Exchange tour in Fukushima
Aug. 28, 2017
Six years have passed since the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster, which was triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake.
In early August, some Japanese high school students took part in an exchange program in which they helped French students learn about the aftermath of the disaster.
A group of high school students -- 7 French and 17 Japanese -- got together to tour areas near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. They visited places that were the hardest hit by the tsunami and radioactive fallout.
The 4-day tour was organized for the French students to see Fukushima firsthand so that they could assess the impact of the disaster and reconstruction efforts.
The students of Fukushima High School led the tour. They prepared by gathering the most recent information about toxicity levels and challenges caused by the disaster.
High school junior Shunya Okino was 10 years old when the earthquake struck. At the time, he was living in Fukushima City, which is about 60 kilometers away from the power plant.
"When there was a report about the explosion at the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, I remember my parents muttering that this was the end of Fukushima. I stayed at home for a long time because I was told not to go out," he says.
Okino is enthusiastic about this opportunity with his peers. In March, he and members of a high school club went to France to attend a meeting on radiation protection. He gave a 10-minute presentation about the problems of long term reconstruction.
He didn't get the reaction he anticipated, as he had hoped that the audience would be more interested in the issue.
"I was very frustrated that I couldn't communicate with my audience because I thought that I was talking about important topics... I was asked about the farm animals in the evacuation zone rather than human issues that I really wanted to address. I felt that I didn't get the response that I had hoped for," he says.
Okino thinks that awareness about the nuclear disaster is decreasing as time passes. That is why he wants to clearly inform people about the current situation in Fukushima.
The bus arrives in Minami-sōma City, where the soil contaminated by radioactive materials is stored. Over 100,000 bags of soil are stored in this place alone.
"Wow. It's amazing to see how many bags are piled up here," say the French students.
Okino wanted his guests to see this particular place to understand the challenges of the cleanup effort.
"If a nuclear plant made an accident at once we have to deal with these problems within 10 years or 20 years so we have to control the nuclear energy safely," he tells them.
"But don’t you think in the short term we need this energy?" asks one of the students, Matthew.
Okino is adamant that people need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario in the event of a nuclear accident.
"Can you understand nuclear energy has the potential to make serious situation?" he responds.
"It's mostly politicians people who think whether they want to or not to get out of nuclear energy," says Matthew.
"It seems like the French may have no choice but to rely on nuclear energy. I'm hoping that they will start to think about this problem as their own rather than as something that concerns only politicians. When a disaster strikes, it is the lives of the people near the power plant that are affected the most," says Okino.
For lunch, the students stopped by a restaurant in a town. They were served rice grown in Fukushima that went through strict safety tests.
"Fukushima’s food... what do you think?" asks one of the Japanese students, Honoka Ara.
"It's good food," responds a French student.
But the French student says that the reputation of Fukushima's agricultural products is tainted even after 6 years have passed. "When I said to my friends and family that I would go to Fukushima in the summer, they said to me are you crazy? There is a radioactivity."
"I hope that the students who came all the way from France will tell people in their own country about our products, because food from Fukushima's farms still has a poor reputation," says Ara.
During the 4-day tour, Okino and other Japanese students relay information about the current situation in the area whenever they have the chance.
The 7 French students gradually came to understand the reality and challenges that Fukushima faces. After the tour, the students were given an opportunity to present their take away. Okino moderates the meeting. "It was strange to see so many bags of contaminated soil piled up in front of me. These bags will be here for another 10 or 20 years. I now understand the consequences of a nuclear disaster," says a French student.
"Basically, I didn't think that nuclear power plants were that dangerous. Many meetings about this topic are being held at my school, and I would like to talk about Fukushima and my experiences here to encourage discussion," says another.
"The most important achievement for me was that I was able to communicate what I wanted to express. It was truly a big step to be able to get a response from them and to see that they understood my point... Through this workshop, I learned the importance of give and take and how it is less effective to simply force opinions on others. I will continue to cherish the importance of dialogue," says Okino.
The nuclear disaster has had a lasting impact on Fukushima and surrounding areas. These students reaffirmed the importance of sharing stories of their experiences so they are not forgotten as time passes.
Newsroom Tokyo anchors Hideki Nakayama and Aki Shibuya discuss the story.
Nakayama: I think this proves how important it is to come and visit the disaster area and see for yourself the real situation.
Shibuya: And I think the fact that students who actually experienced the disaster are the ones speaking out, shows a lot of potential in spreading the word about the dangers of a nuclear accident to the world.
Nakayama: They're a new generation of journalists.
Shibuya: 80% of France's electricity production comes from nuclear energy. It is expected that in the future, both Japanese and French students will seek a better way to manage the problems of energy by sharing the lessons of Fukushima.