I had a day to kill in the city before heading out to the coast and I decided I should learn a thing or two about nuclear power and the dangers of nuclear radiation before my departure for Fukushima. Sendai is home to one of Japan's premier research institutions, Tohoku University, which according to the website, has been on the frontline in the disaster relief effort since the beginning, employing its resources in the School of Dentistry to identify bodies, as well as monitoring radiation levels at its Cyclotron and Radioisotope Center. Before seeking an interview with one of the professors I did some of my own online research and this is what I learned...
On 11 March 2011, Japan was struck by the largest earthquake in its recorded history, a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale. With the tsunami that followed, tens of thousands of Japanese lost their lives and the country sustained tens of billions in dollars in damages, including partial meltdowns of 3 nuclear reactors at the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant, which released dangerous radiation into the environment. The area within a twenty mile radius of the plant was permanently evacuated, surrounding cities in the danger zone temporarily evacuated, food and water restricted, and advisories issued that children remaining in the area not go outside unless fully covered and not for more than the suggested daily allowance determined by their locality. More than six months after the quake and the radiation has still not been completely contained. Radioactive plutonium has recently been discovered in six localities, including the city of Iatate, some 40 km from the plant. People are scared. Indeed, nearly everyone I've mentioned of my plans to bicycle to Fukushima has expressed great concern for my safety and urged me to stay far away from the coast. In Aizuwakamatsu, a young lady told me that her friends from outside the prefecture have refused to visit her. Aizu is further from Daiichi than Tokyo and such concerns might be unreasonable, but they demonstrate the stigma now associated with the prefecture. There have been stories in the news of discrimination felt by evacuees; hotels, for example, have refused business to evacuees and their children have been picked on at their new schools. These incidents have prompted the ministry of education to institute a program of radiation education in schools. Many, however, feel the government isn't doing enough. Yasuko, the young lady I met in Kusatsu, who was so concerned about her family in Fukushima, thought the government has been outright dishonest about the severety of contamination to the environment and its associated health risks. One of Japan's most vocal critics of the Japanese government's response to the nuclear disaster has been professor Tatsuhiko Kodama, head of the Radioisotope Center at Japan's prestigious University of Tokyo. On the 27th of July, Kodama gave a now famous speech when he was called as witness to give testimony to the Committee on Welfare and Labor in Japan's lower House in the Diet. Kodama's anger was written all over his face and at times his voice quivered with emotion. Comfortably seated in the driveway of the private home I was pirating wireless internet, I watched the English translation of Kodama's speech on Youtube on my iPod.
"There is no definite report from TEPCO or the Japanese government as to exactly how much radioactive material has been released from Fukushima. Using our knowledge base at the Radioisotope Center, we measured, based on thermal output, it is 29.6 times the amount released by the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In uranium-equivalent, it is 20 Hiroshima bombs.
What is more frightening is that whereas the radiation from a nuclear bomb will decrease to one-thousandth in one year, the radiation from a nuclear power plant will only decrease to one-tenth.
In other words, we should recognize from the start that just like Chernobyl, Fukushima 1 Nuke Plant has released radioactive materials equivalent in the amount of tens of nuclear bombs, and the resulting contamination is far worse than the contamination by a nuclear bomb."
Kodama berates the government for their ineptitude and goes on in detail about the dangers of nuclear radiation, the difficulties in detection and clean up, and specifics on how radiation can cause cancer in the human body, of which children and pregnant women are at greatest risk. Kodama appeals directly to the government to make people's health their primary concern, not finance. To see Kodama's speech in its entirety, click on the following link: http://ex-skf.blogspot.com/2011/07/video-with-english-caption-professor.html
I arrived at Tohoku University's Cyclotron and Radioisotope Center mid afternoon. I took my shoes off at the reception, placed them in a cubby and slipped on the courtesy slippers provided. Instead of checking in with the front desk, where it is doubtful I would be understood, much less granted an interview sans appointment, I decided instead to roam the halls with the hopes of running into a professor. I didn't get very far when I was stopped by a man in a lab coat, but, as expected, he didn't speak English. He signaled for me to follow him to a boardroom where a group of important looking people were in the midst of a meeting. A young man, formally dressed, came out to inquire about the purpose of my visit and I told him I wished to meet with a professor. "Which professor?" he asked. "Oh it really doesn't matter, anyone in the nuclear physics department will do," I replied. To my surprise, I soon found myself seated on a plush leather sofa in the office of Professor Yasuhiro Sakemi, the chair of the Nuclear Radiation Physics department. After the initial pleasantries, I got down to business and shared with him my sketch book, describing my journey, in which my sketches corresponded, and how it was that I became interested in the subject of radiation that brought me here today. The professor, amused enough by my presentation, was nonetheless eager to satisfy my queries and explained that he was not in fact the most qualified person for an interview on the topic, but would be happy to introduce me to someone who was. I was then taken to the offices of the research team that has been monitoring radiation levels in the food, water, air and soil of Fukushima and Myagi prefectures since the early days of the Daiichi debacle. I stood by nervously as Professor Yasuhiro debriefed a very serious looking Professor Hiromichi Yamazaki about the nature of my visit. As soon as Hiromichi turned to me, a big smile streched across his face and I was greeted with a warm welcome that put me quickly at ease.
