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
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.

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