Japanese Find Radioactivity on Their Own


This news article from the New York Times.

Kiyoko Okoshi with a dosimeter she uses to test for radioactivity at her home in Iwaki, near the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

By KEN BELSON

IWAKI, Japan — Kiyoko Okoshi had a simple goal when she spent about $625 for a dosimeter: she missed her daughter and grandsons and wanted them to come home.

Local officials kept telling her that their remote village was safe, even though it was less than 20 miles from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. But her daughter remained dubious, especially since no one from the government had taken radiation readings near their home.

So starting in April, Mrs. Okoshi began using her dosimeter to check nearby forest roads and rice paddies. What she found was startling. Near one sewage ditch, the meter beeped wildly, and the screen read 67 microsieverts per hour, a potentially harmful level. Mrs. Okoshi and a cousin who lives nearby worked up the courage to confront elected officials, who did not respond, confirming their worry that the government was not doing its job.

With her simple yet bold act, Mrs. Okoshi joined the small but growing number of Japanese who have decided to step in as the government fumbles its reaction to the widespread contamination, which leaders acknowledge is much worse than originally announced. Some mothers as far away as Tokyo, 150 miles to the south of the plant, have begun testing for radioactive materials. And when radiation specialists recently offered a seminar in Tokyo on using dosimeters, more than 250 people showed up, forcing organizers to turn some people away.

Even some bureaucrats have taken the initiative: officials in several towns in Fukushima Prefecture are cleaning the soil in schoolyards without help from the central government, and a radiation expert with the Health Ministry who quit his job over his bosses’ slow response to the nuclear accident is helping city leaders in Fukushima do their own monitoring.

Such activism would barely merit comment in the United States, but it is exceptional in a country where people generally trust their leaders to watch out for them. That faith has been eroded by a sense that government officials have been, at best, overwhelmed by the enormousness of the disaster, and at worst, hiding how bad things are.

“They don’t riot and they don’t even demonstrate very much, but they are not just sitting on their hands, either,” said Gerald Curtis, Burgess Professor of Political Science at Columbia University and a longtime Japan expert. “What the dosimeter issue reveals is that people are getting more nervous rather than less about radiation dangers.”

The corrosion of trust, at first aimed at faceless bureaucrats and lawmakers in distant Tokyo, now includes governors, mayors and city councils as well, a potentially unsettling trend because it pits neighbors against neighbors. That trust may also be hard to restore: under pressure from concerned citizens, bureaucrats in Tokyo have expanded their monitoring, but many people doubt that the government’s standards are safe or that officials are doing a thorough enough job of testing.

It did not help that the government recently had to backtrack on the acceptable exposure levels for schoolchildren after a senior government adviser quit in a tearful news conference, saying he did not want children to be exposed to such levels, and parents protested. The recent discovery that radioactive beef made it into stores raised fresh alarms.

“We need to do strict research to make people feel assured,” said Keiichi Miho, the mayor of Nihonmatsu, a city of 60,000 people west of the Daiichi plant. The mayor is one of a growing number of local officials who have tackled the issue directly, spending millions of dollars on steps like creating a radiation map of his city. “That’s the only way to regain credibility.”

Mrs. Okoshi, a lifelong farmer, lives with her 85-year-old mother, and one of her daughters resisted the lure of the cities that has drawn so many Japanese, choosing instead to live under the same roof as her mother and grandmother.

In uncharted territory, Mrs. Okoshi said she apologized to her neighbor for making trouble.

Still, she felt she had no other choice. Several weeks after the crisis began in March, there were still fewer than 10 monitoring posts in Iwaki, and most of them were in the more populated parts of the city, rather than its outlying villages, like Shidamyo, where Mrs. Okoshi lives.

Plus, her rambling farmhouse was feeling increasingly empty, since her husband died several months ago and her daughter’s family fled, as did many others.

“Our life was so lively when the four boys were running around the mountains in the back of the house,” she said.

After Mrs. Okoshi’s tests continued to show high levels of radiation, her cousin Chuhei Sakai, also a farmer in the area, went with several other villagers to show her data to the mayor. He did not respond, Mr. Sakai said.

Since then, she has earned a reputation for her grass-roots monitoring. “Every time I have mentioned my name at meetings recently, city officials there say, ‘Ah, you are the one who measured the radiation,’ ” she said.

Mr. Sakai suspects that the city leaders — who say testing should be handled by the national and prefectural government — declined to act because they wanted to avoid any stigma that the findings might create.

The dynamics of the fight began to shift with the arrival of valuable reinforcements. One was Kazuyoshi Sato, a councilman who has long opposed the nuclear industry, an unpopular stance in a city where many people were employed at the Daiichi plant.

Although dosimeter measurements taken by amateurs are considered crude because they measure only one kind of radiation emission and do not account for how long a person may have been exposed to it, Mr. Sato suspected that Mrs. Okoshi’s fears were founded after he saw a map of airborne and soil readings made by the United States Department of Energy and the Japanese government. It, too, is relatively basic, but it showed a patch of bright yellow right over her village of Shidamyo, an indicator of high levels of the radioactive isotopes cesium 134 and cesium 137.

The councilman, in turn, recruited Shinzo Kimura, the radiation expert who quit the Health Ministry. Mr. Kimura has since done extensive testing to see if Mrs. Okoshi’s readings were right. He says they are — and that is bad news.

Radioactive materials do not always fall in neat patterns; vagaries of wind direction and landscape can mean one area is hit badly, while others nearby are not. Although some areas of Iwaki showed relatively low levels of radioactive materials, soil samples from one farm in Shidamyo show levels of radioactive materials that Mr. Kimura says are as high as those found in the evacuation zone around the Chernobyl nuclear accident site in Ukraine.

The city has finally decided to start monitoring for radioactive materials in the air, but has not yet determined how serious its problems are. Mrs. Okoshi takes no comfort in having been proven right, but she feels she has made a difference. She knows because the friend to whom she offered an apology for making a fuss assured her it was not necessary.

“She said, ‘No, no.’ ” Mrs. Okoshi recalled. “‘I would have no information if you didn’t measure.’ ”

Yasuko Kamiizumi contributed reporting.

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