News

For Japanese Farmers, Lessons From Chernobyl

Local spinach on sale at a farmers cooperative in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima prefecture, where many still shun regional produce, March 7, 2012.
Local spinach on sale at a farmers cooperative in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima prefecture, where many still shun regional produce, March 7, 2012.

Scientists from the former Soviet Union have arrived in Japan's Fukushima prefecture to advise locals on farmland decontamination.

One of Japan's most valued agricultural regions, the area was irradiated when three nuclear power plant reactors melted down in the wake of last year's earthquake and tsunami on the country's northeastern coast.

According to Japanese officials, 81,000 hectares of farmland are contaminated at a level above 5,000 becquerels per kilogram, the limit at which rice, by government decrees, cannot be planted.

Yoshi-ichi Takeda, a Fukushima dairy farmer, says the fallout has destroyed his livelihood along with that of nearby fruit and vegetable farmers.

"Emergency relief funds are barely enough to subsist," he says, explaining that the government won't allow his ten cows to graze and that officials have yet to indicate when his land will be decontaminated.

Just down the road in Nihonmatsu, Aiko Saito is trying to cultivate rice, peas, potatoes and radishes, but what she cannot find any buyers for her rice and vegetables. What Saito and neighboring farmers get for their crops has plummeted drastically. Her peas sold last year for half the usual price, and now even her own children refuse to eat what she grows.

Guidance From Abroad

At an unprecedented symposium on the outskirts of Koriyama, scientists from overseas meet with their Japanese counterparts and local officials. Invited by the government, they've come to share their experience with farmland decontamination.

Victor Averin, director of the Research Institute of Radiology in Belarus, says he wants to share knowledge acquired after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in Soviet-era Ukraine.

Telling the Japanese they must utilize experiences from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus to reclaim contaminated farms of Fukushima, he offers a practical tip: ferrocene, an organo-metallic compound effective in reducing radiation contamination in milk and poultry.

According to Rudolf Alexakhin, an expert with the Russian Academy of Sciences, it took nearly 20 years to reduce land contamination to safer levels after Chernobyl.

Given the large size of the contaminated land in eastern Europe, he says, it was impossible to effectively use absorbents or remove topsoil. But for Fukushima, which has a smaller area vital to Japanese agriculture, he says such methods will be effective.

One sobering science lesson for Japanese farmers: the soil. While European peat absorbed Chernobyl radiation, limiting transmission to crops, Japan's soil is sandy, which means a reduced absorption rate.

Victor Korsun, a top official at the Science and Technology Center of Ukraine, says the Japanese accident demonstrates that lessons of Chernobyl were insufficient. Aging nuclear plants, he says, need stricter scrutiny and better safeguards.

"Human beings the world over continued and continue to be at great risk," says Korsun. "We must recognize that the work of this conference is vital for the future of mankind."

A National Campaign

Japan's environment ministry is to begin a full-scale decontamination program next month. But the initiative generates a new dilemma: Where to place the removed radioactive soil?

Along with an accumulation of radioactive ash from incinerators and a huge amount of debris from the magnitude-nine quake and tsunami, residents in other regions are fighting efforts to have it relocated to their communities.

The situation has prompted the environmental ministry to launch a national campaign slogan, "Everyone's effort is needed for debris disposal."

So far, there is little evidence the message is finding a sympathetic audience.

- Jiyoon Won and Maho Misawa contributed to this report.


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: TweetyPie
March 10, 2012 4:24 AM
Japan was well prepared for earthquakes and tsunamis, only not for one this big (9 on the scale). The fact that almost all of the 20,000 people who died in the disaster drowned, shows that the buildings were successfully prepared for the earth quake, and it was the tsunami that did the most damage. The early reports of the size of the quake underestimated it, so that some people did not evacuate to the tsunami shelters or high ground.

by: Kevin
March 09, 2012 9:35 AM
Right you are, Matt. Hemp has proven to be an effective crop for removing toxins from the soil. Hemp was used in Chernobyl to remove Cs-137. Phytoremediation costs only 10% compared to conventional strategies of removing contaminated soil and landfilling it in a radioactive waste dump. Hemp is legal to grow in Japan and 30 other countries, but not in the U.S. due to stupid drug policies.

by: Piotr
March 09, 2012 9:27 AM
Super powers built nuclear plants and when things go wrong The Republic of Belarus is needed to help with the cleanup. That speaks volumes.

by: Piotr
March 09, 2012 8:58 AM
I am sure that each person connected to the pro nuclear lobby is willing to accept a ton of this soil in their back yard. Right boys? Prove that the danger is nonexistent.

by: Rick
March 09, 2012 8:44 AM
To decontaminate one of the irradiated marshall islands after a nuclear test the USA had to use bulldozers and scrape off the entire top layer of the soil and dump it into a pit, then put a concrete dome over it. The problem with nuclear power is it isn't very tolerant of accidents, you either sqeak by and nobody gets hurt or you end up with a massive disaster. Chernobyl will never get cleaned up, ever.

by: Mike
March 09, 2012 8:40 AM
Could the land be used for bio-fuels for a period of time until the radiation has dropped to acceptable levels? This would keep the farmers in gainful employment which could be subsidised for the duration of the alternative crop.
This would also enable the radioactivity in the crop to be diluted to a safe level by mixing the fuel with other bio-fuel or conventional.
Seems a logical solution. Can anyone offer reasons why iy would not?

by: Matt
March 09, 2012 8:11 AM
Time for Hemp and/or sunflower fields Japan and rest of the world! I believe those are the best two potentials to suck up excess radiation... Naturally w/ the least amount of side effects. Please rise above the small things people.. Grow hemp, save forests. That fact should have had us all growing hemp.

by: Cả Thộn
March 09, 2012 7:48 AM
I wish these experts came to Hanoi, Vietnam to teach government officals how to decontaminate Communism and corruption.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs