06 March 2012

Japan lets people live near radiation hotspots

Yoshihiko Kanno was confronted with the high risks of living in a serene neighbourhood in Fukushima city when he measured radiation levels near his house.


Yoshihiko Kanno was confronted with the high risks of living in a serene neighbourhood in Fukushima city in July when he measured radiation levels near his house, 60 kilometres north-west of the site of last year's nuclear accident.

"I was appalled to find many radiation hot spots, such as areas under a rainwater pipe and roadside ditches" in the city's Watari district, Kanno said.

"Readings even showed about 100 microsieverts per hour in some of the areas," he said. "I thought this was not a place where children should be allowed to walk around."

Radiation is the ghost that haunts Japan a year after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. The disaster caused the plant's cooling systems to fail, leading to a series of fires and blasts and the massive release of radioactive material into the environment in the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.

Evacuation of Watari unnecessary

Kiyomi Sakuma, an official at the government's nuclear emergency response headquarters, said the evacuation of Watari was not necessary because its radiation dose is below the 20-millisievert annual limit.

But government assurances did not assuage Kanno's concerns. He formed the group Saving Watari Kids with other parents to make residents aware of the radiation risks although some people frowned at such activities in one of Japan's most conservative regions.

"All we want is to protect children," Kanno said. "We will do everything we can to do that" in a district that is home to more than 1,000 children, he estimated.

The city carried out cleanup operations in some areas of the district in the summer, but experts and residents saw them as stopgap measures.

Woodlands complicate the problem

When it rains, contaminated soil flows in from surrounding mountain forests and radiation levels raise once again, experts said.

The fact that woodlands cover 71% of Fukushima prefecture complicates the problem, residents said.

Toshio Urasawa repeatedly asked local officials to measure radiation levels at his residence, but they refused until the grandfather of two children told them foreign television crews came to his place.

City officials then found their Geiger counters going off the scales in his garden.

Officials said they had begun decontamination efforts in the city in late September and that the district would be covered soon. Fukushima Mayor Takanori Seto declined to be interviewed.

Radiation higher inside the house

Tomoya Yamauchi, a professor and radiation expert at Kobe University graduate school who has surveyed some areas in the city, including Watari, found radiation levels were sometimes higher inside houses than outside.

"The closer you come to their roof, the higher radiation levels," he said. "So radiation levels in an upstairs room for a child are often higher than those downstairs."

Authorities must replace not only the topsoil but also roofs, road surfaces and roadside ditches, Yamauchi said. Branches of trees in yards should also be cut down, he said.

Experts and environmentalists have urged the local and central governments to evacuate children and pregnant women from the area at least until cleanup operations are completed.

But they have yet to do so.

People left over fears of radiation

Critics alleged that authorities were more worried that mandatory evacuations could have negative impacts on the local economy and lead more people to leave Fukushima.

The local government said 62,610 people had left the prefecture as of February 9 over fears of radiation.

Many parents who had jointed Kanno's group have also left Fukushima with their children, he said.

"Many of those who remain in Watari want to evacuate, but they can't," said Kanno, a father of two who has lived in the district for six years.

Japan is not a civilised country

They don't leave because of jobs, their children's ties with friends and school activities, and the costs of living and travelling, Kanno said.

Urasawa also said some of the people who have already left Fukushima have a sense of guilt so the mandatory evacuation would allow other residents to evacuate with clear consciences.

"Japan is not a civilised country" because the government lets people live in radiation-tainted areas, Yamauchi insisted. Government officials and politicians "showed a lack of concern for local residents," he charged. "They have abandoned Fukushima."

If the parliament and ministries were relocated to Fukushima, they "would deal with it more seriously," he said.

(Sapa, March 2012) 

Read more:

Japan disaster strike

What are tsunamis?


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Live healthier

Gut health »

Can't lose weight? Blame it on your gut

Our nutrition experts weigh in on why gut health is such an important factor in weight loss, on World Obesity Day.

Sleep better »

Yes, there is such a thing as too much sleep

A new study confirms that too little sleep can impair your brain, but interestingly, too much sleep is also a problem.