years. That’s a long time to temporarily store something that no one in this small, populous island nation wants around.

As of now, nearly every town in the area has at least one of these dump/burial/storage sites, but the plan, said volunteer environmental engineer Saburo Murakami, is to move these bags of radioactive debris into two towns within the evacuation zone: Okuma and Futaba.

Was this because the towns were evacuated already and there would be minimal fuss over the debris being stored there? “Well, yes, you could say such a thing,” Murakami replied.

But just gathering the stuff – the top five centimetres of soil – is backbreaking, requiring massive amounts of manpower. The number of people volunteering to do such work has already dwindled, and with resources being diverted to prepare Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics, “it’s going to get a lot harder to find people” to shovel and bag radioactive debris, said Murakami.

Even when bagged, there remains something inelegant about having to hold on to such debris for at least 300 years – the long-range estimate.

“Still, though, you need to do something,” said Tsuyoshi Mishima, 67, a semi-retired nuclear engineer. Mishima was not an employee of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operates the damaged site.

“My whole life is radiation,” said Mishima, who is originally from Hiroshima. He added that understanding what happened, and is continuing to happen, at the nuclear plant is quite difficult for locals.

Between 20 and 30 people drop into the information plaza each day, which he said is not a huge number, but not surprising given that most people get their information from the media. He also said the focus of concern has shifted from radiation levels in the city to how the decontamination efforts are progressing, and what is still unfolding at the plant.

They are, however, powerless to do anything but measure the radiation around them. They can’t move massive amounts of earth and they can’t make the radioactive caesium-137 leave any sooner.

“People are still worried about the site itself,” said Mishima.

Considering what another massive earthquake could do to the unstable Daiichi plant, he said, “Thanks to the natural law, such an earthquake will happen maybe once every 1,000 years. I just pray it doesn’t happen again.”

Follow D Parvaz on Twitter: @dparvaz

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