IWAKI, Japan, March 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - At a
laboratory an hour's drive from Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant,
a woman with a white mask over her mouth presses bright red
strawberries into a pot, ready to be measured for radiation
Six years after a massive earthquake off the coast of Japan
triggered meltdowns at three of Fukushima's reactors, local
mothers with no scientific background staff a laboratory that
keeps track of radiation levels in food, water and soil.
As some women divide the samples between different bowls and
handmade paper containers, others are logging onto computers to
keep an eye on data - findings that will be published for the
public to access.
The women on duty, wearing pastel-coloured overalls, are
paid a small salary to come in for a few hours each day, leaving
them free to care for their children after school.
"In universities, data is handled by qualified students, who
have taken exams qualifying them to measure radiation. Here,
it's done by mothers working part-time. It's a crazy situation,"
laughed Kaori Suzuki, director of Tarachine, the non-profit
organisation that houses the mothers' radiation lab.
"If a university professor saw this I think they would be
completely shocked by what they see."
Tarachine was set up 60 km (40 miles) down the coast from
the Fukushima plant, in the city of Iwaki. After the magnitude 9
quake struck on March 11, 2011, triggering a tsunami,
authorities declared a no-go zone around the plant.
Iwaki lay outside its 30 km radius, with lower radiation
levels compared to the rest of Fukushima prefecture.
But with public announcements advising locals to stay
indoors in the aftermath of the worst nuclear calamity since
Chernobyl, the "invisible enemy" of radiation has continued to
worry the mothers working at the lab.
NOTHING TO SEE, SMELL OR FEEL
"As ordinary citizens we had no knowledge about radiation at
all. All we knew was that it is frightening," said Suzuki.
"We can't see, smell or feel radiation levels. Given this
invisibility, it was extremely difficult for us. How do we fight
it? The only way is to measure it."
To supplement readings by the Japanese government and the
Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) that manages the nuclear
plant, Tarachine publishes its own findings every month.
With donations from the public that helped them buy
equipment designed to measure food contamination, the mothers
measure radioactive isotopes caesium 134 and 137, and collect
data on gamma radiation, strontium 90 and tritium, all of which
were released during the Fukushima disaster.
Strontium-90 gravitates toward the bones when absorbed by
breathing it, drinking it in water, or eating it in food. It can
remain for years, potentially causing bone cancer or leukaemia.
Tritium goes directly into the soft tissues and organs of
the human body. Although it is less harmful to humans who are
exposed to small amounts of tritium every day, it could still be
a hazard for children, scientists say.
The mothers say other parents trust the lab's radioactivity
readings in local food more than those from the government.
"This issue is part of everyday life for these mothers, so
they have the capability to spot certain trends and various
problems rather than just accumulating expert knowledge," said
To handle potentially dangerous materials, the mothers have
to study for exams related to radiation and organic chemistry.
"At the beginning I was just completely clueless. It gave me
so much of a headache, it was a completely different world to
me!" said Fumiko Funemoto, a mother of two, who measures
strontium 90 at the lab.
"But you start to get the hang of it as you're in this
environment every day."
As the lab only accepts items for testing from outside the
exclusion zone, most results show comparatively low radiation
But Suzuki says this is an important process and is
especially reassuring to the parents of young children. The
women also measure radiation levels in sand from the beach,
which has been out of bounds to their children.
"If the base is zero becquerels (unit of radiation), and
there is, say, 15 or 16 becquerels of caesium, that's still
higher than zero. That means there is slightly more risk,"
"There are also times when you're like, 'Oh, I thought
levels were going to be high there – but it's actually ok'. The
importance lies in knowing what's accurate, whether it's high or
low ... unless you know the levels, you can't implement the
MINIMISING THE RISKS
Since official screenings began following the nuclear
accident, 174 children in Fukushima prefecture have been
diagnosed with - or are suspected of having - thyroid cancer,
according to figures from Fukushima's local government.
Despite the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA)reporting in 2015 that an increase in thyroid cancer is
unlikely, the mothers insist there is value in their work.
The first pictures from inside the nuclear plant were
released by TEPCO in January, announcing it may have found
nuclear fuel debris below the damaged No. 2 reactor - one of
three affected by the 2011 disaster.
"In general, the issue of nuclear power is not really talked
about much these days. It was talked about after the accident
for about a year or so, but today, conversations mentioning
words like 'radiation' don't happen anymore," Funemoto said.
"But I think the reality is different. The radiation isn't
going to go away. That's why I'm doing this. So many places are
still damaged. This idea that it's safe and that we shouldn't be
anxious doesn't really add up."
Ai Kimura, another mother agrees. "My parents think I'm a
bit paranoid. They keep saying, 'it's okay isn't it?" she said.
"But what if there's a chance that in 10 or 20 years time,
my own child gets thyroid cancer? And I could have done my bit
to minimise the risks. My children are mine and I want to do
whatever I can to protect them."
(Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters
Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers
humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, resilience and
climate change. Visit news.trust.org)