ALTERED PLANS — Mr. Akimoto is talking about his plans to sacrifice the ducks because of the amount of cesium in them. He hopes that the ducks will remove radioactivity from the soil. Beyond the wooden dock are the rice fields that have been abandoned to weeds, the farmers having chosen to leave. (Dewar photo)
Farmers cope with difficult situation in 'exclusion zone' in Japan
By Dale Dewar
Recently returned from a trip to Japan Aug. 16 to Sept. 4, I am still shaken by the memory of Mr. Akimoto. Mr. Akimoto is a farmer whose land has been contaminated just within the “exclusion zone,” near a village on the border of that 30 kilometre zone near the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. Now 67, he has lived on the farm all his life, in an ancestral home which dates from the 1200s. He has been awarded an “Emperor’s Prize” for the quality of its produce.
Unfortunately, information from the Chernobyl disaster is decidedly pessimistic.
Radioactivity in soil has not decreased over time as anticipated; in
fact, tests in 1997 (21 years after the accident) indicated levels in
trees were continuing to rise. Sunflowers are said to decrease amounts
of radioactive cesium but they bioconcentrate it mainly in the roots
where it remains in the soil.
Thirty physicians and scholars from around the world visited Fukushima
and travelled through part of the exclusion zone (highly radioactive)
to a village on the border of the 30-kilometre zone. Because of their
concern for public health and radioactivity in the environment, prior
to the road trip they attended presentations by Japanese radiation, medical
and nuclear engineering experts at the International Physicians for Prevention
of Nuclear War (IPPNW) Congress in Hiroshima, and a special public meeting
on Fukushima held in Tokyo.
Along the route, deserted rice paddies, houses, gas stations and markets line the highway. The attempt to clean up has proceeded and bags of contaminated topsoil await transport to “intermediate sites” — storage holes in national parks dug for the purpose. Of necessity, these will be enormous and, subject to rain and plant roots, unlikely to be “contained.” There is no final site for storage. No one knows the actual volume.
CONTAMINATED SOIL — Bags of contaminated soil before being transferred to “intermediate” storage sites in national forests in Japan. (Dewar photo)
Likewise, no one knows what the effects of radiation will
be on the people or the biosphere. Results from Chernobyl are controversial.
For example, official IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) estimations
are at odds with physicians who have worked directly with Chernobyl-affected
populations. Japan’s Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF)
has tracked Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors but lacks data suppressed
by the U.S. during the first crucial years. Population studies began
in 1952 (seven years after the bomb was dropped), and chromosomal studies
in 1968, hence limited in scope to only the healthy survivors. Most physicians
agree that radiation is “not good stuff” but, according to
the ALARA principle (As Low As Reasonably Achievable), exposures of 5
mSv/year are allowed, as a rough international standard.
Dr. Tilman Ruff, co-president of IPPNW and an associate professor at
the Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Unit at the University of
Melborne, Australia, released the following IPPNW recommendations:
1. People living in contaminated areas should have access to full information of their likely radiation exposures and they should be supported in all possible ways to minimize exposures. (The current official stance is that information should be kept secret — parents of children included in thyroid studies are not informed of the findings and they are being prevented from seeking second opinions.)
3. A lifetime radiation exposure register should be established
quickly for all workers in the nuclear industry. (The entire IPPNW group
registered dismay that no tracking of workers is occurring — especially
since a minimum of 10 years will be required for basic decontamination
and half a century for decommissioning.)
4. Provision of accurate, independent, timely public information
on radiation health is essential. (There has been misinformation, contradictory
information and unsubstantiated reassurance presented to the public.)
Radiation is not the only health impact of the Great East Japan Earthquake. About 1.3 million people have been affected — uprooted from their communities and separated from their families. There has been loss of livelihood, education, status and trust. The effects of the Fukushima-Daiichi plant explosions (and the continuing threat) must be seen in all these dimensions. When so much can change so quickly around a nuclear power plant, it is not difficult to understand the Japanese reluctance to continue the nuclear power option.
Dewar, a Wynyard physician, is executive director of Physicians for Global Survival.