Use of own eyes, ears and legs important to see truth amid disaster
Workers measure the ground near a rain water outlet in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, on June 12. (Mainichi)
The radiation hygiene expert Shinzo Kimura has returned from Narodychi, Ukraine, close to Chernobyl.
Soon after Japan’s own nuclear disaster began, he rushed to Fukushima Prefecture to take radiation measurements while also responding to local residents’ concerns and advising them on decontamination procedures.
In between his stints in Fukushima, Kimura — who was featured in the previous installment of this column — had gone to Narodychi to continue the field work that he has been engaged in for the past 12 years. What follows is what he told me on Oct. 21, soon after his return to Japan.
The reason he first went to Chernobyl was the same reason he rushed to Fukushima in March: he felt that thinking about the disaster in his lab would accomplish nothing.
Selecting mathematical formulas and data that correspond to one’s personal experience and world view allows researchers to come up with any conclusion they wish. Kimura asked himself if that was what research was really about. What was the point of plugging recycled data into a formula someone else devised, and letting the computer run it?
It is the conviction that we will not be able to see the truth unless we see and feel it for ourselves and stare the problems that lurk in our midst in face that constitutes the basis for Kimura’s actions.
Funding for his research comes from the central government. And although he resigned from his post at a research institute under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, he continues to receive public funding through his new place of employment, Dokkyo Medical University, because of his past accomplishments.
And this is where Narodychi comes in. The center of Narodychi is 60 kilometers away from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Of the settlement’s 30,000 residents, 20,000 people evacuated when the disaster struck in 1986. Twenty-five years on, what’s become of the people who remained in Narodychi for one reason or another?
“I’ve been conducting interviews with the residents for years, and the trends that have emerged, including from interviews conducted with doctors at the district’s central hospital, is that about 70 percent of the people clearly feel that they have developed health problems,” Kimura said.
With children, the health effects have appeared mostly in the form of compromised immune systems, esophagitis and gastritis. Adults, meanwhile, have mainly developed cardiovascular diseases and cancer. There are some who say they haven’t developed any health problems. However, Kimura adds that those who have been especially emphatic about their lack of health issues have links to positions of power in the town government.
Many of the area villages had no medical care, and for many years, without any means of taking radiation measurements or doing decontamination, residents continued to eat local mushrooms and berries. The vastly different circumstances between Narodychi and Fukushima do not allow for simple comparisons, but the tendency to downplay is nonetheless interesting. It is human nature to try to underplay the seriousness of the ongoing crisis when one has family and friends with ties to the government or Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), operator of the stricken Fukushima plant. That kind of reaction is the same anywhere in the world.
What’s clear is that Kimura’s motivation does not come simply from research, or some ideology or economic reason. He is acting out of a sense of responsibility to protect real-life human beings from radiation.
Asked what he thought about the government’s efforts to support the disaster areas, Kimura said: “There’s been too much trust placed on subsidiary organizations such as universities and research institutes, as (mainstream researchers) only look at the surface. They do not observe individual people, or try to understand individual actions. It is because (the government) takes the advice of such researchers at face value that it cannot get a grasp of public opinion. I want to ask (the government) what they think public sentiment means.”
Still, Kimura does not delve deeply into criticism of the government. He will return to Fukushima this week and continue his activities there.
We are bombarded with conflicting information on the “right way to fear radiation.” What are the problems, and what do we really need? Using my own eyes, ears and legs, and relying on the networks that I’ve forged with trustworthy experts in various fields, I continue to search for the answer. (By Takao Yamada, Expert Senior Writer)
(Mainichi Japan) October 24, 2011