Three years past ever since that fateful day, March 11, 2011. The day that changed everything and time stood still. As I arrived at Fukushima-city station, I had an impression that the city has revitalized and people are already back to normal life. However, tons of problems are still ongoing and there are thousands of people still displaced, not knowing what their future will be. I wrote this blog based on my experience from a week-long fellowship at Fukushima Medical University. I took lectures, read local news, talked to local residents, saw everything with my eyes, and through my camera.
The first two days were mainly class room lectures. We learned the history of nuclear accidents, basic knowledge of radiation, and daily life of evacuees from Dr. Kumagai, Mr.Yasui, and Mr. Yoshida. As a registered dietitian, I was concerned about the food safety and dietary changes among the victims in Fukushima. Ever since the disaster, the childhood obesity rate in Fukushima has become the highest in the whole nation. The outcome is closely linked to the restrictions of children’s outdoor activities and their lifestyle changes due to the risk of radiation exposure. As it describes in the graph below, the overall ratio of BMI in IItate village in Fukushima has increased between 2010 and 2012. Reference: http://www.vill.iitate.fukushima.jp/saigai/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/9aba3e937959ae16980cc63e03291b5f.jpg
The government conducts mandatory inspections for radioactive substances at each stage of production, distribution, and consumption in order to ensure the safety of food produced in Fukushima. The radiation tends to be higher in the products from forests, where tainted leaves fall and contaminated the soil on the ground. The following table shows the high cesium level in wild mushrooms and plants as well as wild fishes, but not in vegetables or fruits. You can also search for results of monitoring inspections of agriculture, forest, and fishery products by each item at the following link (http://www.new-fukushima.jp/monitoring/).
In addition, many local residents especially parents are worried about the school meal served at lunch time. Data from Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare shows that estimated internal radiation dose from school lunch in Fukushima is closer to or even lower than the other prefectures in Northern Japan(Iwate, Tochigi, or Ibaraki prefectures etc). The data clarifies that the estimated level of cesium in Fukushima’s school lunch should not be a concerned and no significant health risk are found from consuming the meal.
We also had a mocking exercise to treat a victim exposed to radiation at the emergency radiation medicine room. As a health care professionals, we were asked to play a significant role in evaluating and treating the victim of an accidental or deliberate exposure to radiation. Before treating the victim, we all must have an understanding of how radiation alters the function of cells, tissues, and organ systems, and how radiation levels are quantified. In case of severe injury or shock, we need to put the priority on treating the injury, then move on to the decontamination of radiation.
Mr. Yasui, a registered nurse, led the several interactive courses to teach us the emergency problem mapping, emergency problem plans, and simulation of health consultation. In a health consultation simulation class, Mr. Yasui pretended to be an evacuee who has been suffering from insomnia and I needed to give him a consultation as a health care provider. I took many counseling and psychology courses during my undergrad, but it was still hard to provide decent advice based on his current issues and needs.
Mr.Yoshida, another registered nurse specialized in radiation medicine taught us that medical radiation exposure is the most common artificial radiation exposure. As you can see from the figure below, Japan has the highest risk of cancer caused by diagnostic X-ray exposures;thus, radiation protection is a big concern due to the increasing use of CT scans and X-rays in Japan. The advanced technology has contributed to improved the nation’s health quality; however, there is a need for further studies on medical radiation exposures to understand the health effects and risks.
On the last two days, we visited Kawamata-City which is about 50km away from the nuclear power plant and observed a health consultation at a local community center. It’s my privilege to be native Japanese that I was able to help out my colleagues as an interpreter to interact with the local residents while they were waiting for their consultation. At the beginning of the conversation, they were very shy and didn’t want to speak up during the conversation. However, as we spent on more time, they felt more comfortable talking with us and started asking many questions about our lives in the U.S. I asked them if they feel safe to eat local produces or foods grown in their farm. Against my expectations, most of them didn’t have much concern about the risk of radiation in these products. One old lady told me “We make sure to measure the dose of radiation in each food produced in our farm. I feel safe to eat my products since the radiation dose is very low”. Other even said “Some young people may be concerned about the risk of radiation, but for old people like us, we may die before the radiation affects our health. We are more worried about chronic diseases such as hypertension, heart disease, backache and so on.”
