Citizens Still Test For Radiation After Japan Says Some Fukushima Areas Safe After losing trust in official information, the Japanese public took it upon themselves to learn to measure for radioactive matter. Nearly a decade after the nuclear disaster, they're still testing.
NPR logo

Fukushima Has Turned These Grandparents Into Avid Radiation Testers

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/907881531/912271053" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Fukushima Has Turned These Grandparents Into Avid Radiation Testers

Fukushima Has Turned These Grandparents Into Avid Radiation Testers

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/907881531/912271053" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In 2011, the months immediately following the Fukushima nuclear disaster information about fluctuating radiation levels was difficult to find. Geiger counters used to measure that radiation sold out. Ordinary Japanese citizens scramble to become scientists, some building their own Geiger counters. Most just trying to understand how bad the situation was. Nine years later, many of those scientific operations are still going, including a lab run by grandparents. Here's NPR's Kat Lonsdorf.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Takenori Kobayashi lifts a plastic garbage bag full of soil over her shoulder, and then the 71-year-old carries it across a parking lot into a small unmarked office. His wife, Tomoko, holds open the door. Once inside, the pair get to work so coordinated and practiced. It's almost like a dance.

TAKENORI KOBAYASHI: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: One measures out soil. The other starts marking samples. They put samples through a donated gamma counter that measures radioactive particles. Today, they're testing soil from a nearby farm. The Kobayashis lovingly refer to this as a grandma and grandpa lab. It started years ago as a makeshift operation to help older friends and neighbors test their garden produce and soil.

TOMOKO KOBAYASHI: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: Mostly elderly people returned after the disaster, Tomoko explains.

TOMOKO KOBAYASHI: (Through interpreter) And in order for our grandchildren to come back and visit, we need to know everything is safe first. So we test everything we can.

LONSDORF: Now a handful of residents from the lab. Throughout the years, experts have come to teach them all about the equipment and science.

TAKENORI KOBAYASHI: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: The grandparents are radiation professionals, Takenori says with a smile. Tomoko laughs.

TAKENORI KOBAYASHI: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: This isn't normal, Takenori says. Before the disaster, he was an accountant and she ran an inn that has been in her family for generations. When the reactors at the nearby Daiichi nuclear power plant exploded in 2011, they evacuated for five years. And then they came back. They reopened the inn. And they learned everything they could about radiation.

TOMOKO KOBAYASHI: (Through interpreter) Anyone who faces this kind of situation has to become a scientist to survive.

TAKENORI KOBAYASHI: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: Takenori points out colored maps hanging on the wall. Their maps show that radiation levels have been going down for years. But there are still hotspots places where radiation is worryingly high.

TAKENORI KOBAYASHI: (Through interpretation) It was important to visualize the invisibles. We needed to see it.

LONSDORF: The Kobayashis aren't the only ones doing this kind of thing. Citizen science is booming in Fukushima. There's a lab run by moms worried about their children. A group of surfers take radiation readings at beaches. All of this because information was incredibly limited after the disaster. Everyone felt a complete loss of control, their entire lives disrupted and health at risk by an invisible threat they didn't fully understand. It was traumatic.

AZBY BROWN: And I think those traumatic effects are still lingering.

LONSDORF: Azby Brown is lead researcher for an organization called Safecast, one of the original citizen science operations in Fukushima.

BROWN: People stopped trusting, of course, government. They stopped trusting media. They stopped trusting scientists because there were so many scientists coming on TV saying, oh, it's not going to be a problem. Nothing's going to happen.

LONSDORF: People wanted to take matters into their own hands, which is where Safecast came in. The organization eventually built Geiger counters for local residents to create a real-time database online. He says the data allows people to replace anxiety with action.

BROWN: Some people will take the data and say, oh, my God, I'm leaving. Other people would say, oh, well, you know, it's not as bad as I feared. Maybe it's OK to stay. And yet others will say, well, it's pretty bad, but I think now at least I know what I'm facing and I know how hard it's going to be.

LONSDORF: Which is exactly the decision the Kobayashis were able to make. Back at Tomoko's inn, she says she remembers when she got her first Geiger counter, one year after the disaster.

TOMOKO KOBAYASHI: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: She felt empowered. But now she says a new invisible threat has her worried, the coronavirus. She says a lot of the anxiety everyone is feeling now reminds her of how she felt back in 2011.

TOMOKO KOBAYASHI: (Through interpreter) Radiation is a bit similar to coronavirus. It doesn't have a smell. You can't feel it. You can't see it.

LONSDORF: She knows radiation and the virus aren't the same in many ways but...

TOMOKO KOBAYASHI: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: She remembers watching on the TV as cities like London and New York were suddenly deserted. Like Fukushima, she says, it brought back a lot.

TOMOKO KOBAYASHI: (Through interpreter) As long as I have a Geiger counter, I can detect radiation. But with the virus, there is no Geiger counter.

LONSDORF: Tomoko says, like many of us, she's eager for science to help uncover one.

Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, Fukushima, Japan.

SIMON: And Kat is NPR's Above the Fray fellow. That fellowship supports reporting from under-covered parts of the world.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.