Fukushima Ambassador Program helps students clear up misconceptions about radiation and its safety

Megan Braa

Imagine having reality broken to pieces right in front of you because of something you cannot control, like a tsunami, earthquake or even a nuclear accident.

The citizens of Fukushima, a prefecture — the equivalent of a state — in Japan, experienced all three in a single day on March 11, 2011.

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These events led to a series of problems for the Fukushima prefecture, ranging from physical to social to economical. However, most of these problems are based in misconceptions about the outcome of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Accident.

To help spread awareness about the status of the prefecture, Fukushima University founded the Fukushima Ambassador Program. The program brings students from universities all over the world to Fukushima to learn about the implications of the accident.

The Fukushima Ambassador Program kicked off for the seventh time in August, bringing six students from Colorado State University to Japan, according to the Fukushima Ambassador Program Report.

This year, CSU sent the largest number of international students to Fukushima, and was the only school in Colorado to participate in the program, according to Dr. Thomas Johnson, the coordinator for the program at CSU and an associate professor of environmental and radiological health sciences.

“The purpose of the program is to provide students with hands-on learning opportunities that focus on physical, financial and social consequences of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident,” Johnson said. “Every year, the program sends students to Fukushima University to learn about the accident on a personal level.”

Participating in the Fukushima Ambassador program helped clear up misconceptions, said Justin Bell, a radiation health sciences master’s student.

“The levels of contamination were relatively low in a lot of areas,” Bell said. “What’s sad is you see a lot of these people (who) are displaced still, the economy hasn’t come back and people aren’t moving back. Afterward, you see high suicide rates of those people (who) have been evacuated or being housed in temporary housing because they think they have lost their lifestyle.”

In fact, some of the background levels of radiation measured by students in Fukushima were either lower or comparable to those in Colorado, according to Bell.

“I think the program was an eye opener for us and how we can learn about the extent of contamination over there,” said Donald Ordinario, a second year master’s student. “There is more to Fukushima — it is not a nuclear wasteland.”

The nuclear accident was the result of the earthquake and tsunami, according to Johnson. The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant did not kill any people, while the earthquake and tsunami killed thousands. However, the nuclear accident often overshadows the tragedies of the tsunami and earthquake.

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“The news tends to focus on the radiation because that is the sexy, mysterious part, but that’s not what is killing people,” Johnson said. “What is killing people is the transportation which occurred during the evacuation, and the social impacts on people’s mental health has had a huge impact.”

Johnson said before the accident, Fukushima was an agricultural center known for its fruit, but because of the stigma attached with the prefecture’s name, people stopped buying their products.

“It’s not really an exchange program in the traditional sense,” Johnson said. “It’s more of an informational program, and the idea behind this is that they want people to learn that there is more to Fukushima than a nuclear power plant accident.”

While a group of CSU students was participating in the program, they had the opportunity to connect personally with the people of Fukushima and even were allowed to stay with a host family for three days.

“On day three or day four, we went to a temporary housing facility,” Ordinario said. “I believe the place they are living now is the third place they have lived since being evacuated. A lot of them, they left their house in a moment’s notice — they just had to get up and leave. Going to the housing and hearing their stories, it was heart-wrenching and it was a very powerful experience.”

The Fukushima Ambassador Program also sends Fukushima University students to other universities to learn about radiation. Johnson said CSU was fortunate to participate in this part of the program. These Japanese students do not have a background in radiation sciences.

Ordinario hosted a few Japanese students who were sent to CSU a couple weeks ago.

“I think they are going back to Japan with a better understanding of radiation and radiation safety and less of a fear and stigma (toward) radiation,” Ordinario said.

Johnson said the program helped students understand the area they live in a little better, but because of funding, the Fukushima Ambassador program may not be carrying on.

“I think we do a very good job at CSU of teaching about the science of radiation safety,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that our particular program at CSU can teach the societal impacts that they could learn going through the Fukushima Ambassador Program. When they go on the ambassador program, they learn first-hand the effects of a radiation accident in a way that you can’t teach in a classroom.”

Collegian Reporter Megan Braa can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @megan_braa.