JAPAN | Parents facing tough decision to move children out of Fukushima amid radiation fears

Posted on August 9, 2011

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JAPAN | MAINICHI | 9 August 2011

Mothers with young children gather in a district in Fukushima Prefecture to discuss their fears about radiation and the measures they plan to take. (Mainichi)

Mothers with young children gather in a district in Fukushima Prefecture to discuss their fears about radiation and the measures they plan to take. (Mainichi)

Parents of children in Fukushima Prefecture, where the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant continues, are using the school summer holidays as a chance to move their children to other schools amid radiation fears.

A survey by the Fukushima Prefectural Board of Education found that more than 1,000 students at public elementary and junior high schools in Fukushima Prefecture were due to transfer to schools outside the prefecture during the summer vacation. In some cases this has resulted in families being split up.

One 36-year-old woman living in the Oyama district of Fukushima, where relatively high levels of radiation have been detected, moved with her 9-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter to Kyoto Prefecture in late July, after the first term ended at the elementary school her son was attending. She heard that she would be able to live in housing for government workers rent free for a year, and receive support to buy household appliances and other necessary items. Though she didn’t have any connection with the area, she decided to make it her new home. Her husband, who is a high school teacher, has remained in Fukushima.

The area where the family lived in Fukushima is about 60 kilometers from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear complex, which was crippled by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and they never thought that radiation would be a threat. But after witnessing the hydrogen explosion at the plant they became uneasy and attended a meeting organized by a citizens group at the end of April. They learned that the elementary school their son was attending had recorded higher radiation levels than other areas. The radiation survey was conducted by the prefecture, but they had been given no opportunities to find out the results before then. They recalled that their baby daughter had put fallen leaves in her mouth and were left in shock.

The family later borrowed a dosimeter and measured the radiation levels in their home, which ranged between 0.4 and 0.7 microsieverts per hour. The figures are more than 10 times the normal level measured outside their home. They found that the radiation levels were high on the second floor of their home, and after that, had their children sleep on the first floor. They dug up the topsoil and flowers in their garden and put them in sandbags. All that remained of the once-green garden was rust-colored dirt.

From around the end of May, roads started becoming crowded with cars as parents drove their children to school. On rainy days — when more radioactive particles could fall to the ground — they kept their son at home as a precaution. He asked them, “When can I go outside and play?” but they had no answer for him.

If the parents followed the advice of authorities and their son’s school not to fan anxiety and to act calmly, and sent him to school wearing long sleeves and a mask, then the radiation might not have any effect. But they felt that doing things like playing outside in the sun and picking flowers were an important part of their children’s development.

“I don’t mind thinking, ‘We went too far then.’ Nothing can replace the health of our children,” the 36-year-old mother says.

Since leaving the family home, on which 33 years of mortgage payments remain, the 36-year-old has worried about life apart from her husband. But at the same time, the mother of one of her son’s classmates who has remained in Fukushima told her, “I’m thinking of evacuating too. Let’s stay in touch.”

Another parent, 49-year-old Naoko Hayano, who lives in Koriyama, about 60 kilometers west of the nuclear power plant, plans to move with her junior high school daughter to Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward at the end of the Obon holiday period to live in a home provided under an employment promotion program. She was worried about the health of her daughter, who may one day give birth to a child herself. However, her son, who is in his second year of junior high school, will remain in Koriyama with her husband.

“He wants to place importance on his current friendships and club activities,” Hayano explained. Yet she confesses she is worried about not being with her son as he goes through puberty.

Hayano will leave her current job in mid-August.

“I’m resigned to the fact that I won’t find another job with the same conditions, so I plan to find a part-time job in Tokyo,” she says. For her, concerns about a life of evacuation remain.

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