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Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011

Taking matters into their own hands

Monitoring for radiation now an activity for regular people


By JUNKO HORIUCHI
Kyodo

FUKUSHIMA — A radiation measurement station in the city of Fukushima is drawing people skeptical about government information on the nuclear crisis and keen to find out quickly if their food is safe.

News photo
Skeptical: Takenori Chiba (right), of Fukushima Prefecture, hands shredded potatoes to staff at the Citizens' Radioactivity Measuring Station in the city of Fukushima on Monday. KYODO

The station, set up by a citizens' group, boasts a German device to check radiation. It is one of the projects in this city about 50 km from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant aimed at helping people get their own scientific information.

Takenori Chiba, a machinery company employee from Miharu, around 40 km from the stricken plant, brought 500 grams of potatoes and 500 grams of onions to the station asking the staff to test them for radioactivity.

"I can't sit around waiting for the government or the municipal authority to do something for us. I wanted to act on my own," Chiba, 37, said. "The station is very helpful because even though I was concerned about the contamination around my house I didn't know what to do."

After an hour, Chiba was told his vegetables measured between 28 and 32 becquerels per kilogram, well below the government limit of 500 becquerels per kg.

Chiba refrained from immediately evaluating the figures but said, "I'm glad I could get access to the data, and for free."

An 11-member group led by Tokyo chiropractic therapist Aya Marumori launched the station in mid-July because they thought the government's claim that "the current radioactivity levels do not pose immediate risks on human health" was unconvincing.

Marumori, 44, head of the Citizens' Radioactivity Measuring Station and the mother of a 9-year-old boy, said, "Rather than using our time waiting and lodging protests with the government, we need to measure radioactivity by ourselves and take actions based on our judgments."

She said the group, including residents of Fukushima, aims to become an independent third-party body like the Commission for Independent Research and Information about Radiation in France, which helped the group open the radiation station by providing equipment and expertise.

Marumori got involved in the project after learning there was little consensus even among scientists over the effect of low doses of radiation on human health while she was studying the potential risks of the nuclear crisis.

Shunichi Yamashita, a leading researcher on the effects of radiation fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl accident, was one of the academics at the center of the scientific dispute. He was appointed health risk adviser to Fukushima Gov. Yuhei Sato after the March 11 tsunami and quake crippled the plant.

Yamashita, now vice president of Fukushima Medical University, said low doses of radiation, for instance less than 100 millisieverts per year, pose no immediate threat to human health. But some experts on radiation say that even small amounts of radiation pose risks in the form of internal radiation exposure.

"When Mr. Yamashita came to Fukushima as an adviser, people saw him as a savior because they were confused and worried due to a lack of information," said Seiichi Nakate, head of a Fukushima-based group to protect children from radiation.

"Mr. Yamashita said there's no need to worry and you can let your children play outside as before," Nakate said.

But because the possible dangers of radiation, even less than the 100 millisievert mark, became known to the public, many doubt Yamashita's position.

Six groups, including Nakate's, urged Yamashita to step down as the health risk adviser.

Meanwhile, another group is working on helping people in Fukushima who have limited or no access to the Internet to get information about radiation risks and possible evacuation apart from what authorities are providing.

"All the information that comes from the government is, 'It is safe.' But there is a need for other information, such as on how to minimize radiation contamination and where to evacuate. I wanted to help them get access to that," said Hiroshi Ueki.

He and other group members published a newspaper with information about how to minimize radiation contamination and distributed 100,000 copies of the first edition at 35 sites in Fukushima and Niigata prefectures, including the cities of Fukushima, Koriyama, Date and Nihonmatsu, which have logged relatively high radiation levels.

"I've also heard of a case where an argument over whether to evacuate has led to a divorce," said Ueki, 40, who has sons aged 2 and 4. "I hope the newspaper will be one opportunity to bond the Fukushima people back together."



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