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East Japan Disaster – One Year Later

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“Fight, Fukushima!”

One year has passed since the events of March 11, 2011. When I look back on my time in Japan now, it is divided very clearly into two periods: before the disaster, and after. I think the same is true for most other people as well. For most people, life has returned to normal, or almost-normal. But for some, it never will.

A lot of the tsunami damage has been cleaned up, but some towns still have neighborhoods of destroyed buildings waiting to be torn down. Rebuilding has begun, but in the worst-hit areas, where villages and housing developments used to be, there are just empty lots, swept clean, with streets running through them, but no buildings or trees. There are still a few places where train service hasn’t been restored yet because the tracks, bridges, and stations no longer exist and have to be rebuilt from the ground up.

The area within 20 kilometers of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is still off-limits. They have sent some crews in to do cleanup work at town office buildings, hospitals, and schools (and I assume, to take care of any dead bodies), but that’s about it.  On March 11 this year (2012), a TV crew went into Namie, inside the restricted zone, and did a live broadcast, showing that the town is still pretty much the way the earthquake and tsunami left it. It hasn’t been possible to clean up yet because of the radiation.  Iitate village, which is outside of the restricted area, had such high radiation levels all through last year that most of the residents have left. It is almost a ghost town now. (Hobara, where I go for work two times a week, is about 25 kilometers from Iitate and 60 kilometers from the power plant.)

I had a student who lived in Namie. She went home for the first time about six months ago. To do it, she had to put on a special radiation suit and take a specially-chartered bus into the town. She was allowed to stay for two hours, and could bring back just one suitcase of belongings from her house.

People are still worried about radiation, and all the cities and towns publish regular updates of the radiation readings. Date City (which Hobara is a part of) has volunteered to be part of a research project. The schoolchildren in Hobara, from kindergarten to sixth grade, were given radiation monitors to wear around their necks. They would wear them for a month, then turn them in and be given new ones. I first noticed them in June 2011, and the children were carrying them around until at least January, so 7 or 8 months altogether.  When I asked my students a couple weeks ago, they said that when they turned their monitors in last time, they were not given new ones. So apparently, this part of the project has ended.

One of my elementary school students, showing her radiation monitor.

Radiation monitor

The children in Hobara wear these monitors to collect data on their radiation exposure.

The monitors are not readable directly, but they collect data on the radiation a person is exposed to. Twenty or thirty years from now, researchers can look at the volunteers’ physical condition and health, and see what effect, if any, that the radiation had on them.

Correction (2012-4-29): Children started wearing the monitors again in April. Most parents actually like this program, because they can find out exactly how much radiation their children have been exposed to. In most cases, the exposure is quite a bit lower than they had feared, so the results make them feel a little more at ease.

For most of the past year, elementary school students in Fukushima Prefecture were not allowed to play outside during school hours, due to radiation worries. Junior highs and high schools were a little more relaxed, and the students could do their sports outside, as long as the radiation was below a certain level. Radiation levels have dropped to about half of what they were last summer, so people are starting to feel a little more at ease now. But it’s still a problem.

We’re not receiving much in the way of new radiation from the power plant right now. Most of what we have now is coming from microscopic particles of cesium-137 that fell from the sky like invisible snow as the big radioactive cloud was passing over us last year. Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years, so it’s going to be with us for a while. The actual radiation level will probably go down faster than that because every time the wind blows, and every time it rains, the particles get diluted a little, and some of them end up in the rivers and are carried out to sea.

Radiation monitor - Date city office

Radiation monitor at the Date city office building in Hobara.

At my kindergarten in Hobara, the radiation level dropped quite a bit when they hired someone to come in and scrape the topsoil off of the school grounds and replace it with clean dirt. Right now, it probably has the lowest radiation level in the entire town. In December, they started allowing the children to play outside again, for ten or fifteen minutes at a time.

They still have people from the city office come in on a regular basis to do a thorough check of the radiation levels in the classrooms and around the school grounds.

Radiation monitors with digital displays have started popping up in various places. There’s been one in front of the Date city office in Hobara since summer, and in January they installed one at my kindergarten in Hobara.  I’ve found five of them so far, and I’m sure there are more.

