The island of the post-Fukushima children
Translated by Hervé Courtois
In Kumejima, Mayumi and her two children are recovering their health away from the radioactivity of Fukushima.
Six years ago, Japan experienced the worst nuclear disaster in its history. Since then, the young inhabitants of the contaminated areas are welcomed on a preserved archipelago where they can recover their health.
Green shorts and long-sleeved T-shirt, Tatsuyoshi, 4, runs to the sea, stops halfway. For fear of the sand, he refused to bathe barefoot. “It’s like that, the first few days. Then he gets used to it, “says his mother, Mayumi Moriai, handing him his sandals. The young woman has already come three times to the small Japanese island of Kumejima, located 2200 kilometers south of Tokyo, in the Okinawa archipelago, to allow her two children to reconnect with nature. “We live in Koriyama, in Fukushima Prefecture, 70 kilometers from the nuclear power plant ravaged by the March 2011 tsunami. There the beach runs alongside the forbidden zone,” she said, clasping Masaki, her 10-month-old baby . Koriyama, a city of more than 300,000 inhabitants, recorded very high levels of radioactivity in 2011: more than 8 microsieverts (the unit measuring the effects of radiation on humans) per hour, 13 times more than in areas evacuated after the 1986 explosion of the Chernobyl power plant. However, its inhabitants have not been evacuated.
Strengthening children’s immunity
Beside Mayumi, other mothers accompany their toddlers to swim in the Pacific Ocean. All are hosted in the Kuminosato center, created in 2012 by Ryuichi Hirokawa, editor of the Days Japan magazine. Its purpose: to house, every month, about thirty children living year-round in the contaminated areas of Fukushima. A free detox treatment funded through donations from around the world. The idea of creating a refuge as far away as possible from the disaster area is based on the example of sanatoriums built in Belarus after the Chernobyl disaster. At that time, specialists had proved that a temporary stay outside contaminated areas could lower radioactive particles accumulated in children’s bodies and enhance the immunity of particularly vulnerable young organisms.
“The accident at the nuclear power plant has increased the risk of thyroid cancer, especially in children,” says Ryuichi Hirokawa. As of June 30, 2016, according to the medical university of Fukushima, 174 cases of thyroid cancer were suspected among young people of the region, of which 135 were confirmed after surgery. A survey conducted by the Fukushima Prefecture in September 2016 revealed that 79.5% of mothers fear for the health of their sons and daughters.
“We have been able to accommodate 2,200 children and 550 adults since 2012, but this is not enough,” Ryuichi Hirokawa said. He plans to open another center in Hokkaido, in the far north of Japan, while the government has begun recalling residents in villages initially classified as a forbidden zone (a 30-kilometer perimeter around the plant).
The independent laboratory Tarachine monitors the health of children in Fukushima.
An independent control center
In the center’s large dining room, Mayumi Moriai and her children have their breakfast. Here, no need to worry about food: rice, fish, seaweed, vegetables come from southern Japan. “In Koriyama, at home, I avoid buying tubers and mushrooms. But it is impossible to limit oneself all the time. Here, all products that are eaten are controlled and guaranteed without radioactive cesium, “says Mayumi. “Analyzes of fungi brought by farmers in Fukushima reveal levels of radioactivity about 20,000 times higher than normal. Unfortunately, Japanese people love mushrooms, “says Kaori Suzuki, director of Tarachine, an independent radioactivity measurement center where Kuminosato can offer its residents free thyroid exams.
“We have no other place to go”
At the same table as the Moriai, Naoko Shimoyamada. She also lived in the Fukushima region, before moving to Yamagata, the neighboring prefecture, with her three daughters. Like many mothers, she had to fight with her entourage, and even with her husband, to be able to come to the Kuminosato center. In Japan, talking about radioactivity is taboo. “My friends think this is a brainwashing center!” Mayumi regrets. Unlike many of her fellow citizens, the young mother dares to evoke her anguish when she thinks about the accident. “I was cycling in the rain while the reactors were exploding. We had no information for weeks. “
If Mayumi fears for the health of her children, she does not plan to leave her city. “That’s where we were born, and we have no other place to go,” says her husband Ryuichi, who stayed at the family home. The return to normal praised by the authorities pushed the majority of families to stay. Even if the Geiger counter planted between the swing and the sandbox of the kindergarten in front of the Moriai’s house expresses everything except the normality. The father of the family pointed to a square of earth turned over. “Workers dug a pit in every kindergarten in the city. Then they were seen burying in large black bags. Everyone knows that it is contaminated land, “says Ryuichi.
Back to Kuminosato. On the beach, little Tatsuyoshi runs in the waves. After three days, he forgot his fears. “All I want is for him to grow up healthy,” his mother hopes.
Gardening workshop in the Kuminosato center: the residents reconnect with a protected nature.
A region still affected
Six years after the earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011, which caused the worst nuclear accident of the 21st century, 10,000 workers are still mobilized to decommission the Fukushima Daiichi plant since the disaster. The year 2017 will also be marked by the end of the allowances granted by the government for aid to voluntary evacuees, which opponents equate to a forced return for the 26,000 people who evacuated “on their own initiative”, according to the vocabulary official. Japan, which was 30% dependent on nuclear power before the accident, built 54 reactors at the seaside, and only two of them were restarted since the accident. According to a report published last year by two associations of American doctors, the Fukushima accident could cause 10,000 more cancers among the Japanese population due to radiation.
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