IWAKI, Japan, March 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – At a laboratory an hour’s drive from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, a woman with a white mask over her mouth presses bright red strawberries into a pot, ready to be measured for radiation contamination.
Six years after a massive earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered meltdowns at three of Fukushima’s reactors, local mothers with no scientific background staff a laboratory that keeps track of radiation levels in food, water and soil.
As some women divide the samples between different bowls and handmade paper containers, others are logging onto computers to keep an eye on data – findings that will be published for the public to access.
“In universities, data is handled by qualified students, who have taken exams qualifying them to measure radiation. Here, it’s done by mothers working part-time. It’s a crazy situation,” laughed Kaori Suzuki, director of Tarachine, the non-profit organisation that houses the mothers’ radiation lab.
Tarachine was set up 60 km (40 miles) down the coast from the Fukushima plant, in the city of Iwaki. After the magnitude 9 quake struck on March 11, 2011, triggering a tsunami, authorities declared a no-go zone around the plant.
But with public announcements advising locals to stay indoors in the aftermath of the worst nuclear calamity since Chernobyl, the “invisible enemy” of radiation has continued to worry the mothers working at the lab.
With donations from the public that helped them buy equipment designed to measure food contamination, the mothers measure radioactive isotopes caesium 134 and 137, and collect data on gamma radiation, strontium 90 and tritium, all of which were released during the Fukushima disaster.
Tritium goes directly into the soft tissues and organs of the human body. Although it is less harmful to humans who are exposed to small amounts of tritium every day, it could still be a hazard for children, scientists say.
“At the beginning I was just completely clueless. It gave me so much of a headache, it was a completely different world to me!” said Fumiko Funemoto, a mother of two, who measures strontium 90 at the lab.
But Suzuki says this is an important process and is especially reassuring to the parents of young children. The women also measure radiation levels in sand from the beach, which has been out of bounds to their children.
“There are also times when you’re like, ‘Oh, I thought levels were going to be high there – but it’s actually ok’. The importance lies in knowing what’s accurate, whether it’s high or low … unless you know the levels, you can’t implement the appropriate measures.”
Since official screenings began following the nuclear accident, 174 children in Fukushima prefecture have been diagnosed with – or are suspected of having – thyroid cancer, according to figures from Fukushima’s local government.
The first pictures from inside the nuclear plant were released by TEPCO in January, announcing it may have found nuclear fuel debris below the damaged No. 2 reactor – one of three affected by the 2011 disaster.
“In general, the issue of nuclear power is not really talked about much these days. It was talked about after the accident for about a year or so, but today, conversations mentioning words like ‘radiation’ don’t happen anymore,” Funemoto said.
“But I think the reality is different. The radiation isn’t going to go away. That’s why I’m doing this. So many places are still damaged. This idea that it’s safe and that we shouldn’t be anxious doesn’t really add up.”
“But what if there’s a chance that in 10 or 20 years time, my own child gets thyroid cancer? And I could have done my bit to minimise the risks. My children are mine and I want to do whatever I can to protect them.”