After the 2011 tsunami triggered a nuclear disaster in Fukushima, there were widespread fears about radiation leaking into the environment. Now a group of volunteers—who are mostly mothers—is tackling the issue head-on.
A woman in a lab coat and surgical mask analyzes a screen full of data. Only those with some training in physics—and in this case, a fear of radiation—would be able to make sense of these numbers.
Ayumi Iida, 33, is one of twelve volunteers at Tarachine, a local NGO in Fukushima, Japan. She runs the Citizens’ Lab, as the volunteers like to call their laboratory. From the window of the facility, you can catch a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, precisely eight years ago today the stage for one of the greatest natural disasters of the 21st century.
In March 2011, an 9.1-magnitude earthquake hit Japan, resulting in a devastating tsunami that swallowed everything in its path on the coast of Tohoku. Almost 20,000 people lost their lives, and many more were internally displaced in the months following the disaster.
“We were lucky in a way,” says Iida, “because the tsunami never got as far as Iwaki.” At the time, she thought that her hometown had dodged a bullet. But the real disaster was yet to unfold for the residents of the sleepy village of Iwaki.
The tsunami led to the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant and radiation leaking into the surrounding environment. The Japanese government announced a nuclear emergency and forced the evacuation of all people living within a 20 km radius around the power plant.
Noriko Tanaka, 40, stands next to Iida in a surgical mask. She’s on duty today checking foods for radioactive contamination. Her life was dramatically different before the disaster—she was pregnant with her first child and excited to experience motherhood for the first time. Her doctor prescribed rest. Instead, she and her husband voluntarily evacuated Iwaki overnight. “We didn’t live inside the 20 km forced evacuation zone, but we still stayed away for ten days just to be safe,” Tanaka recalls.
As soon as she returned, Tanaka didn’t know what to do: How contaminated was her beloved Iwaki? “There was no information at the time,” she says. “Everybody dealt with it in their own way. After giving birth, I decided not to breastfeed my baby—what if I were to contaminate her?”
Because of the uncertainty surrounding radiation levels and the lack of detailed information from the government, a group of Japanese mothers decided to take matters into their own hands: They founded a radiation measuring lab.
Only one out of the twelve volunteers at the Citizens’ Lab are male; all the others are women and most of them mothers. The name of their NGO—Tarachine—means “caring mother” in Japanese.
Some fathers in Fukushima are no longer in the picture. Another member of the team, Ai Kimura, 39, explains that nuclear or atomic divorce is commonplace in this part of Japan. “People split up because of the disaster, or members of a family move elsewhere while others stick around.”
Other times—as is the case for Tanaka—they are around but don’t share their partners’ concerns with radiation, or at least not the same level of concern. “I barely talk with my husband about this, no,” she says.
Unlike other citizens' labs in Japan—many established in the wake of the nuclear disaster—the women of Tarachine received proper training from radiation experts at prestigious universities, and they have bought the right equipment to analyze their test results.
“All staff here are ordinary people—we aren’t specialists, we all learned everything after joining,” Iida says. “We inspect many different radioactive nuclides here. In the other room, we inspect cesium 134 and cesium 137, and here we check for tritium and strontium in foods. Tritium is very difficult to detect, you need a special treatment,” she adds, pointing at machines laid out on the table. The presence of these chemical elements points to potential risk—radioactive strontium, for instance, can remain in the body for years and cause bone cancer or leukaemia.
There is one specialized doctor trained in performing thyroid cancer testing here. Researchers estimated that 160 children in Fukushima were diagnosed with thyroid cancer or suspected thyroid cancer between 2011 and 2015, more than any other prefecture in Japan. Some doctors argue, however, that this high number is the result of overdiagnosis.
For the volunteers, what is most important is the opportunity to educate and inform citizens about radiation levels in their soil, food and drinking water. People across the county send grass, sand, and even vegetables for testing. Inside the lab, I spot a sealed bag of carrots ready for inspection, next to some mushrooms on a weighing scale.
“There was hardly enough time to process everything at the start,” Iida recalls. “At the time concerns for radiation were still very alive.”
Over time, people’s concerns shifted to other issues. "Today we only get 120 to 130 samples per month, and we gather a sizeable portion of the total amount ourselves. Four times a year we go on a boat trip a few miles away from the power plant to test the water. It is still contaminated,” Iida says, adding that contaminated water is still leaking out of the power plant today.
An aerial view of damage to Sukuiso, Japan, a week after the earthquake and tsunami devastated the area. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dylan McCord/Released via Flickr user US Navy Page
Meanwhile, the Japanese government has deemed it safe for people to return and lifted the evacuation order for towns inside the 20 km evacuation zone. Residents have received sizeable compensation from Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the owner of the power plant, and their towns have been decontaminated.
For people living just outside of the evacuation zone—who did not receive such compensation and whose villages were not decontaminated as thoroughly—there is frustration around the arbitrary line drawn by the government. Why 20 km, they ask.
“Only our schools were thoroughly cleaned, and our houses only once,” Iida says. “The forests and mountains were never cleaned, though. What if it rains and radioactive water drips into our gardens and schoolyards?”
The women of this radiation-measuring NGO believe that there should be more openness and clarity around the levels of radiation. “We don’t say that people can’t do this or that, everybody should have the liberty to raise their children as they see fit,” Iida says. “But at least we need to make sure there is transparency of the safety of our food and land.”
If you visit municipal and prefectural websites in Japan, you’ll find daily updated sheets with radiation values measured in millisievert (mSv). Supermarkets check the level of radiation of foods, and government workers can come over to your house with a Geiger counter in case you’re worried about high radiation doses. If anything registers above 0.23 mSv—the level of radiation deemed acceptable by the government—they’ll remove the soil of your garden and decontaminate your house for free.
“These are all standard procedures: Supermarkets do the tests, but more than anything it’s a standard routine post-nuclear disaster,” Iida argues. “What is the point if you don’t know what the values stand for?” As for the government coming by to check people’s houses: “They only dig as far as one meter, but what if radiation is much deeper, like five or six meters?”
As the women become more knowledgeable with every passing anniversary, they fear that the memories of the disaster and its ongoing fallout is fading in the minds of other residents.
Although Kimura wears a surgical mask, her sadness about the growing silence around the dangers of radiation can still be seen on her face. “People don’t talk about it anymore. My girls just started to go to high school, and their friends can swim in the sea, eat whatever they like,” she says. “I don’t allow my girls to do that. Perhaps parents think I’m crazy—I don’t know.”