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Meet the nuclear cattle of Fukushima

(CNN)Some families have at least one relative who’s either odd or eccentric. Others boast family members of a more unusual kind.

That’s what one filmmaker discovered in 2011 when he heard of a group of former farmers in Fukushima‘s nuclear exclusion zone, fighting to keep their radiation-affected cows alive, though they brought them no profit.

“The farmers think of these cows as family. They know that these cows can’t be sold, but they don’t want to kill them just because they’re not worth anything,” Tamotsu Matsubara, who made a film called ‘Nuclear Cattle’ (Hibaku Ushi) on their plight, told CNN.

It costs around 2,000 dollars to maintain each cow for a year. The farmers featured in Matsubara’s film are among those who refused to obey the Japanese government’s initial requests to euthanize cows in the exclusion zone.

“[These farmers] really want them to serve a greater purpose for humans and for science,” explained Matsubara.

Nuclear Cattle

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On March 11 2011, a 15-meter tsunami triggered by a 8.9-magnitude earthquake, disabled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima, causing a nuclear accident.

Residents within a 20 km radius of the facility were forced to evacuate their homes and leave behind their livelihoods and possessions.

Before leaving, some farmers released their cows so they could roam free and survive in the nuclear fallout-affected area. 1,400, however, died from starvation, while the government euthanized 1,500 more.

Since 2011, Matsubara has documented both the relationship six farmers have with their surviving herds as well as an ongoing study examining the effects radiation has on large mammals.

A greater scientific purpose

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A cow from within Fukushima’s 20 km exclusion zone with an abnormal white spot outbreak.

The farmers — who return two or three times a week to their former farms — initially kept their cows alive just out of love. But since 2013, Keiji Okada, an animal science expert at Iwate University, has been carrying out tests on them.

Okada established the Society for Animal Refugee & Environment post-Nuclear Disaster, a non-profit with researchers from Kitazato, Tohoku and Tokyo university. The researchers are funded through their universities, and say their project is the first to look into the effects of radiation on large animals.

“Large mammals are different to bugs and small birds, the genes affected by radiation exposure can repair more easily that it’s hard to see the effects of radiation,” Okada, told CNN.

“We really need to know what levels of radiation have a dangerous effect on large mammals and what levels don’t,” he added.

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A mountain of black bags filled with contaminated soil sits piled on a roadside in Tomioka, Fukushima. A massive national project to remove topsoil and vegetation contaminated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster will produce at least 22 million square meters of radioactive waste.

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Colossal quantities of contaminated material have been collected from the Fukushima site and surrounding area. What will be done to dispose them still remains to be seen.

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One of hundreds of temporary storage sites for contaminated material.

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A giant, 780-meter sea wall under construction near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is designed to prevent contaminated water on the site from seeping into the ocean

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Tetrapods piled up at Udedo port in Namie, Fukushima, waiting to be used for a 7 meter high, 3 kilometer long breakwater along the coast line.

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Prior to the wall’s construction, radioactive water and materials readily seeped into the ocean, threatening local fishing stocks and causing potentially irreversible damage to the sea floor.

 

So far, the cows living within the exclusion zone haven’t shown signs of leukemia or cancer — two diseases usually associated with high levels of radiation exposure. Some, however, have white spots on their hides. Their human minders suspect that these are the side-effects of radiation exposure.

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Keiji Okada, associate professor of veterinary medicine and agriculture at Iwate University, examines a cow at Ikeda Ranch in Okuma town, 5 kilometers (3 miles) west of Japan’s crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

As Japan continues to confront its nuclear past, present and future, Okada said his group’s study would keep the country prepared in the event of another disaster.

“We need to know what levels of radiation are safe and dangerous for large mammals, and have that data ready so that the euthanization of livestock can be kept to the minimum,” added Okada.

The ‘cows of hope’

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Elderly farmers feeds their radiation-affected cows in the exclusion zone.

Since 2011, the Japanese government has taken measures to decontaminate radiation-affected zones within Fukushima by stripping surface soil from contaminated zones and by cleansing asphalt roads and playgrounds.

Evacuation notices have also lifted on some towns in Fukushima. Taichi Goto, a spokesperson from the Ministry of the Environment’s Office for Decontamination told CNN that Namie, a town currently in the exclusion zone, was scheduled to be decontaminated by March 2017. Yet critics point that the state’s measures still aren’t enough.

Matsubara acknowledged the government’s decontamination work but asserted that it was impossible for them to clear the mountainous areas west of the exclusion zone.

While some farmers have slowly started to rebuild their lives by starting new businesses in decontaminated areas in Fukushima, the campaign to keep alive irradiated cows within the exclusion zone continues.

“These cows are the witnesses of the nuclear accident,” Masami Yoshikawa, who lives in Namie town in the heart of the exclusion zone, states in Nuclear Cattle.