I also visited Minami-Soma city where some areas are restricted to enter. Some parts of Minami-soma city were transformed into a ghost town soon after tsunami engulfed its coastal edge. The disaster claimed more than 1,000 lives and destroyed more than 1,100 houses in the entire city. Around 30 % of the former population has not returned and most of the evacuees currently live in temporary housing or elsewhere in Japan. Fortunately, the radiation levels have dropped over the past few years and the residents can temporally go back to the city(without staying over night). The government promised the evacuees that it will takes another 3 years before they can come back to their former homes; but I doubted if that’s feasible after seeing the following scenes. The operation to decontaminate residential areas is way behind the schedule and the government has not found a storage site for huge quantities of irradiated soil and rubble.
Besides the classroom lectures and workshops, the staffs at FMU took us many places during the week. The words can’t explain how much I enjoyed my stay in Fukushima!
Kneading and rolling the dough, cutting it by hand, then carefully cooking and serving the delicate buckwheat noodles. It wasn’t the sort of restaurant where you order, slurp and then dash off back to work. It feels cozy and comfortable, more like a place where you can settle in for a bit, even at busy lunchtime. I had the best tempura soba in my entire life. Yum!
(Left: Soba Chef Mr.Hayashi/ Right: Cold Tempura Soba)
I actually extended my stay to have some more experiences in Fukushima. Yusuke Kato working at the Bridge for Fukushima took me and a local high school student to a Minami-Soma/Soma city tour during the weekend. I’ve visited Minami-Soma city the other day, but some areas close to the nuclear plants were restricted and I couldn’t enter beyond some point(as I mentioned above). Since Mr. Kato had a special permission to enter the areas I’ve got to see Namie-town and Odaka town, located about 8 mils from Fukushima nuclear power plant. The following photos describe the terrifying power of mother nature and the aftermath. I had no words to say….I could only pray for all the victims who lost their lives here.
While Minami Soma city has been decontaminated and reconstructed, it still remains under the direct authority of the government. For the time being, the town is open to the residents, but no one is allowed to stay over night. The decontamination plans have been delayed because sites for disposal of radioactive waste have not yet been approved. I had a chance to meet people working for NPO organizations, Bridge for Fukushima and Ukifune no Sato, which aims to disseminate the information toward out side of Fukushima as well as to support the reconstruction of the community. They reach out not only to the local residents but also to the whole nation throughout several community based hands-on activities, fund raising, youth leadership training programs, and volunteer bus tour (so called kakehashi tour). They also support “Mothers’ Power Project” in which a group of evacuated mother cook healthy lunch boxes to raise the awareness of food safety in Fukushima and the for purpose of fund raising. The bento box is suitable for those who concerns about high blood pressure and weight gain since it contains 500 total calories with no more than 3 g of salt. We were kindly served the lunch box while studying at FMU during the program and discussed about those who evacuated mainly from Abukuma district making efforts to revive the community.
After visiting Minami-Soma and Namie-town, we headed to Soma-city which is about 15miles away from Minami-Soma. We stopped at Takohachi, a local seafood restaurant where I had the best Anago tempura in my entire life. The dish includes pieces of Anago in tempura batter that is drizzled with sweet soy sauce. It was served as soon as it comes out of the oil so it was piping hot and crispy!
(Left: Anago Tempura/ Right: Tekka Donburi)
At the end of the day, Kotaro Yamada (15), a high school student in Koriyama-City who involves in several student organizations kindly accepted my favor to send a video message to people in the U.S.
Humankind in our history has never experienced this type of natural disaster where earthquakes and tsunami followed by a nuclear plant accident took many precious lives and hurt the prefecture’s reputation. Revitalization is not easy process. Time is required—often 5 years, 10 years or even more—to rebuild a vibrant society. The situation is tough, but I felt the enthusiasm and passion from the local residents making their society even better than the original. This week-long experience really changed my perspective as I got to realize there is always some movements going on that motivates the local residents and the whole community move forward together. The majority of thisefforts are done behind the scenes, but I want to shed some light on all of their hard work that goes on behind the scenes and I would like to be part of them in the near future. Hope my blog helped you understand the current situation of Fukushima and realize Fukushima is on the way to the revitalization. At the very end, I would like to share a message from Dr. Nollet who joined Fukushima Medical University’s Department of Blood Transfusion and Transplantation Immunology in 2008. Contrary to evacuation advice given to American citizens after the disaster, he decided to stay in Fukukshima to participate in the disaster relief and for the purpose of revitalization. Here is a message from Dr.Nollet to all over the world. Enjoy!
“Alone we can do so little;Together we can do so much.”
~ Helen Keller