I spoke with Professor Hiromichi for the better part of an hour and as we spoke, we walked out onto a terrace, where a scientist was tweaking a machine that the professor informed me was one such devise for monitoring the levels of radiation in the air. Professor Hiromichi explained to me that samples of vegetables, such as potatoes, spinach, beans, radishes and corn, are brought to the lab courtesy of the Prefectures' Department of Agriculture, which draws its samples from throughout Fukushima and Myagi prefectures. In April, his team found levels of radioactive cesium-137 and iodine-131 at levels 10x the norm. Levels of radiation have since dropped significantly, and as of late, his team has not found dangerous levels of radioactive material in neither food, air, water, nor soil in Fukushima or Myagi prefectures. Asked how could this be, when there are reports that radioactive material is still being leaked from the plant, the professor explained to me his theory. First off, radioactive iodine has a physical life of only 8 days. As for cesium, the physical life of which, is approximately 30 years, Japan's high clay content has effectively absorbed the radioactive material. In every 100 grams of soil throughout Japan, can be found 20 grams of clay. Once the clay absorbs the radioactive material, it prevents its transmition into the environment. It was professor Hiromichi's professional opinion that the food water and air of Fukushima prefecture at this juncture is completely safe and there is no more need for worry. Furthermore, he believed the biggest tragedy caused by the nuclear disaster would not be actual radiation poisoning, but a misguided perception of radiation that would reap economic destruction on the people of Fukushima, an agricultural people who will no longer find a market for their product. His greatest worries are for the children of Fukushima, who 15 years from today, will have grown up in a welfare state and without the agricultural skills that have sustained their families for generations. This was all very much a surprise to me after reading head line after head line of doomsday scenarios, not to mention the grave accusations made by Mr. Kodama. I asked professor Hiromichi about this apparent inconsistency between his theories and those of his colleague at Tokyo University. Professor Hiromichi remained steadfast and as to the statements made by Kodama, he was baffled. In not so many words, he alluded that perhaps Kodama is not qualified to make the statements he has made or one may speculate that in such instances celebrity is often a motive for sensationalism. I left Tohoku University that day feeling I'd gained a new perspective on the issue, but I cannot say however that all my concerns regarding my planned excursion to the danger zone of Fukushima were queled entirely.
At the volunteer center in the port of Sendai I was given a pair of boots and gloves and put to work with a group of volunteers at the family home of Fujio and Keiko Shoji. The house of traditional Japanese architecture was built 60 years ago by Fujio's father and it was in the same house he spent his childhood and later reared his own family. The Shojis were lucky. Unlike many of their neighbors, who's houses were raised to the ground, their own house sustained 6' of water, but the structure remained sound and the second floor left in tact. At our scheduled breaks, it was in the revived garden that I found a good vantage point from which to sketch the house. Keiko sat before me and allowed me to include her portrait in my drawing. We were soon joined by some of the other volunteers and luckily, there was one among them who was fluent in English. Hiroshi Kariya, whose family had survived the earthquake in Sendai City more or less unscathed, was in the habit of devoting his spare time as volunteer, and he graciously translated the interview between Keiko and I. She was standing in her driveway when the earthquake litterly knocked her off her feet. Given its magnitude, the couple realized a tsunami was immenant and Fujio immediately returned home from work to collect his wife and together they sought shelter at the evacuation center at Tsuramake Elementary School in Sendai City. It was four days before the water level receded and the family could return home. Their front yard was strewn with the wreckage of 6 cars and the roof of a neighboring house sat in their driveway. Insurance companies cover only 1/3 of the repair costs in the case of a tsunami, but the Shoji's were fortunate to reap one half of the value of the incurred damage. Volunteers from all over Japan and other parts of the world have since helped to ease the deficit. However, the losses incurred by the family have not been relegated to the family home, their farms in the vicinity were destroyed completely. The family did have one farm in the nearby community of Wateri that did survive the earthquake, but Keiko is very concerned about radiation contamination. The company they employ to harvest their rice paddy sold the product without preliminary testing. Their field, located just outside the Fukushima prefecture border, is not required to do so by the Department of Agriculture. This seems to weigh heavily on Keiko's conscience. The following day I presented Keiko with my sketch as a present on behalf of the volunteers. She was ecstatic and in turn, gifted me with a blanket embellished with her family's kamon, or family crest.
I remained at the Sendai Port area for a total of three days, working with the volunteers. The group had renovated a house to accommodate volunteers arriving from out of town free of charge. Sharing the cramped two room house with me at the time was the house's manager, Tsuyoshi Ohdera, and 9 university student's from the Tokyo University of Art. For their summer vacation, these conservatory students had formed a not-for-profit, the Furusato
Classic Caravan, which is dedicated to preforming free classical music concerts for victims of the Tsunami living in temporary housing ( http://fccaravan.digi2.jp/fccaravan/Welcome.html ). Before driving out to one of their concerts, Tsuyoshi and I were sitting in the house looking at something on his computer when the house began to shake violently. In shock I looked over at my companion, who was relatively unshaken by the occurence. "We have earthquakes here nearly every week," he explained. Indeed, cycling the roads of Japan I'm often taken by the orderly way in which the Japanese seem to have contained nature at the roadside, all manners of mountain walls are neatly stuccoed or fenced in. Accustomed to the unstable nature of the Japanese archipelago, the Japanese have a perception of their surrounding that can be likened to a sail boat's kitchen, in which everything is tied down. In contrast, it is a surprise how ill prepared the powerplant at Fukushima-Daiichi was for a tsunami. But then again, how can one really think of everything when one is faced with the awesome power of nature. In hindsight, perhaps nuclear power was not such a good idea in place like Japan, which is so susceptible to earthquakes. I guess the question really is, whether or not nuclear power is suited anywhere, considering both its harmful effects to the environment and its vulnerability to the indiscriminate powers of nature.