I spent last week driving around Fukushima, taking our radiation experts to spots where they suspected there was a high levels of contamination.
Always carrying a personal dose meter with us, which tells us how much radiation we are being exposed to, we arrive at ‘hotspots’ wearing a one-piece protection suit, gumboots, gloves and a mask to avoid contact with radioactive particles. We also cover our car seats, and floormats using a disposal plastic sheet which we had to change every day.
Our boots and the floormats are often the most contaminated part at the end of each day because we walk on contaminated soil and grass, and then bring it inside the car.
We look a bit over the top, especially when we pass locals wearing plain clothes, and are often not even wearing a mask. While were are taking these safety measures to minimise exposure and only stay in this area for only a week, we detected 4.5 microSievert per hour - which means local residents could get the maximum allowable dose for a year in a matter of weeks.
We often see children playing outside and touching flowers and the ground. It's very sad, and easy to imagine that they put their possibly contaminated hands in their month. Internal exposure is hard to estimate and children are more vulnerable to radiation. I started talking to mothers and children whenever I have the chance, explaining the risks and calmly urging them to take precautions. Unfortunately there is no way that I can talk to all the mums and kids in town.
This is shocking. Lots of people I have talked to said that they rely on TV as their information source, and that there has not been any clear explanations from the authorities or from TEPCO. No wonder they seem not so aware of the health risks. Rather than expanding the evacuation zone and admit the massive scale of the damage, the Government and TEPCO spent weeks putting politics before people's health. This is horrific.
The other day, I had what turned into an interesting interview. At the highway roadside service station, we interviewed the young father of two primary school kids who had just finished their entry ceremony to the school that day. I asked a few questions about what he thinks about the on-going nuclear crisis and safety, if he is getting enough information, and so on. His answer was very typical. He said he simply follows the Government instructions, but he is worried about his kids’ health. I translated this for Jan - one of the radiation experts - and he pointed out that that this was an interesting answer because while the man is is following what the government says, he is also suspicious of if its claim at there is no immediate health risk to people.
It seems that some people have finally started realising that the Government can't assure your health and safety. This might be the light out of the darkness.
One day last week, I had a chance to visit one of the evacuation centres to do some volunteer work. After carrying boxes of water with other volunteers, I ended up in a daily volunteer meeting. There were many high school and university students with lots of chit-chat and laughs. They discussed distribution of relief supply, demand from evacuees, and other issues. I talked with one of the coordinators and found out that he was actually one of the evacuees as well as being involved in the volunteer group.
He told me that the rest of his family went to other prefectures because of his grandmother's sickness and because his workplace was totally devastated by the Tsunami. He was well aware of the contamination of the land, air, water and food - yes, everything in the place where he grew up. He told me that he would go mad if he didn’t get involved in something. At the end of our conversation, I could tell he was really close to breaking down. He was talking cheerfully but he was just managing to stay sane by being occupied by the busy volunteer work.
Neither of us could foresee how long the contamination will last and when he can go back. I didn't want to be the first one to start crying so I left the room.
Every encounter with people here reminds me that everyone has a story to tell. It's going to be a long journey to uncover the full scale of damage that Japanese society has experienced.
Sakyo Noda - logistician and translator for the recent radiation monitoring field teams in Fukushima Prefecture