KORIYAMA, FUKUSHIMA PREF. - A group of elementary school students in Koriyama, about 60 km from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant, may only be 10 years old, but they possibly know more about radiation than fourth-graders anywhere in the world.
After a year of study at Akagi Elementary School in Fukushima Prefecture, the 28 students in Tomoyuki Bannai’s class can now explain the difference between alpha, beta and gamma rays. They know alpha rays are dangerous in terms of internal exposure to radiation and that gamma rays pose the biggest threat for external exposure.
“I believe my class of fourth-graders is probably the best in the world in terms of radiation education,” Bannai, 43, told The Japan Times in late February.
“Children, who are more vulnerable to radiation exposure, are the ones who need to gain a thorough understanding,” he said. “I want them to have the ability to select the right information when so many different data exist.
“And I want them to be smart enough to think for themselves based on such information.”
Teaching children about radiation became an urgent issue after the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant began spewing radioactive isotopes last March.
It is an especially crucial matter in Fukushima Prefecture, which hosts the wrecked facility, as children there continue to be exposed to radiation, albeit at low levels.
In response, the prefectural board of education asked Fukushima’s 700 elementary and junior high schools to teach all students about radiation from next month, when the new school year starts. The board advised the schools to spend about two to three hours a year on the subject, focusing on radiation protection and the health effects of exposure.
The subject of radiation will become mandatory in science classes for third-year students at junior high schools — the first time such lessons will take place in about 30 years.
But this decision was made before the March 2011 calamities sparked Japan’s worst nuclear crisis. In 2008, the government reviewed teaching guidelines to broaden the curriculum, including radiation subjects, and this will take effect in April.
Like Bannai, however, some teachers have already started instructing students about radiation on their own initiative since the nuclear crisis erupted. But while many teachers have only spent a few hours teaching the basics, Bannai went far beyond that, using about 30 to 40 hours of general studies time for radiation classes.
He believes the knowledge his pupils have gained will protect them from false information and possibly from discrimination they may face in the future on account of radiation fears.
“When they grow up, they need to be able to explain how they’ve tackled (the contamination) and how they’ve thought about it,” said Bannai, who studied earth science at Tokyo Gakugei University and had a basic understanding of radiation. “I want them to become adults who can explain how they’ve been dealing with the situation when they may face discrimination, and not let any stigma hinder them.”
Bannai started teaching his students about radiation last April, ranging from updates on the nuclear disaster to ways to protect themselves from exposure.
Located about 60 km from the Fukushima No. 1 plant, the radiation reading at the school was around 3.5 microsieverts per hour before decontamination work — about 70 times higher than in Tokyo. Therefore it became an urgent issue to teach children how to avoid, or at least to limit, their radiation exposure, Bannai said.
With the help of Misato Yugi — an illustrator who responded to Bannai’s call on Twitter for assistance in producing a textbook for children about radiation — he made a colorful leaflet last April and handed out copies to students free of charge. He also posted it on the Internet for everyone to access.
From there, Bannai worked to gradually instill more knowledge in his students by encouraging them to discuss and think about the nuclear accident.
With the first anniversary of such lessons near, Bannai said he is convinced children can learn and understand difficult topics — if taught in the right way.
“The ability of children is far greater than adults often assume. Their learning power is very strong,” Bannai said. “The important thing is to let them think about and discuss (a subject), and not to just lecture them and ask whether they have understood or not.”
In late February, Bannai asked his students to discuss the biological half-life of cesium-137, the time it takes for half the isotope to be eliminated after it gets into someone’s body. While the half-life of cesium-137 is 30 years, the isotope’s biological half-life is about nine days for infants, 38 days for children up to 9, and 70 to 90 days for adults, according to the Consumer Affairs Agency.
The topic is not easy for 10-year-olds to grasp, but after dozens of hours of study, all of Bannai’s students started to actively discuss how cesium is discharged from the human body, the potential health effects if they eat contaminated food, and what they can do to avoid internal exposure as much as possible.
Asked if they were ever fed up with the classes, all 28 fourth-graders said they enjoyed learning more about radiation.
“I had a kind of scary image of radiation because it’s invisible. But after I’ve learned about it, I now know what to avoid and where not to go. Also, I now understand the news about the nuclear crisis,” said fourth-grader Teppei Sato. “I understand (radioactive materials) better than my mother. When we go to a supermarket together, I tell her which produce to avoid.”
Thanks to decontamination efforts that started last May, the school’s hourly radiation reading had fallen to 0.18 microsievert in late February, below the government’s target of 0.23 microsievert.
But the daily lives of children in Koriyama have changed profoundly. For example, they no longer play at local parks and they all carry glass dosimeters provided by the city to measure their external exposure.
“I spend more time playing at my friends’ houses,” Sato said. “So I exercise by pedaling my bike on the way to my friends’ houses.”
The students stressed they are not seeking anyone’s pity.
“I don’t want people to feel sorry for us. We are not poor kids,” said fourth-grader Rina Ishii.
While some adults have called for all children to be evacuated from Fukushima, the students said that after learning about the health risks of radiation exposure, living in Koriyama is not that bad.
“There may be a risk of developing cancer, but the risk is small. As long as we take care in selecting food, I think it’s OK,” said student Wataru Sugeno.
The fourth-graders said they generally try to avoid eating produce grown in Fukushima. And shiitake and “yuzu” (citrons) from the prefecture are definitely off the menu, as contamination levels above the government limit of 500 becquerels per kilogram were recorded in some produce during sampling tests.
“As children have said, the situation (in Koriyama) is not that miserable,” Bannai said. “They have learned about internal exposure and contamination levels in produce. And they are beginning to tackle that and are trying to create a brighter future. I want people to know that.”