Four times a year, Ai Kimura and her team of volunteers collect fish samples from the waters around Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant.
- Author: Shaimaa Khalil
- Rolle, BBC Tokyo correspondent
8 hours ago
Wearing a white lab coat and gloves, Ai Kimura cuts a fish sample at the Tarachine Laboratory, about an hour’s drive from the nowdefunct Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on Japan’s east coast.
Four times a year, Kimura and her team of volunteers collect fish samples from the waters surrounding the facility. This routine has been maintained since the laboratory’s inception in 2011, just months after the devastating tsunami that inundated the reactors at Fukushima Power Plant and led to a nuclear radiation leak.
Only Kimura is not a scientist. Neither she nor the other women who run the lab.
Kimura says local residents were shocked after the tsunami and it wasn’t easy to get information about the risks from radiation. So they set up the lab to find out if it’s safe to feed their children.
The women asked technical experts to teach them how to perform tests to detect radioactive substances and record their readings. They collected the necessary funds and began to study.
Thus was born the notforprofit Tarachine Laboratory, whose name derives from the ancient Japanese word for “mother.”
It was a decision by a shaken community that never imagined that an accident could happen at the nuclear power plant.
And 12 years later, they’re still having trouble trusting the Japanese government, which insists it’s safe to dump the plant’s treated radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean.
In early July, Japan received approval to pump more than a million tons almost the same volume as 500 Olympicsize swimming pools of treated water used to cool Fukushima’s molten reactors.
Water has accumulated in over 1,000 tanks and now has to go somewhere because the storage capacity is exhausted.
Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency has given Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (Tepco), which manages the power plant, approval to sell it.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) DirectorGeneral Rafael Grossi said an analysis conducted by the organization concluded after two years that the plan met international standards and that the treated water would have “negligible radiological impacts on people and the environment”.
Neighboring South Korea also expressed a similar opinion, although it maintains its import ban on some Japanese foods. And China and Hong Kong have announced similar bans.
But residents of the Fukushima region are still unconvinced.
“We still don’t know to what extent the contaminated water was treated. That’s why we’re against a release,” says Kimura. She says many local families are concerned about the disposal of treated water.
Tepco has filtered the water to remove more than 60 radioactive substances, but it won’t be completely radiationfree.
The water also contains tritium and carbon14, radioactive isotopes of hydrogen and carbon, respectively, that cannot be easily removed from the water. However, experts say they emit only a very small amount of radiation and are not dangerous unless consumed in large quantities.
For this reason, the filtered water also goes through a further treatment phase before it is released. It is diluted with seawater to reduce the concentration of the remaining substances.
The Japanese government has said that at the end of the filtering process and testing, the treated water will be no different than that released from nuclear power plants in the rest of the world.
Tarachine volunteers collect marine samples near the Fukushima nuclear power plant
“The Invisible Enemy”
But the facts reported by authorities and experts are at odds with the fear reigning in Fukushima. There the memories of the “invisible enemy” as many call radiation linger.
After the disaster, the government established a 30 km exclusion zone around the power plant and evicted more than 150,000 people from the area. Since then there have been many changes, but to this day entire neighborhoods remain empty. Weeds cover the windows and roofs of longabandoned houses.
The signs on the facades have now faded, but the area’s narrow, deserted streets still have metal barriers and yellow police tape warning people to stay away.
The Tarachine lab itself is a testament to how much the community fears the “invisible enemy” despite the guarantees offered.
At the main lab, a volunteer shreds the cabbage to be tested to measure its gamma radiation, while another volunteer purifies the water before examining the sample.
In the hallway are sacks full of dirt and dust from vacuum cleaners that were taken from nearby houses. In the back of the room, food samples are dried before being tested for radiation levels.
Diagrams and maps of the nuclear power plant and the surrounding sea are marked in different colors on the walls to indicate the level of radiation and its range.
The women collect samples, but also test material sent to them by local residents.
