We landed in Japan on 5/24 to and spent our first three days in Tokyo. There we interviewed representatives of Greenpeace who’ve engaged in independent testing of land and sea contamination. They argue that Japanese authorities have underreported radiation levels, due to some combination of flawed testing methods and an effort to minimize compensation claims, thus jeopardizing the public, particularly children, who are most vulnerable to radiation. Readings are commonly taken a meter high, which doesn’t register alpha and beta radiation emitting from the ground, and doesn’t account for children’s exposure to breathed and swallowed dirt.
After a Greenpeace press conference on the contamination they found in sea life off the Pacific coast, we met with Pieter Franken, cofounder of Safecast, a radiation monitoring group that promotes regular people doing their own reading and reporting of contamination levels. Pieter supplied us with an Inspector Geiger counter and instructed us in its use. He showed us levels as high as 350 counts per minute (the equivalent of 1 microsievert per hour) on concrete in his Tokyo backyard. Radioactive cesium apparently fell from above all over Japan and attached itself especially to horizontal exposed concrete, wood and stone.
On 5/27 we took a bus to Hanawa, Fukushima, a mountain farming town 45 miles from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Hanawa was spared the worst of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear fallout, and the farmers we’ve met mostly see the stigma of being from Fukushima as their biggest obstacle. Soil samples here registered 250 becquerels of cesium 137 and 137, far below the legal limit for cultivation of 5,000 becquerels. The air outside mostly reads about .15 microsieverts per hour, 50% above natural background levels but a fraction of the levels seen closer to the power plant. But there are hotspots here that are much higher. We found levels of nearly 1,000 counts per minute on stones in front of a house where a one-year-old baby lives.
We’re staying with the Yoshida family, who’ve farmed this land for nine generations, over 200 years. They grow premium quality rice free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, that they supply to international consumers and macrobiotic restaurants. Their soil showed low levels of contamination, but it will not be certain whether the rice is contaminated until it’s been grown, harvested and analyzed. So they planted their five rice fields, though orders are down to nearly zero. The Yoshidas are not sure they can stay here, but they’re not sure they can leave either. The family patriarch, Hiroaki Yoshida, talks about trying to make the farm completely self-sufficient, so they can survive on what they grow even if they can’t sell their crops.
Farmers across the region face similar dilemmas. Those outside the evacuation zone are told to go about their business as normal, so long as their crops stay below the high maximum levels set by the government. But what health risks do they face by staying here, and what risks are posed by foods with legal levels of contamination?
In the next few days we will venture closer to the contamination zone. We are committed to follow the farmers through their autumn harvest.