I’ve been wanting a Geiger counter ever since the disaster, but they are expensive. In July, the mother of one of my students showed one to me. It was about the size of a pocket calculator, and had a digital display showing the current reading and the total for the day. The cost was 60,000 yen (over $600). At our school on that day, the reading outside was 1.2 microseiverts per hour, but just inside the door it was 0.3. I was surprised at how much radiation is blocked by just an ordinary wall.

Now, they have finally come out with a Geiger counter for home use at a price I can afford – about 7000 yen ($80 US). I bought one last week. Its functionality is limited and it has an error margin of +/-20%, so the figure it gives you is more like an estimate than an exact reading. But for the price, it’s pretty good. It’s made in Japan too, so by buying it I helped the local economy a little. It’s fun to walk around with it when I’m in Fukushima, and see how the reading changes from place to place.

If you want something that’e really accurate, though, you’ll still have to pay several hundred dollars and get one like the mother of my student showed me. Or you can go and look at one of the public monitoring stations, like in these pictures.

Radiation monitor - kindergarten

Radiation monitor at my kindergarten in Hobara. The level is 0.175 microseiverts per hour, which is quite a bit lower than most other places in town.

Radiaton monitor - Fukushima Station

Radiation monitor on the west side of the main train station in Fukushima City. This location is considered a “hot spot” because the level is higher than in most other parts of town.

Fukushima’s agriculture industry has taken a big hit from the radiation worries. People were very concerned about the rice harvest, and peaches, pears, and apples – Fukushima’s biggest products, but they turned out OK. Sales of all agricultural products from Fukushima were down quite a bit in 2011. Even some of the people who live in Fukushima have stopped buying Fukushima products. The mother of another of my students said that for this year, she will buy rice grown in Yamagata Prefecture instead, because she has small children and is worried about what effect the radiation might have on them.

Walking around town, I notice that the number of vacant lots has increased since this time last year. Have you ever noticed that after a building is torn down and the rubble is cleared away, it’s easy to forget that there was ever anything there? Walking around now, I see new vacant lots here and there. Not a huge number, but a noticeable increase, and it’s hard to remember what used to be there.

The downtown Fukushima branch of my school closed at the end of August. The building it was in was inspected by the city in July and declared unsafe due to earthquake damage. The building is still standing. All the tenants have left – except for the music store on the first floor, which is still open for business. I don’t know why it’s still there – the building directory has been removed from the front entrance, the vending machines have been removed, and it looks like they’ve even taken out some of the light fixtures. The rest of the building shows signs of being taken apart. And yet, the music store is still open.

Heiwa Bldg. cracks

Heiwa Building in downtown Fukushima City. The walls, floors, ceilings, and window frames are cracked in many places.

Heiwa Bldg - floor crack

This crack runs along the floor and up the wall, all the way through the second, third, and fourth floors.

Heiwa bldg - crack in wall

Here’s another crack, going all the way up the wall.

Heiwa Bldg - classroom

Our classroom was stil in good shape.

I think we’re just about finished with the aftershocks. In the middle of March 2011, we were getting 10-15 per day. By the end of April that had calmed down to about two per day. May and June had about one a day. July was 4-5 per week, and August had 2-3 per week. By December it was down to one a week. And now… We were down to one every two weeks for a while, but the pace picked up a little in February and March.

In my apartment, I still refuse to put heavy or breakable items on anything but the lowest shelves.

Moment of silence

Big floral clock in front of Fukushima Station. We all observed a moment of silence at 2:46 p.m.

On March 11 of this year, there were a lot of special events and TV specials commemmorating the 1 year anniversary of the disaster. I spent the morning in Hobara, because I wanted to be in the town where I was when it happened.  Then in the afternoon I went to Fukushima City.  At 2:46 p.m., the time of the disaster, I was with a crowd of people, watching the big clock in front of Fukushima Station. We all observed a moment of silence for the victims.

Go to East Japan Disaster – A Few More Photos and Comments.

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Written by hobara09

2012-03-26 at 2:45 pm