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Fukushima Residents Return Despite Radiation via Scientific American

Eight years after the nuclear meltdown, wary citizens are moving back to contaminated homesteads—some not by choice

When the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant began spewing radioactive particles after it was clobbered by a tsunami in March 2011Kaori Sakumafled. She bundled her infant and toddler into a car and left her husband and family in Koriyama, 44 miles west of the ruptured facility. “The truth is, I ran away,” she says. Confronting gas shortages and snarled roads, she transported her children 560 miles away to Hokkaido, about as far as she could get.

Radiation from the fuming plant spread over tile-roofed towns and rice paddies across an area the size of Connecticut. The meltdown 150 miles north of Tokyodrove more than 200,000 peopleout of the region. Most believed they were fleeing for their lives. Now, almost eight years after the accident, the government has lifted most evacuation orders. Nearly 122,000 peoplehave been allowed to return to communities where weeds have overtaken parking lots. Most are elderly,relieved to be resuming their lives. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is determined to end all evacuations by 2020, when Japan will host the Olympic Summer Games. The events will include baseball and softball competitions in Fukushima City, a mere 55 miles from the ruined reactors.

Around 35,000other citizens still wait to return, but they and many others throughout northeastern Japan worry all of this is too soon. Radiation, which is generally linked to cancer, in some places continues to measure at least 5 millisieverts (mSv) a year beyond natural background radiation, five times the added level Japan had recommended for the general public prior to the incident. In certain spots radioactivity is as high as 20 mSv, the maximum exposure recommended by international safety experts for nuclear power workers.

In its haste to address the emergency, two months after the accident the Japanese government raised the allowable exposure from 1 mSv annually, an international benchmark, to 20 mSv. Evacuees now fear Abe’s determination to put the Daiichi accident behind the nation is jeopardizing public health, especially among children, who are more susceptible. Lifting most evacuations has also ended subsidies for evacuees, forcing many to return despite lingering questions.

As more people inside and outside the country absorb the radiation data, Japanese officials are confronting a collapse of public confidence. Before the accident residents in Japan (and the U.S.) were living with background radiation that averaged 3.1 mSv a year,most of it emanating naturally from the ground and space. In Japan and the U.S. many residents experience an additional 3.1 mSv annually, due mostly to medical testing. But the anxiety of Fukushima residents facing even higher levels is palpable. If the government is going to fully restore lives and livelihoods, it needs to regain their trust, says nuclear engineer Tatsujiro Suzuki, a professor at Nagasaki University and former vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission. That, he says, should include respecting international safety standards for radiation and lowering the allowable level at least to 5 mSv, although he acknowledges “even 5 mSv is too high for children.”

[…]

Sakuma was one of those who returned to Koriyama, from her outpost in Hokkaido. She did not want her young children to touch contaminated soil or water along their walk to school, so she carried them both on her small back. “We all want our kids to play in the dirt and pick flowers but I was afraid. We all were,” says Sakuma, now 46.

[…]

Scientists generally agree on a few basics: The risks of getting leukemia or other cancers are higher for children than adults, and the risks for everyone increase significantly with exposure above 100 mSv annually. Various national agencies have set 20 mSv per year as a maximum for occupational exposure. Public exposure should be no more than 1 mSv per year above background levels, according to the International Commission for Radiological Protection. That raises questions about Japan’s 2011 emergency declaration of 20 mSv per year as the allowable exposure. Five years after the 1986 explosions at Chernobyl, Ukrainian officials lowered the allowable level to 5 mSv per year. Japanese officials note there have been no reported deaths from radiation exposure.

[…]

Sakuma, the Koriyama mother, is using the Daiichi accident as a lesson in radical civic involvement. She intends to keep her sons in Koriyama despite radiation concerns. “I want them to grow up here so they can learn what the government does. I want them to tell other people about how it is to live with radiation,” she says. “This accident is not over.”

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