Radiation expert takes on red tape in disaster zone

Kyodo

Shinzo Kimura, a radiation hygiene expert combating the nuclear contamination in Fukushima, is a man of action who stops at nothing to accomplish his mission.

After watching news footage of the nuclear disaster following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, Kimura, 44, immediately geared up to go to the accident site.

But his boss at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health refused to give the green light for his trip to Fukushima, so Kimura quit his job at the government-affiliated institute and scrambled to the disaster area under his own steam.

Kimura says he had no qualms about losing his job.

“I feared that the government could withhold data, deliberately or otherwise. My mission is revealing facts,” he explained.

In his new capacity as an associate professor at Dokkyo Medical University, Kimura is acting as adviser to the municipal government of Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture. He heads the Nihonmatsu branch of the Tochigi Prefecture-based university’s international epidemiology laboratory, which opened last November.

As he helps city officials conduct a survey on internal exposure to radiation and advises residents on health issues, Kimura has earned their trust. One municipal official praised Kimura as a man who wastes no time acting to resolve problems.

Kimura collects no fees in return for his work for the municipal government, only accepting travel stipends, as he wants to retain a free hand by remaining financially independent.

“If I’m hooked on a leash, I won’t be able to speak my mind,” he said.

Kimura’s abrupt departure from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health was not his first act of defiance against the straitjacket of red tape.

After studying at Hokkaido University and other academic institutions, he joined the National Institute of Radiological Sciences. He devoted himself to research concerning the health conditions of victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.

A turning point came in 1999, when a serious accident occurred at the nuclear fuel facility in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture. In that incident, two plant workers were killed.

Kimura immediately requested permission to investigate the accident first-hand, but the go-ahead was not given quickly.

To get a true picture of the accident, it was essential to start investigating before vital evidence, including current radiation readings, was lost.

Kimura took paid leave to go to the accident site and conducted an environmental assessment survey around the damaged plant on his own. It was a frustrating experience, he said.

Subsequently, Kimura left the radiological sciences institute. He continued doing research work on his own while scraping together a living through odd jobs like painting before being employed by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

During his last days at the institute, before going to Fukushima to collect soil and air samples, Kimura contacted several radiation experts who were acquaintances from his earlier career, and requested help in sample analysis.

Toshihiro Takatsuji, an associate professor at Nagasaki University, was one of the experts asked to analyze the huge hoard of samples that Kimura collected. The work done by Takatsuji and others revealed the presence of several hot spots where the level of radioactivity was unusually high despite their remoteness from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

“As day after day of analysis work drained me, I felt as if I was going to break down,” Takatsuji recalled.

Kimura obtained his current position at Dokkyo Medical University through his connections with Yoshikazu Miura, a professor at the university who had conducted joint research with him regarding the Chernobyl accident.

Miura remembered Kimura as a “somewhat reckless” man in his earlier days. But Kimura “has matured as a human being,” Miura said, as he has gone through the rough and tumble of working on the front line of the fight against radioactive contamination.

Despite his heavy workload, Kimura frequently visits the Shidamyo-Ogi region, one of the hot spots in Iwaki, in southeastern Fukushima Prefecture. He advises residents on how to draw a map of contamination areas and supports efforts to decontaminate farmland.

Chuhei Sakai, the leader of a group of residents promoting decontamination, expressed his gratitude for Kimura’s contributions, comparing his nimble activity with the slow wheel of bureaucracy at the municipal government.

For his part, Kimura lauded the residents’ initiative in the Shidamyo-Ogi region.

“When I visit disaster areas, I am usually asked to do something to help, and yet nothing changes as long as (local residents) depend on other people,” he said. “It is they themselves who should make change happen.”