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.
    Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trendi
    X
    May 27, 2016 5:57 AM
    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Drawings by Children in Hiroshima Show Hope and Peace

    On Friday, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, the first American president to do so while in office. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city to force Japan's surrender in World War II. Although their city lay in ruins, some Hiroshima schoolchildren drew pictures of hope and peace. The former students and their drawings are now part of a documentary called “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.” VOA's Deborah Block has the story.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese Rapper Performs for Obama

    A prominent young Vietnamese artist told President Obama said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her. Watch what happened.
    Video

    Video Roots Run Deep for Tunisia's Dwindling Jewish Community

    This week, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are defying terrorist threats to celebrate an ancient religious festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The festivities cast a spotlight on North Africa's once-vibrant Jewish population that has all but died out in recent decades. Despite rising threats of militant Islam and the country's battered economy, one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities is staying put and nurturing a new generation. VOA’s Lisa Bryant reports.
    Video

    Video Meet Your New Co-Worker: The Robot

    Increasing numbers of robots are joining the workforce, as companies scale back and more processes become automated. The latest robots are flexible and collaborative, built to work alongside humans as opposed to replacing them. VOA’s Tina Trinh looks at the next generation of automated employees helping out their human colleagues.
    Video

    Video Wheelchair Technology in Tune With Times

    Technologies for the disabled, including wheelchair technology, are advancing just as quickly as everything else in the digital age. Two new advances in wheelchairs offer improved control and a more comfortable fit. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Baby Boxes Offer Safe Haven for Unwanted Children

    No one knows exactly how many babies are abandoned worldwide each year. The statistic is a difficult one to determine because it is illegal in most places. Therefore unwanted babies are often hidden and left to die. But as Erika Celeste reports from Woodburn, Indiana, a new program hopes to make surrendering infants safer for everyone.
    Video

    Video California Celebration Showcases Local Wines, Balloons

    Communities in the U.S. often hold festivals to show what makes them special. In California, for example, farmers near Fresno celebrate their figs and those around Gilmore showcase their garlic. Mike O'Sullivan reports that the wine-producing region of Temecula offers local vintages in an annual festival where rides on hot-air balloons add to the excitement.
    Video

    Video US Elementary School Offers Living Science Lessons

    Zero is not a good score on a test at school. But Discovery Elementary is proud of its “net zero” rating. Net zero describes a building in which the amount of energy provided by on-site renewable sources equals the amount of energy the building uses. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, the innovative features in the building turn the school into a teaching tool, where kids can't help but learn about science and sustainability. Faith Lapidus narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora