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Research / Discovery

On third anniversary of nuclear crisis, students travel to Fukushima, Japan, as ambassadors

March 4, 2014
by Rachel Griess

Health Physics students who took part in the first Fukushima Student Ambassador trip to Japan will offer a campus presentation about their experience beginning at 10 a.m. Tuesday, March 25, in Molecular and Radiological Biosciences Building Room 123.

Students travel to Fukushima as ambassadors

(10 images)

Colorado State University health physics graduate students witnessed wreckage that remains untouched in the Fukushima exclusion zone that was hit by a devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in March 2011.

Thousands of Fukushima residents evacuated their homes during the disaster, and many don't know if they will ever be able to return.

The Fukushima Prefecture, on the Pacific Coast of Japan, depends on fishing and agriculture.

A boat carried inland during the tsunami remains where it landed after flood water receded from the Fukushima exclusion zone, which remains closed to residents.

As part of widespread decontamination efforts, crews have removed and covered topsoil from farms and orchards in Fukushima Prefecture.

Monitoring radioactivity levels on farmland is a key part of regaining trust in the safety of agricultural products from Fukushima, and rebuilding the economy.

Signs throughout Fukushima Prefecture report radiation dose levels, a constant reminder of the disaster that occurred three years ago.

CSU students in the Fukushima Student Ambassador Program visited communities and schools, and even helped lead a yoga class with schoolchildren.

Student Derek Bailey jokes with children at a school in Fukushima Prefecture, where CSU ambassadors were impressed by the resiliency of residents.

 

Colorado State University has launched a first-ever ambassador program that allows graduate students studying health physics to travel to the site of the most important radiological event of the new millennium in Fukushima, Japan, and to act as agents for recovery.

“The nuclear accident in Fukushima happened around the same time that I was looking into studying radiation protection. I realized that this event would be critical to my field,” said Jessica Gillis, who is pursuing a master’s degree in the CSU Health Physics Program. “The new facilities in Fukushima offer a massive potential for environmental research. The opportunity to visit is truly a gift, and I hope to reflect on it throughout my future career.”

Gillis is among five students who recently returned from a two-week trip to Japan for radiological studies, observation, volunteer work and cultural exchange. They were the first to take part in CSU’s one-of-a-kind Fukushima Student Ambassador Program established in partnership with Fukushima University.

Nicole Martinez says many people worldwide don't understand ongoing devastation in Fukushima.

During a campus presentation about their experience, the students noted that air radiation levels in Colorado – because of high elevation and natural soil composition – are notably higher than those measured in Fukushima since the nuclear meltdown in March 2011.

Negative preconceptions

Three years ago, the major earthquake and tsunami that struck Fukushima killed an estimated 20,000 people and forced the evacuation of some 150,000. The natural devastation sparked the world’s most significant nuclear crisis since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, causing equipment failures, nuclear meltdown and release of radioactive material from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Yet there have been no human deaths attributed to Fukushima radiation exposure.

“Imagine the physical destruction of an earthquake and tsunami. Now imagine, instead of people rushing to your aid, they’re scared of you and blaming you for a worldwide nuclear disaster,” said Nicole Martinez, a CSU doctoral student in the Fukushima Student Ambassador Program. “The earthquake and tsunami were physically devastating to Fukushima, but the nuclear accident damaged the society with negative preconceptions.”

Breaking down hurdles

It is not yet clear whether cancer risks could be higher after the Fukushima reactor meltdowns – nor are effects of environmental contamination, especially ongoing water contamination, fully understood.

What is clear, CSU student ambassadors said, is the people of Japan deserve accurate information, understanding and help.

Derek Bailey refers to a map of Japan while discussing Fukushima.

“The propaganda against radiation is holding Fukushima back from recovering more quickly,” said Derek Bailey, another CSU student ambassador. “People need the resources to understand the information that is given to them. The best thing we can do as students is promise to communicate and be more transparent in our future careers.”

While in Japan, he saw first-hand that Fukushima’s stigma presents a challenge to full recovery.

“I was sitting and talking to a man in Tokyo after our trip to Fukushima,” Bailey recalled. “He asked where I had traveled. When I mentioned Fukushima, he jumped up and backed away – like I was contagious or something.”

The Fukushima Student Ambassadors hope to promote change by breaking down hurdles, including fear, distrust and displacement.

Advancing knowledge through partnerships

“Real-life experiences give our students more knowledge than the average student,” said Thomas Johnson, an associate professor in the CSU Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences. “This program lets our students apply their existing knowledge through research, outreach and education. They aren’t tourists. They are there to help.”

The Fukushima Student Ambassadors Program is an outgrowth of collaborations the CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences has formed with health and higher-education institutions in Japan.

The ongoing partnerships – aimed at advancing knowledge in health physics, radiological sciences and cancer treatment – have opened the door to research opportunities for other graduate students in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences.

The first Fukushima Student Ambassadors are, from left, Jessica Gillis, Sarah Sublett, Derek Bailey and  Nicole Martinez. Britt Edquist is not pictured.

