Science in the wild

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My focus is on the parts of Fukushima Prefecture affected by the nuclear disaster which began in March 2011. Many towns and villages in Fukushima remain contaminated by radioactive caesium 134 and 137 released in the triple disaster. The authorities have spent the last nine years attempting to decontaminate the affected landscape. These endeavours amount to a feverous and continuous cycle of shuffling soil around the prefecture in huge quantities, employing the positive connotations associated with ‘recycling’ rhetoric (Wynn Kirby: 2019), whilst simultaneously unable to decontaminate vast swathes of terrain because of the challenges posed by Fukushima’s dominant geographic feature: forested mountains. Toxicity is negotiated on a daily basis, through the monitoring and measuring practices associated with food production, food consumption, disaster compensation, healthcare provision and manufacturing, to name but a few. Those involved in the negotiations include residents, parents, school officials, government officials, businesses, lawyers and scientists.  A host of devices are ushered in to adjudicate whether an item, be it a human body, soil sample or fern scroll, is contaminated. In Japanese, 現場 Gemba (or Genba) refers to the ‘real place’.  In policing it indicates the scene of the crime, in business it is used to denote the shop floor.  Stolz uses Toxic Genba (2018) to designate the ‘real lived site’ of a toxic event.  I suggest that the acts of measuring and monitoring contamination is a practice through which Stolz’s Toxic Genba endure.

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Farmer holding fern scrolls

As the situation unfolds - wild mountain fern scrolls

In March 2011, an earthquake off the coast of Japan caused a tsunami which contributed to what would become the most significant nuclear incident since Chernobyl.  The radioactive isotopes released in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant incident led the government to evacuate over 165,000 people, some of whom are still not able to return. Some villages have reopened and their residents are slowly returning, navigating a new somewhat precarious way of living.

A farmer from a formerly evacuated village shows me fern scrolls we collected from the mountains near his reopened farm. They are precarious because it is not possible to determine how contaminated they are without monitoring them.  The local authorities discourage residents from foraging in the mountains and forests  because they remain to the greater extent, un-decontaminated.  Despite this, the farmer and I, plus around 30 scientists and their families, go hunting for local delicacies in the mountains on their weekend off.  Later-on that day, the vegetables are taken to be monitored in a local food monitoring station to confirm if they are above the allowed limit - 100 Becquerels per kilogram.  Vegetables within the limit are made into tasty tempura.  The rest go to ‘science’.

A bag of wild vegetables

Contaminated Koshiabura

During a weekend learning farm skills in a formerly evacuated village in Fukushima, we foraged for a host of wild vegetables (sansai). Those that we found were labelled and sent to the local food monitoring station.  One bag of our bounty, Koshiabura shoots, exceeded the government standard for most foods: 100Bq/Kg. 

The image shows a typical printout from the food monitoring station.  The printout shows the detection level of the measuring device - in this case, 42Bq/Kg for Cesium 137 and 67.9Bq/Kg for Cesium 134. It then shows that the combined amount of Cesium in the sample is 737.7Bq/Kg, seven times the allowable limit, if we wanted to sell it.  But we were scientists on our day off, we could choose to eat more than the government standard.  Afterall, it is just one bag of greens.  In the end, the scientists opted to go for the government limit.  This sample did not get eaten at our weekend farming party but was instead taken by one of the scientists present back to their lab for further testing.

Soil cross section

At the Soil Museum

On another visit to a reopened village in Fukushima, Nakamura-san, a scientist and member of a local citizen science monitoring group, takes me to see the Soil Museum, an unassuming shelter made of plastic covering scaffolding poles.  It looks akin to the various flower polytunnels that have cropped up all over the area, in between abandoned paddy fields. The Soil Museum sits in a corner of one such paddy field, close to both a contaminated waste storage facility, a ziggurat of black bags and also a newly erected solar farm, part of the village’s attempt to remove the need for external sources of energy.

The museum does not contain much.  Upon looking inside I am faced with a small ditch and a cut out in the soil below, providing me with a cross section of the soil in the field to a depth of about a metre. Grass and weeds sprout at the surface. The top 10cm layer of soil has been removed and replaced, according to government decontamination methods, with alternative ‘clean’ soil, harvested from a mountain elsewhere in the prefecture. The clean material is coarse and clearly a different make-up to the original paddy field soil. I am told not only is the soil not as fertile as what was there before, but also that heavy machinery used during removal of the top layer often crush the underground clay pipe systems that allow the fields to be flooded and drained.  Outside the museum, examples of broken pipes lie quietly, unacknowledged inside the repository.

Forests in Fukushima

Hunting scientists in liminal forests

In May 2019 I accompanied three scientists from a Japanese research institute on a visit to a somewhat counterintuitively named ‘wild mountain vegetable’ farm in a reopened village in Fukushima. They are trying to determine why there are large variations in plant contamination across the farm.  This place is on the border of farm-land and forest.  It is both forest and farm, but at the same time neither one nor the other.  When asked whether the plants are farmed or wild, the owner, Hirono-San admits ‘well, they are really wild, but I if I say wild I cannot sell them!  So I say farmed.’ Her grandfather planted some of the garlic plants decades ago and they have since spread.  Who is to say where the border between wild and not wild is?

Decontaminating it is not so easy because of the terrain. Takahashi-San and I strain to see Ito and Watanabe struggle up the slippery slope to monitor plants in the tree-lined forest. ‘We are scientist hunting!’ he smiles.

An area next to a small river is relatively cleared of trees and has been decontaminated.  Hirono-San negotiated with the government to only take off the top layer of soil off.  Instead of taking off 10cm as they would do in paddy fields or flatter agricultural fields, they just scraped off the top 5cm. ‘We knew that it did not need to be decontaminated as much.’  How did you know?  I ask.  ‘Of course we know! Through the history and knowledge we know! These plants only have short roots.’ 

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Food monitoring device showing an X on a red background

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Created date

February 24, 2020