The mothers test everyday items including rice, vacuum cleaner dust, seafood, moss and soil for radiation
May 12, 2019
Inside a laboratory in Fukushima, Japan, the whirr of sophisticated equipment clicks, beeps and buzzes as women in lab coats move from station to station.
They are testing everything — rice, vacuum cleaner dust, seafood, moss and soil — for toxic levels of radiation.
But these lab workers are not typical scientists.
They are ordinary mums who have built an extraordinary clinic.
“Our purpose is to protect children’s health and future,” says lab director Kaori Suzuki.
In March 2011, nuclear reactors catastrophically melted down at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, following an earthquake and tsunami.
Driven by a desperate need to keep their children safe, a group of mothers began testing food and water in the prefecture.
The women, who had no scientific background, built the lab from the ground up, learning everything on the job.
The lab is named Tarachine, a Japanese word which means “beautiful mother”.
“As mothers, we had to find out what we can feed our children and if the water was safe,” Ms Suzuki says.
“We had no choice but to measure the radiation and that’s why we started Tarachine.”
The director of the mothers’ lab in Fukushima said the aftermath of the disaster was “chaos.”
After the nuclear accident, Fukushima residents waited for radiation experts to arrive to help.
“No experts who knew about measuring radiation came to us. It was chaos,” she says.
In the days following the meltdown, a single decision by the Japanese Government triggered major distrust in official information which persists to this day.
The Government failed to quickly disclose the direction in which radioactive materials was drifting from the power plant.
The mothers lost faith in government officials after they didn’t quickly communicate information about radiation levels.
Poor internal communications caused the delay, but the result was that thousands fled in the direction that radioactive materials were flying.
Former trade minister Banri Kaieda, who oversaw energy policy at the time, has said that he felt a “sense of shame” about the lack of disclosure.
But Kaori Suzuki said she still finds it difficult to trust the government.
“They lied and looked down on us, and a result, deceived the people,” Ms Suzuki says.
“So it’s hard for the people who experienced that to trust them.”
She and the other mothers who work part-time at the clinic feel great responsibility to protect the children of Fukushima.
But it hasn’t always been easy.
When they set up the lab, they relied on donated equipment, and none of them had experience in radiation testing.
The women had to teach themselves how to use the equipment for their lab.
“There was nobody who could teach us and just the machines arrived,” Ms Suzuki says.
“At the time, the analysing software and the software with the machine was in English, so that made it even harder to understand.
“In the initial stage we struggled with English and started by listening to the explanation from the manufacturer. We finally got some Japanese software once we got started with using the machines.”
Radiation experts from top universities gave the mothers’ training, and their equipment is now among the most sophisticated in the country.
The women were eventually taught more about testing radiation by world class experts.
Food safety is still an issue
The Fukushima plant has now been stabilised and radiation has come down to levels considered safe in most areas.
But contamination of food from Japan remains a hotly contested issue.
Australia was one of the first countries to lift import restrictions on Japanese food imports after the disaster.
But more than 20 countries and trading blocs have kept their import ban or restrictions on Japanese fisheries and agricultural products.
At the clinic in Fukushima, Kaori Suzuki said she accepted that decision.
“It doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong. I feel that’s just the decision they have made for now,” she says.
Most results in their lab are comparatively low, but the mothers say it is important there is transparency so that people know what their children are consuming.
Fukushima’s children closely monitored after meltdown
Noriko Tanaka was three months pregnant when the Fukushima nuclear plant melted down.
Noriko Tanaka is one of many mothers in the region who felt that government officials were completely unprepared for the unfolding disaster.
She was three months pregnant with her son Haru when the disaster struck.
Ms Tanaka lived in Iwaki City, about 50 kilometres south of the power plant.
The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant melted down after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Amid an unfolding nuclear crisis, she panicked that the radioactive iodine released from the meltdown would harm her unborn child.
She fled on the night of the disaster.
When she returned home 10 days later, the fear of contamination from the invisible, odourless radioactive material weighed deeply on her mind.
“I wish I was able to breastfeed the baby,” she says.
“[Radioactive] caesium was detected in domestic powdered milk, so I had to buy powdered milk made overseas to feed him.”
Ms Tanaka now has two children —seven-year-old Haru and three-year-old Megu.She regularly takes them in for thyroid checks which are arranged free-of-charge by the mothers’ clinic.
Radiation exposure is a proven risk factor for thyroid cancer, but experts say it’s too early to tell what impact the nuclear meltdown will have on the children of Fukushima.
Noriko Tanaka is nervous as Haru’s thyroid is checked.
“In the last examination, the doctor said Haru had a lot of cysts, so I was very worried,” she says.
However this time, Haru’s results are better and he earns a high-five from Dr Yoshihiro Noso.
Doctors found that Haru had several cysts during his last thyroid check, but things look better this time.
“He said there was nothing to worry about, so I feel relieved after taking the test,” Ms Tanaka says.
“The doctor told me that the number of cysts will increase and decrease as he grows up.”
Dr Noso says his biggest concern is for children who were under five years old when the accident happened.
The risk is particularly high for girls.
Girls like Megu could be at greater risk than boys from radiation exposure.
“Even if I say there is nothing to worry medically, each mother is still worried,” he says.
“They feel this sense of responsibility because they let them play outside and drink the water. If they had proper knowledge of radiation, they would not have done that,” he said.
Mums and doctors fear for future of Fukushima’s children
After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, the incidence of thyroid cancers increased suddenly after five years.
Dr Noso travels across the country to check up on the children of Fukushima.
Doctor Noso has operated on only one child from Fukushima, but it is too early to tell if the number of thyroid cancers is increasing because of the meltdown.
“There isn’t a way to distinguish between cancers that were caused naturally and those by the accident,” he says.
“In the case of Chernobyl, the thyroid cancer rate increased for about 10 years. It’s been eight years since the disaster and I would like to continue examinations for another two years.”
As each year passes, the mothers’ attention gradually turns to how their children will be treated in the future.
Noriko Tanaka’s biggest fear now is the potential discrimination her children may face.
Noriko Tanaka has a seven-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter.
Some children, whose families fled Fukushima to other parts of Japan have faced relentless bullying.
“Some children who evacuated from Fukushima living in other prefectures are being bullied [so badly that they] can’t go to school,” Noriko Tanaka said.
“The radiation level is low in the area we live in and it’s about the same as Tokyo, but we will be treated the same as the people who live in high-level radiation areas.”
Noriko is particularly worried for little Megu because of prejudice against the children of Fukushima.
“For girls, there are concerns about marriage and having children because of the possibility of genetic issues.”
Noriko fears her daughter Megu will face discrimination because she was born in the fallout zone