News / Asia

The View From Japan's Nuclear 'Hot Zone'

VOA's Northeast Asia Bureau Chief Steve Herman was the first of two American journalists to reach the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant

VOA's Northeast Asia Bureau Chief Steve Herman is tested for radiation contamination in Koriyama, Japan
VOA's Northeast Asia Bureau Chief Steve Herman is tested for radiation contamination in Koriyama, Japan

Modern Geiger counters don't click. As is the case with so many other devices, they have gone digital.  At least that is true for the high-tech Japanese Geiger counters here. But they still measure radiation exposure in the quaint-sounding "clicks per minute."

After spending nearly all of the past six days in the "hot zone" of Fukushima Prefecture, it seemed prudent, while reporting from a radiation screening checkpoint, to see how much clicking my own body would register.

Arriving at the Koriyama Municipal Gymnasium was akin to walking on to the set of a science-fiction movie. Men clad head to toe in white anti-contamination suits calmly guided visitors through the gauntlet. Other "space men" unloaded boxes full of white masks.

Japanese, young and old, expressed no emotion as a mysterious device rendered their radioactive fate.

When my turn came the needle began to jump as the man in the space suit scanned my torso. I knew not to become immediately alarmed. After all, with the jump in background radiation levels in the past few days in the prefecture, it was not surprising that I had absorbed some extra radiation.

I had done an online cram course in radiation to conclude that even if I had been quite close to the crippled nuclear facility (and I was at least 30 kilometers away at all times), I was unlikely to have picked up more radiation than I would absorb on a trans-Pacific flight - or, at the very worst, a chest X-ray.

When the Geiger counter descended to my feet I looked at the meter and my heart jumped. The reading had pinned the needle.

I noticed a subtle look of surprise in the technician's eyes - perhaps he was thinking, "I've got a live one!" ( this one is worth special attention ) He switched the meter to a higher scale and intoned that perhaps I should wash my footwear.

"What is the reading?" I asked in Japanese, with the same nervous voice one might use seeking the results of a biopsy.  He replied, "3,000 cpm [clicks per minute]."

CPM is a comparatively crude measurement to determine radiation exposure, calculating the number of atoms in a certain quantity of radioactive material that are detected to have decayed in one minute.

It was important to put things in journalistic perspective. So I asked, what was the typical reading in Koriyama for a test subject prior to the radiation leakage from any of the six troubled reactors at the Fukushima-1 plant?

The technician replied that it would have been 300 to 600 cpm. He also said it was likely that my boots had picked up the radiation from material falling from the sky in the rain and snow during the past couple of days. By comparison, the reading on my torso peaked around 1,500 cpm.

I was assured that the current readings, even on my 20-year-old boots, were nothing alarming.

As I moved toward the exit, a pair of white-suited men handed me a yellow card. That's not a good sign in football (soccer). However, I was assured that the paper certifying I had undergone radiation screening was an "all-clear" document. It would allow me entry to one of the shelters now home to more than 200,000 evacuees from the core of the Fukushima hot zone. If I had needed medical attention, based on my scan, I would have been given a green card and presumably escorted to a decontamination center.

So far, authorities say, only a handful of people apart from nuclear-plant workers have generated more than brief concern, and all were told merely to wash their hands and face.

That situation could change drastically if any of the reactor cores or spent fuel rods go critical, something that government sources here acknowledge is no longer an impossibility.

Images of the disaster in Japan

You May Like

Pakistan Among Developing Countries Hit Hard by Global Warming

Pakistani officials hope developed nations agree to scale back emissions, offer help in dealing with climate change

Video Speed, Social Media Shape Counterterrorism Probes

Speed is critical in effort to prevent subsequent attacks; demographics of extremists lend themselves to communicating, establishing profiles on digital platforms

Islamic State Oil Trade Seduces Friends, Foes Alike

Terrorist group rakes in up to $500 million a year in sales to customers such as Syrian government, US-supported rebels and Turkey

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Social Media Aids Counter-Terrorism Investigationsi
Katherine Gypson
December 01, 2015 10:06 PM
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, officials carried out waves of raids and arrests to break up terror cells. As VOA's Katherine Gypson reports, social media can be a key tool for investigators.

Video Social Media Aids Counter-Terrorism Investigations

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, officials carried out waves of raids and arrests to break up terror cells. As VOA's Katherine Gypson reports, social media can be a key tool for investigators.

Video Russia Marks World AIDS Day With Grim News

While HIV infection rates have steadied or even declined in many European countries, the caseload has grown rapidly in Russia, as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow. Over half of the new infections were transmitted through injection drug use.

Video Pakistan Hit Hard by Global Warming

As world leaders meet in Paris to craft a new global agreement aimed at cutting climate-changing greenhouse-gas emissions, many developing countries are watching closely for the final results. While most developing nations contribute much less to global warming than developed countries, they often feel the effects to a disproportionate degree. As Saud Zafar reports from Karachi, one such nation is Pakistan. Aisha Khalid narrates his report.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

VOA Blogs