At the entrance to a gymnasium in the city of Fukushima, a doctor wearing a white hat, mask and gloves held a radiation monitor over the hands of a visiting resident.
The doctor then passed it over the person’s forehead, abdomen and back. The resident was then asked to raise heels to check the back of the shoes at the end of the procedure to get a reading on the monitor.
These screenings have been conducted at the entrance of shelters since March 13, two days after the crisis erupted at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. They are intended to check for radiation exposure.
“Certificates” are then issued by the doctors to those who have been declared free of any abnormalities.
But these certificates are taking on a life of their own in a community that has become nervous about anything radioactive.
Some shelters have started demanding that certificates be presented before any residents evacuating from the immediate area of the power plant are admitted.
Some officials in Tokyo, however, are raising eyebrows about such documentation even though demand for them seems to be growing.
According to prefectural officials, there are about 30 screening teams. Each one comprises around three people, including a doctor and a radiologist.
More than 88,000 people have been screened so far, and “there have been no cases where health has been impacted,” a local official said.
But increasingly alert about radiation levels, shelters across the prefecture have started making it a requirement for residents who want to live in them to obtain such a certificate to show they have been screened.
Some shelters are also requesting the certificates are issued to confirm people being admitted do not pose any safety risks.
Faced with such demands and to avoid any confusion that may arise, the prefecture has decided to give out “certificates for completing the screening.” Doctors in charge of screenings are authorized to issue them. In recent days, officials have attempted to unify the documentation forms to include a seal of the official disaster measures headquarters.
At some shelters, however, certificates appear to have become nothing less than an admission ticket.
One place that has been accommodating residents evacuated from within a 20-km radius from the stricken power plant has put up a sign that says, “Those who have not gone through radiation checks should not enter.”
“We have noticed a rising number of cases where residents from the government-designated evacuation and stay-indoors areas have been refused admission,” said Dr. Hiroyuki Hayashi, 49, of the Fukui prefectural hospital. He has been engaged in the screenings.
The central government has asked people who live up to 20 km from the plant to evacuate, while those who live between 20 and 30 km away have been advised to stay indoors for fear of radiation exposure.
Hayashi said once a large number of residents came to him for certificates after being screened, so he had to ask local government officials to rush and make 100 copies of the certificates he already had.
“Anxiety about invisible radiation is causing misperceptions and rumors to spread,” the doctor said.
In Tokyo, officials at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare said they are aware of such incidents at shelters and are perplexed.
“It is impossible for people from the affected area to have an adverse impact on people around them as none of them has been exposed to enough radiation to harm their health,” one official said. “There is no need for such certificates at all.”
On March 18, the ministry issued a notice to health care organizations that they should not make the certificates a condition for accommodation.
On March 21 it went even further and urged relevant organizations to remain cool-headed. A notice was sent by the ministry to prefectures that said, “It is undesirable to issue a certificate to a resident who comes for health consultations.”
In Fukushima Prefecture, local officials who are scrambling to accommodate evacuating residents were unperturbed by such actions by the central government and appear determined to continue issuing them.
“The central government has not seen what is actually happening,” one of them said. “In reality, some shelters are refusing accommodations. It’s the residents who would be inconvenienced if no certificates are issued. It would be better if the state guarantees their accommodations.”