FUKUSHIMA – Having disregarded a state instruction to kill cattle left behind in areas near the crisis-hit Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, local farmers have been struggling to keep alive the around 430 cows within a 20-kilometer radius of the complex that were exposed to radiation.
The instruction was issued two months after reactor meltdowns at the plant were triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, for about 3,500 cows kept within the area adjacent to the power plant.
Regarding their cows as “family members,” some farmers ignored the instruction. Others who followed it said they still suffer psychologically. The central government allowed cattle breeding again within the 20-km zone in 2012, but shipments are still banned.
Keiji Okada, a professor of veterinary science at Iwate University who conducts research on animals exposed to radiation, has been taking blood and urine samples from cows at a couple of farms in the zone to look for genetic abnormalities.
One local farmer who is cooperating with the research is Fumikazu Watanabe, 60, in the town of Namie, a few kilometers from the Fukushima plant.
Watanabe said he wants to protect his 50 cows “until they die a natural death, just like human parents protect their children.”
Before returning to Namie in October last year after evacuation orders for some parts of the town were lifted, Watanabe used to shuttle between the farm and his shelter about 50 km away, applying for special entry permission to take care of his cows.
Radiation levels at Watanabe’s farm stand at 15 to 20 microsieverts per hour — the highest among the seven farms where the 430 cows are kept — but his cows are “so far in perfect health,” Okada said.
“This research is internationally rare and it could be applied to protecting cattle when a nuclear disaster occurs,” he said.
Another farm dubbed “Moo Mow Garden” in the town of Okuma, where the Fukushima plant is located, is run by Satsuki Tani, 36, who initially worked as a volunteer following the disaster. Eleven cows are still kept at the 6-hectare facility in the community, which became a ghost town.
Tani, who was formerly employed at a company in Tokyo, originally came to Fukushima to protect stray cows after seeing news about cattle starving to death in the disaster-hit areas. She came up with the idea of having the cows, which eat 60 kilograms of grass every day, help to manage and conserve desolate farmland.
The cows released at the farm not only ate the weeds but knocked down a 3-meter-tall scrub and ate its leaves, transforming the deserted land into a tidy field.
“I was always depressed to see the ruined farm every time I came back for a temporary stay, but now I feel better,” said the farm’s landlady, who is in her 70s.
Tani, who now makes a living by working part-time at a convenience store, said she aims to make a business out of her farm project. “I want to maintain the farmland so residents returning to the town in the future will be able to resume farming,” she said.
But Kaiichi Shiba, 68, who agreed to abandon his 30 cows in 2013, has regretted his decision. It was tough for him to visit the farm, which was exposed to high levels of radiation, from his shelter.
“Yasuhira, Haruka — each of them had a name. It’s like I’ve killed my family,” Shiba said of his cows. “If I could have moved them to a safer place, they would have lived.” Relocating them became impossible when the government prohibited evacuation of the cows outside the 20-km radius, in order to prevent their meat from being marketed.
Shiba, who evacuated from Namie to the city of Sayama in Saitama Prefecture, about 200 km away from his hometown, said he has yet to find new motivation in life.