While walking through the highly contaminated outskirts of Fukushima City last week, I suddenly realized that this capital of the prefecture is as far from the Fukushima nuclear disaster site as my hometown is from Borssele where the only Dutch nuclear power plant in the Netherlands is located —about 60 km. While people in the 20 km exclusion zone around the Fukushima disaster site have been evacuated, the residents of this densely populated city have already waited nine months for decontamination of their houses, gardens and parks without getting any official government support for relocation, not even for children and pregnant women.
We spent four days in Fukushima City doing a radiation survey in the neighbourhoods of Watari and Onami. People there have been left to cope alone in a highly contaminated environment by both the local and national governments. Our radiation experts found hot spots of up to 37 microSieverts per hour in a garden only a few meters away from a house and an accumulation of radioactivity in drainage systems, puddles and ditches. Overall, the radiation levels in these neighbourhoods are so high that people receive an exposure to radiation just from external sources that is ten times the annual allowed dose. How high their internal exposure is from eating contaminated food and inhaling or ingesting radioactive particles remains unknown, since no government program is keeping track of this.
Parks are the most contaminated areas in Fukushima City. Some are marked with signs: “Due to radioactive contamination, don’t spend more than one hour per day in this park.” Even on sunny days last week, the parks where empty. Mothers are smart enough to not let their children play on the playgrounds in these parks, not even for an hour. Even inside their houses, they have to worry about radiation. We measured the rooms of an elderly lady’s house who is expecting her grandchildren for Christmas. She wanted to know what the safest place was for her grandchildren to sleep.
People in Fukushima City are worried about their health, especially families with children and pregnant women. We walked around with dosimeters and radiation detection equipment and were aware of what we are exposed to and of the risk we were taking. The residents of Fukushima City had one government survey at their house last July, if any at all. Detected hotspots where left unmarked, no instructions were given on how to behave in a radioactive environment. Since then, only 35 of the thousands of houses that need to be decontaminated have been cleaned by the government.
The decontamination done by the local authorities is both uncoordinated and thoroughly inadequate. The subcontractors they are using are badly instructed, risking their own health and spreading the radioactive contamination instead of removing it. We found radioactive run-off water from a decontamination process leaking directly into the environment. And because there is no storage site for radioactive waste from decontamination work, the waste is buried directly on people’s property, sometimes only a few meters away from their houses.
The Japanese government doesn’t know how to deal with the massive contamination caused by the nuclear disaster. Instead of protecting people from radiation, they are downplaying the risks by increasing the allowed radiation levels far above international standards. And professors like Dr. Yamashita, who make statements like ‘If you smile, the radiation will not affect you’ are being employed as official advisors on radiation health risk.
In short, it is clear that the situation in Fukushima is rapidly spinning out of control, and if the national government does not take full responsibility for the protection of its population, the people affected by the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi will continue to suffer for a long time to come.
Ike Teuling is a Greenpeace radiation expert
Photo: Greenpeace radiation monitoring team members Ike Teuling and Daisuke Miyachi check contamination levels in downtown Fukushima city, approximately 60km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. © Noriko Hayashi / Greenpeace