Dayton McMillan, also pursuing a master’s degree in health physics, traveled to Japan about a year ago to study the biological effects of heavy ion radiation, a cancer treatment found effective for some inoperable tumors that is not yet available in the United States. His trip was part of a CSU research project with the National Institute of Radiological Sciences (NIRS) near Toyko.

“It was great to be a part of research with a global and translational impact,” McMillan said. “I had the ability to work in world-class facilities with technology that isn’t available in the United States.”

McMillan was accompanied by Takamitsu Kato, an assistant professor at CSU with a joint appointment at NIRS, to tour advanced facilities and to work with leading-edge technology like the Heavy Ion Medical Accelerator in Chiba, the world’s first machine specialized for heavy ion radiotherapy.

The best students to hire

This summer, two doctoral students will work alongside professors and researchers at the University of Tokyo and Fukushima University. Johnson hopes all CSU students in radiological health sciences will soon have the chance to study and conduct research in Japan.

“Our goal is to produce the best students,” Johnson said. “We want employers recognizing our program as the best in the country. We want them knocking down doors to hire our students.”

Research insights

Health Physics students who participated in the first Fukushima Student Ambassador trip provided the following insights in summary reports.

Derek Bailey witnessed ongoing decontamination and testing efforts meant to reduce risk and allay fears about rice, fruit and vegetables, which are critical to the Fukushima economy. For instance, teams remove topsoil from agricultural land and test for the presence of radionuclides in soil and food.

Agricultural products are screened for radiation to ensure safety.“Fukushima Prefecture is an area rich in agriculture, and the economic stability of the region is in part dependent on the ability to produce rice, vegetables and fruit. Unfortunately, the stigma of radiation contamination has resulted in less demand for agricultural consumables from these areas, which results in greatly reduced market value.

“To combat public fears, the agricultural goods produced in Fukushima Prefecture are screened for radiation before going to market. Our group had the privilege of touring a facility where food produced by local farmers is screened for the presence of radiation before moving on to market.”

Britt Edquist noted that, three years after the disaster, residents of Fukushima Prefecture are constantly reminded about radiation testing and potential risks – even though health concerns are negligible in much of the area.

“Signs can be found in public spaces where the soil and foliage have been decontaminated. In public areas such as parks or schools, real-time meters with digital dose-rate displays can be found.

“For many of the people of Fukushima, the terms ‘activity,’ ‘Becquerel’ and ‘sievert’ were complete unknowns before the nuclear disaster,” Edquist wrote, referring to measurements of radioactivity. “However, these terms can be found in parks, on food labels and on the evening news, when the weather and dose rates are read side-by-side.”

Jessica Gillis wrote that, before her trip, she viewed the Fukushima nuclear event in scientific terms; her view quickly expanded.

“My scientific perspective of the event was primarily factual, completely lacking the sense of humanity necessary to comprehend the true situation. After time in Fukushima, I gained a much richer perspective and was able to put my learning into context.

CSU student ambassadors learn cultural traditions, such as making the rice treat mochi.

“I had the chance to experience Japanese food and culture for the first time; to visit residents living in temporary housing, who were displaced from their homes three years ago; to see the Daiichi power plant from a distance; to use personal dosimetry to measure my radiation exposure, or lack thereof; to talk with community leaders and relief organizations; to witness the destruction of areas hit by the earthquake or tsunami, and then abandoned; and, most importantly, to see the rebirth and renewal that has taken place in the prefecture since then.”

Nicole Martinez was especially struck by the effects of poor communication and misinformation on the people of Fukushima after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear emergency that occurred on March 11, 2011.

“At the time of the incident, there was much confusion, as well as significant lack of communication and resources for affected people. There was also increasing distrust of the government and other authority figures, which still remains today to a certain extent.

The ambassadors, near Fukushima Daiichi, are, from left, Derek Bailey,  Nicole Martinez, Jessica Gillis,  Sarah Sublett and Britt Edquist.

“Three years after the incident, many people are still displaced. The number of volunteers assisting Fukushima has dramatically decreased. Wildly false accusations of radiological effects resulting from Fukushima circulate through social media. People across the world are panicked for themselves, and have all but forgotten the individuals living in Fukushima, the individuals still suffering through tremendous loss, the individuals pulling themselves up by the bootstraps in spite of losing everything.”

Sarah Sublett sensed unresolved pain among many Fukushima residents, pain compounded by ongoing displacement and uncertainty about whether many people will ever be able to return home.

“There are also many symbols of resiliency, recovery and solidarity in Fukushima Prefecture,” she wrote. “One shining example is Kawauchi village, where the people were so determined to return that they educated themselves on proper decontamination methods and effectively decontaminated their entire area. They were determined to make their home better than it was before March 2011 and are well on their way to their goal.

“Leaving Japan filled my mind with thoughts, including, ‘How would I react if some day my world were turned upside down?  Would I be as resilient as the people of Fukushima?’ I do not know how I would react, but I hope what I learned from this trip will make me better prepared for whatever life hands me.”