JAPAN | Signs of summer absent as radiation fears grip Fukushima

Posted on July 6, 2011

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JAPAN | ASAHI SHIMBUN | 6 July 2011

Many children used to play in the park's fountain in Shinhamacho, Fukushima, on hot summer days but now the park is empty of children. (Kengo Hiyoshi)

FUKUSHIMA– Certain scenes seem synonymous with summer, such as beer gardens and children playing in fountains.

But this year, such scenes are hard to find on the streets of Fukushima city, the capital of Fukushima Prefecture, some 60 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, as concerns over radiation increasingly grip the city’s 290,000 citizens.

Next to the prefectural office lies the Sugitama Kaikan, a hall for prefectural employees. The hall has a beer garden, complete with a beer dispenser in one corner and posters of draft beer and “edamame” soybeans. In normal years the garden would have already opened a month ago, but this year its doors remain shut.

Some 4,200 people visited during last year’s fiercely hot summer, 800 more than the average year. However, a measurement taken at the garden last month recorded radiation levels of 1.65 microsieverts per hour.

“Residents are becoming quite sensitive about radiation levels. Until levels drop below 1 microsievert, the garden will have to remain closed,” said Tsubaki Taichi, the hall’s deputy-director.

Shinhama Park’s fountain square can be found about 1 kilometer from the prefectural office. Families usually come here to have fun, but today signs of children are nowhere to be seen.

“No parent would bring their child to this park,” explained a man in the rest area.

Around 4 km south of the prefectural office is the Nankodai region, where a quiet residential area stretches over a high plateau. The views here are spectacular, but a Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology survey estimated that the cumulative radiation levels for the area would reach 15 millisieverts by next March.

One 60-year-old local man spoke of how he hasn’t opened his window since the crisis at the nuclear plant following the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, nor used his air conditioner. He uses an electric fan to beat the heat, but says he shudders to think what it will be like when it gets even hotter. He even hangs his washing up to dry indoors.

One residents’ association purchased equipment to measure radiation and began lending it to local residents on March 11. The association chairman, Takeo Anazawa, 66, explains that “more and more people wanted to know the radiation levels around their homes.” The equipment is already fully booked out until mid-August.

One person who borrowed this equipment was a 43-year-old man who lives with his three children, the youngest being 5 and the oldest in fourth grade in elementary school. When he measured inside his house, he found radiation levels over 1 microsievert on the second floor where the bedrooms are located.

“We can’t even feel safe inside our house. I want to find somewhere safe so I can at least send my children out of harm’s way,” he said.

At the AEON Fukushima shopping center on the outskirts of the city, sales of strollers have dropped by half at the third-floor baby products counter. Cradling her 6-month-old first son in her arms, Mari Watanabe, a 25-year-old housewife living in the city, spoke of how, “I am worried about using a stroller outside — it would put the baby close to the ground’s surface. So I carry him whenever I go outside.”

Fukushima city has temporarily closed the outdoor pools of all public elementary and junior high schools in the area. The city has also decided to change the surface soil in school fields and to hand out dosimeters to 34,000 pupils from the second semester onwards.

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