Fukushima man opts to be guinea pig

by Rob Gilhooly

Special To The Japan Times

Nobuyoshi Ito is skeptical of the reported effects of radiation from the leaking Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. So skeptical, in fact, that he decided to put himself on the front line of radiation research.

Ito, whose home in the village of Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, is located a little more than 30 km from the power station, has ignored official recommendations to evacuate, and is instead standing his ground in a designated radiation hot spot to become a human guinea pig.

“I never wear a mask and go about my chores in my regular everyday clothes,” said Ito, 67, a former IT engineer turned farmer who refers to the radiation still being emitted by the plant’s stricken reactors as the “invisible tsunami.”

“There are two camps when it comes to the effects of radiation: the antinuclear folk, who tell us even a small dose of radiation is dangerous to human health, and others who say even much higher doses contain less cancer risk than that caused by such factors as smoking or even food. I decided to become a human guinea pig to help settle the argument.”

Ito is one of only nine residents left in the village, according to the local government — which has relocated its municipal offices outside Iitate.

Almost daily since March 15, Ito has measured the radiation levels around his pretty hilltop abode and found them to be twice that of the official monitoring levels at the Iitate municipal office, about 8 km away.

But even those levels are not especially high, he said. For example, on March 15, three days after the first hydrogen explosion from the nuclear plant and the first day that official readings for the village were made available, he estimates radiation levels outdoors were 89.4 microsieverts.

Based on his daily readings, he calculates that he will have been exposed to around 24 millisieverts by the time the 12-month anniversary of the nuclear disaster is marked next March.

One millisievert equals 1,000 microsieverts and is one-1,000th of a sievert, the internationally recognized unit to calculate a dose of radiation.

According to National Institute of Radiological Science statistics, it would take more than four times Ito’s estimated exposure to cause any immediate effects.

“The risk of getting cancer is about 0.5 percent in the case of 100 millisievert radiation exposure,” the NIRS website states.

Meanwhile, the site adds that the average annual radiation dose in the natural environment — via water, food, radon in the air and other sources — is 2.4 millisieverts, although there are some parts of the world with natural levels totaling more than four times that amount.

“Residents were advised to evacuate this area due to official fears that annual radiation levels could exceed 20 millisieverts, but experts say even that is not dangerously high,” Ito said.

“I couldn’t see any reason to leave, and thought, conversely, I would be of more service here than far away in some shelter.”

Ito is in fact registered at a shelter about 40 km away in the city of Fukushima, but only visits occasionally to collect his mail, he said. During the day he tends to his crops, which consist of rice, potatoes, eggplants, peanuts and other vegetables.

These crops are not being grown for personal or commercial consumption — they form part of his research. Recent tests on himself and his produce have turned up no alarming results to date, he said.

“In August, I visited Tokyo University to undergo extensive examinations and according to an interim report they could not find anything out of the ordinary,” he said as he plucked some weeds growing around his fast-ripening rice fields. His paddies are home to frogs, dragonflies and other wildlife, countering rumors spreading farther afield that such creatures are dying out in the area.

Ito also grows a large number of sunflowers on his farm, which was built last October as a retreat for stressed-out employees of his former company and where he works as the live-in caretaker.

After the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, it was reported that sunflowers and rape plants were used to decontaminate the soil due to their capacity to absorb large quantities of radioactive cesium, he said. However, he said his own research provides evidence that challenges such claims.

“Results in late August show cesium levels in the plant’s roots were about 38 percent of the levels in the soil and there were only negligible amounts in the plants’ flowers and stalks,” he said. “From this, I think it can be deduced that sunflowers and other plants have little effect in decontaminating the soil.”

As he roams among his rice fields, Ito points to a place beyond the undulating hills immediately below which, on a clear day, there is a partial view of the Pacific and the nuclear plant. But Ito insists he is completely comfortable with staying put.

“Frankly, I am not convinced of the dangers,” he said. “Experts have visited here and said that they cannot be 100 percent certain of the actual impact.”

Either way, the long-term effects won’t be noticeable for 15 or 20 years, possibly even longer, he said. “No doubt, we will know a lot more about the effects of radiation by then and hopefully my research will not have been in vain. My children live in Niigata and often beg me to evacuate. But I tell them there are still things I have to do here.”