“Some families brought us acorns, the nuts of the oak trees [para testar]” says Kimura. “In Japan, we use toothpicks to make circles out of acorns.” The government has no intention of testing them. Some mothers have asked us to measure radiation levels in local parks.”
The laboratory analyzes all types of samples to detect radioactive substances such as strontium90, tritium and cesium134 and 137 and follows their concentration over the years.
“We post all of our results on our website for everyone to see,” adds Kimura.
“We were able to confirm that the radioactive substances in the foods we tested gradually decreased,” she says.
“When they release the water, they end up nullifying the force of nature that brought it to this level.”
Ai Kimura tests samples at the Tarachine lab to determine radiation levels
Kimura sees the containment plan as a major step backwards. She says there are still “emotional wounds” from the 2011 disaster and this decision reopens those wounds.
The plan, which has been in the works for two years, is a necessary step in the costly and timeconsuming cleanup process, experts say.
In order to decommission the plant, the radioactive waste must be removed from the melted reactors. To do this, they first have to divert the water that has been used to cool the reactors since the tsunami disaster in 2011.
In March, Akira Ono, Tepco’s official in charge of decommissioning the plant, told the Associated Press that the damage to the reactors is only now beginning to be fully understood.
For him, the top priority is to begin the safe disposal of the water to clear the area around the facility. Also, they have to make room for more water since the molten waste needs to be completely cooled.
“The real problem is not the physical effect of the radiation. It’s our fear of it,” says Gerry Thomas, an expert in molecular pathology who has worked with Japanese scientists on radiation research and also served as an adviser to the IAEA.
Thomas explains that science was lost among militant nuclear activists immediately after the disaster. And to reassure the shocked and frightened population, the government wanted to show that it is taking all necessary precautions.
“Politicians are trying to prove they’re being careful, and you know, they’re looking out for everyone,” says Thomas.
“But actually the message people get is: This must be very, very dangerous.”
Treated radioactive water from the Fukushima power plant is stored in more than 1,000 tanks
The Long Arm of Fear
Anxiety and lack of selfconfidence are a difficult problem to solve today. Worse still, they affect people’s livelihoods.
The fishermen claim the release of treated water will damage the reputation of their products and drive down prices and businesses that are already struggling. They claim the sector has never fully recovered since the disaster and still relies on government subsidies.
In the nuclear power plant, Tepco employee Kazuo Yamanaka points to two fish ponds. In one of them, fish swim in ordinary sea water; and on the other hand in water with the same radiation as the filtered water that is pumped into the ocean.
Yamanaka says the fish are closely monitored. Initially, there is an increase in tritium levels in the body, but this stabilizes and the fish excrete it from their system when they return to sea water under normal conditions.
“I’m a radiation specialist and I know that tritium has very little effect on the human body [outros] living organisms,” he says.
“We’re all worried about the same thing radiation. That’s why we’re so concerned. I hope this data and images will help bring some peace of mind to people.”
For Toru Takahashi (left), fears of radiation have hurt the region’s fishing industry
But Toru Takahashi’s family has been fishing for three generations and he’s not doing well.
“We are already seeing the negative effects. We have already seen companies declare that they will not buy products from Fukushima.”
For Takahashi, this is a personal matter. Leaving the family business is out of the question, he says, as he oversees workers at the port unloading buckets of fish to wash and prepare for auction and then take them on to market.
He says the business today is a fraction of what it was before the 2011 disaster.
“We’re still at 300 million yen [por ano — cerca de R$ 10,5 milhões]including all small boats.”
“Before, we earned about 700 million yen [cerca de R$ 24,5 milhões]”, compare.
Takahashi fears the situation could get worse when the water is released due to import bans announced by China and South Korea.
When asked if the science is enough to address concerns, Yamanaka admits that “no matter how hard we try, we can’t control reputation.”
“We believe that our efforts will one day win the argument. I know we’ve lost people’s trust it will take time to get it back.”