New film helps us find it, measure it and understand it
By Linda Pentz Gunter
There are many ways to teach people about radiation. But if you want to make that lesson accessible, compelling and even moving, then this film is the way to do it.
Let’s go on a journey. A journey to learn about radiation exposure from fallout after a nuclear power plant accident. We have the perfect guide. It is the independent French radiation research laboratory known as CRIIRAD, and its director, Dr. Bruno Chareyron.
The organization’s full name in French is Commission de Recherche et d’Information Indépendantes sur la RADioactivité, hence the acronym. In English it is translated as Commission for Independent Research and Information about RADiation.
For those not familiar with CRIIRAD, our journey begins with a little history, and so does CRIIRAD’s brilliant new 45-minute film — Invisible Fallout (Invisibles retombées is the French title), which can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube and below. The film, written and produced by CRIIRAD staff and directed by Cris Ubermann, is in French and Japanese with English subtitles.
When the Chernobyl nuclear disaster hit in April 1986, the French government engaged in a notorious cover-up, claiming that France “has totally escaped any radioactive fallout.” The whole thing was a lie. Five days before the government denial, Chernobyl’s radioactive cloud had covered all of France.
As Invisible Fallout recounts, after Chernobyl, it took 15 years until the French government published fallout maps of France. But the CRIIRAD laboratory, formed right after Chernobyl precisely to establish that France’s immunity was a myth, had already done the work that debunked the official line that the disaster was just a Soviet problem. French citizens not only got dosed by Chernobyl fallout, but would live in perpetual danger of a similar catastrophe at home, with a country almost 80% reliant on nuclear-generated electricity from its 58 reactors.
But Invisible Fallout does not linger long in the past. It segues quickly to the next nuclear catastrophe — the 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi meltdowns in Japan — and it is there that the CRIIRAD team, led by Chareyron, take us to learn about the effects of radiation exposure from nuclear power plants.
Just sixteen days after the Fukushima disaster, Japanese citizens began to detect fallout. They desperately needed to do independent monitoring but found it hard to get their hands on Geiger counters. The downplays and cover-ups by Japanese authorities, attempting to minimize the dangers and avoid mass evacuations, meant official figures could not be trusted.
An unlikely leader stepped forward in the person of composer and artist, Wataru Iwata, who, one month after the disaster, asked CRIIRAD for Geiger counters. They sent them, along with email tutorials on radioactivity, its health risks and how to protect against them. The laboratory also prepared a series of simple, clear, instructional “emergency” videos in English, designed for non-specialists, which they put online for everyone to access. This included an instructional segment on how to use a Scintillometer, one of the dozen devices CRIIRAD had sent to the Japanese activists.
We then get a short instructional video of our own on exactly how the Scintillometer is able to rapidly detect Gamma radiation in counts per second, and what those measurements mean. It glides into clarity for us, abetted by the smooth tones of the film’s excellent French narrator, Nicolas Planchais. We forget completely we are in class. Everything is, indeed, illuminated.
And we see Iwata taking his device into Fukushima Prefecture where he helps others measure the radiation levels. At a restaurant 55km away from the destroyed reactors, where people were going about their daily lives, he is shocked to record radiation levels that are 50 times higher than normal. In other areas, levels are 1,000 times higher.
Two months after the accident, CRIIRAD decided to show up in person, and Japan’s Citizens Radioactivity Monitoring Stations (CRMS), were born. CRIIRAD set up nine CRMS in Fukushima Prefecture and one in Tokyo.
CRIIRAD’s Bruno Chareyron (right) and Christian Courbon (kneeling) with Wataru Iwata, taking radiation measurements at a school in Fukushima City. (Photo: CRIIRAD)
Quickly realizing that ingestion of radioactively contaminated foodstuffs was as much of a threat as external exposure, Iwata asked for ways to measure radiation in food. This would help the people who had stayed — or who had been forced to remain — in contaminated areas to make informed choices about the food they consumed. CRIIRAD brought over a device sensitive enough to detect radiation in food, then conducted a seminar for residents of Fukushima City on on how to use it. We too, as viewers, get the tutorial.
Indeed, all of these lessons in science are subtly woven into the film, but cleverly attached to the lived experiences of real people in Japan, making it relevant and relatable.
And then, as we learn how to measure radiation levels and what they mean, we start to meet the people to whom it matters the most. We encounter a farmer who abided by the rules not to sell contaminated crops but whose family ate the food themselves so it would not go to waste. And we watch his palpable emotion as he recounts his attachment to the land and the known risks he and his family took.
CRIIRAD and its Japanese partners begin to find radioactive particles everywhere— on rooftops, in soil and vegetation, at the foot of trees, in the cracks of tarmac, even inside greenhouses.
At a school which, in denial, refused to have radiation measurements taken, Iwata is shown taking readings in the school grounds. They start at 6,000 to 7,000 counts per second, but rise to 27,000 counts per second at ground level.
The CRIIRAD team encounter what they describe as their most difficult moment when an elderly peasant farmer asks them to conduct measurements on her land just 30km away from the nuclear site. She herself was forced to evacuate, but her farm was not in the zone designated for permanent evacuation. So she came back with CRIIRAD to assess the situation.
We watch them take measurements, then gently show the results to her. She begins to sob. Then she tells them, “Thank you for coming all this way. I was in darkness and you have brought me light.” But, she knows she must now abandon the farm forever.
Fukushima farms were found to be contaminated. (Photo: Sek Keung Lo/Creative Commons)
After an interlude for another lesson, this time on gamma rays, we are back to some chilling truths about their effects. In Fukushima City, we learn that at an elementary school there, children are asked to frequently change places in class so that the same children are not always sitting by the window where the radiation levels are higher.
This prompts CRIIRAD to remind us that, “when it comes to radiation protection, there is no threshold below which it is harmless.” And they point out that the Japanese decision to raise the annual allowable radiation dose from 1mSv to 20mSv, “means accepting a risk of cancer 20 times higher, and this applies equally to children and pregnant women” for whom such doses present a far higher risk.
CRIIRAD warns that people living in the contaminated region will be exposed for decades and across vast areas. They will be exposed to external radiation from powerful gamma rays emitted by the soil and contaminated surfaces. They will be exposed through inhalation of radioactive dust suspended every time the wind blows, and by activities such as sowing crops, ploughing and construction work. And they will be exposed through eating foodstuffs cultivated on contaminated land in contaminated soil.
But thanks to CRIIRAD, many of them will now know how to measure these levels, what they mean and how to protect themselves. It’s a lesson that’s well worth learning for all of us.
Headline photo: Bruno Chareyron (center) and Wataru Iwata (right) in Fukushima Prefecture, May-June 2011, in discussion with locals before taking radiation readings on their properties. (Image courtesy of CRIIRAD)