“They’re the cows of hope.”

http://edition.cnn.com/2016/09/27/asia/japan-fukushima-nuclear-cows/index.html

 

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September 29, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , , , | Leave a comment

Cows in Fukushima Radiation Zone Find New Purpose: Science

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NAMIE, Japan — In an abandoned Japanese village, cows grazing in lush green plains begin to gather when they hear the familiar rumble of the ranch owner’s mini-pickup. This isn’t feeding time, though.

Instead, the animals are about to be measured for how they’re affected by living in radiation — radioactivity that is 15 times the safe benchmark. For these cows’ pasture sits near Fukushima, a name now synonymous with nuclear disaster.

The area was once a haven for agriculture with more than 3,500 cattle and other livestock. Ranchers who refused a government order to kill their cows continue to feed and tend about 200 of them. The herds won’t be used as food; now science is their mission.

Researchers visit every three months to test livestock living within a 20-kilometer (12-mile) radius of the Fukushima plant, where three reactors had core meltdowns after the facility was swamped by a tsunami in 2011. It is the first-ever study of the impact on large mammals of extended exposure to low-level radiation.

The ranchers are breeders, as opposed to those raising cattle to sell for beef, and tend to be attached to their animals. They treat them almost as if they were children, even giving them names. The research gives them a reason to keep their beloved cows alive, and to hope that someday ranching might safely return here.

Under a drizzling rain, doctors and volunteers wearing blue Tyvek protective suits draw the cows into a handmade pen of aluminum pipes. Five to six cows line up in the cage and are tied with a rope around their head and through their nose ring for solid support, so they won’t be hurt when the needle draws blood from their neck.

The gentle beasts moo from discomfort. The doctors work swiftly, drawing blood, collecting urine and checking for lumps or swollen lymph nodes. The check-up takes five minutes or less per cow.

Namie, 11 kilometers (7 miles) northwest of the plant, is a ghost town with no prospect of being habitable for years. But 57-year-old Fumikazu Watanabe comes every day to a ranch to feed 30 to 40 cows owned by seven farmers.

“What is the meaning of slaughtering the cows?” Watanabe said at a worn-out barn where healthy cows used to spend the night tending to their calves. The bones of animals that have died litter the ground outside.

“Keeping the cows alive for research purposes means that we can pass on the study to our next generation instead of simply leaving a negative legacy,” he said.

The research team, made up of veterinary and radiation experts from Iwate University, Tokai University and Kitasato University, was established a year after the meltdowns. They formed a nonprofit group called Society for Animal Refugee & Environment post Nuclear Disaster. Members volunteer to take the blood and urine samples and test them.

In 2012, the Japanese government ordered all livestock in the restricted area killed for fear that the breeding cows would continue to reproduce, and that cows exposed to radiation would have no sale value.

Keiji Okada, associate professor of veterinary medicine and agriculture at Iwate University, said the government considered it pointless to study the animals, since it couldn’t determine how much radiation they were exposed to immediately after the disaster.

Okada disagrees. He said the data will help researchers learn whether farmers can eventually work in affected zones.

“There are no precedent studies of animals being exposed to low-dose radiation, and we have no idea what results we are going to get,” he said. “That is exactly why it needs to be monitored.”

So far, the animals’ internal organs and reproductive functions have shown no significant abnormality particularly linked to radiation exposure, Okada said, but it’s too early to draw conclusions about thyroid cancer and leukemia.

Radiation could cause leukemia, but so could mosquitoes, which have infected cattle around the world with bovine leukemia virus.

“Even if we detect leukemia in the cows, we don’t know whether it’s caused by radiation or if it’s a bovine leukemia from a virus,” Okada said. “It is this year’s objective to be able to differentiate the two.”

Many cows have died during the study period, but food shortages have played a role, making it all the more difficult the doctors to determine causes. The dead cows are dissected and the radiation dosage in their organs is measured.

Is radiation killing the cows, or making them sick? Okada said the research team is working toward reaching a conclusion by March. The team worries that the study results could spark overly broad fears that the region will no longer be habitable or fit for agriculture.

Ultimately, Okada said, the team believes that further monitoring of the animals will show under what conditions it is safe to raise livestock exposed to low-level radiation, and how best to deal with such a leak should it happen again.

Yukio Yamamoto, owner of the large Yamamoto Ranch surrounded by a mountain, a river and a vast plain, travels three hours roundtrip from his temporary home to feed his remaining cows.

Yamamoto initially followed government orders to kill his cattle. He watched a mother cow being killed while a calf was still suckling on its milk, and then the calf following that.

“The cows are my family. How do I dare kill them?” Yamamoto said. “If there is a God, I’m sure some day we would be rewarded for the sacrifice we are making.”

He hopes one day to see his barn come to life again, filled with a hundred cows and calves cared for by his children and grandchildren.

http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2016/09/22/world/asia/ap-as-japan-fukushima-cows.html?_r=0

September 23, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , , , | 3 Comments