Two years after Japan's nuclear meltdown, what happened to Fukushima's orphans?

In some cases, the government is providing special care. But other orphans are falling through bureaucratic cracks.

Kyodo News/AP
Red and white cranes stand by reactors of the tsunami-ravaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan, Monday, March 11, 2013.

When it comes to radiation exposure from the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant two years ago, the 91 boys and girls at the Fukushima Aiikuen orphanage are probably some of the most closely watched kids in the prefecture.

Their food is tested daily for contamination. Their living environment has been cleaned to remove as many lingering radionuclides as possible. Their time outside is strictly monitored. And their health is regularly checked.

“[In the general public] the level of awareness about these issues varies from family to family. Here, once we decide something is necessary, each child receives the same attention,” says Hisao Saito, who directs the sprawling wood-and-concrete facility perched on a hillside in southern Fukushima City, about 35 miles from the destroyed reactors.

In some cases, the prefectural government – which is charged with overseeing Fukushima’s eight orphanages – is providing this special care. In other cases, however, children at orphanages are falling through bureaucratic cracks and must rely on other sources for help reducing and tracking their exposure to radiation. 

The prefecture paid to clean up the grounds at six orphanages. At Aiikuen, concrete was washed with power hoses, trees were chopped down, and grass was scraped off hillsides to remove contaminants like radioactive cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years. This February the prefecture also supplied each Fukushima orphanage with a device for testing food and a staff member to operate it.

For these measures, Mr. Saito says he is grateful. But, he insists, “It’s not enough.... Government support comes slowly. The private sector is faster.”

He has relied on an outpouring of domestic and international aid for things like summer trips out of the prefecture, food with zero contamination, and detailed monitoring of radiation exposure.

'How were we supposed to judge our safety?'

At Iwaki Ikueisha, a different Fukushima orphanage located 21 miles from the damaged plant, problems with the official disaster response began immediately after an explosion sent radionuclides flying into the air on March 12, 2011.

“The evacuation zone was expanding, from 10 kilometers to 20 [6 miles to 12]. How were we supposed to judge our safety?” recalls Seiko Ichikawa, who at the time was assistant director of the facility caring for 23 children (today she is director).

The size of the evacuation zone was controversial – the United States urged citizens living up to 50 miles from the plant to evacuate – and many families in the neighborhood fled. The tsunami and earthquake that set off the nuclear disaster also wiped out infrastructure: food, gasoline, and other supplies were running low, and banks were closed. Water lines had broken, so Ms. Ichikawa and the other staff collected water from springs in the mountains.

But on March 14, a second explosion rocked the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and a city official came to warn remaining residents against drinking the spring water.

“At that point I called the prefecture [to request we be evacuated]. They said, ‘You’re outside the official evacuation zone. If you want to leave, you can do so on your own,’” Ichikawa says.

The staff found several places willing to shelter the children but hesitated to leave without more gas and cash.

On March 15, residents within 19 miles of the plant were asked to stay inside. Ichikawa kept calling the disaster-swamped prefecture to ask for help. Finally on March 18, officials agreed to evacuate the children for two weeks – because of the food shortages, not the radiation.

“I understand that a calm [government] response was impossible. Everyone was a disaster victim; everyone was panicked. But there was a group of small children living here, and I wanted the prefecture to make an independent decision based on that fact, regardless of numbers set by the national government," says Ichikawa. 

A representative of the prefecture’s child welfare office was not able to confirm the exact details of post-disaster events, but says that the prefecture’s policy was to follow evacuation instructions from the central government.

The other problem

As it turned out, winds carried a comparatively small amount of radioactive cesium to the city of Iwaki, where the facility is located, so long-term environmental contamination is less of a concern there than it is for Saito in Fukushima. On the other hand, fallout maps suggest that the children may have been exposed to short-lived iodine-131, which doctors say can cause cancer.

When it came time to screen the children for radiation-related health problems, however, Ichikawa says she ran into another problem. The prefectural government is providing free health screenings to all Fukushima children. In the case of some of the children she cares for, the notices for these exams never arrived.

That’s because many orphans in Japan actually have at least one living parent. Though they live away from home because of abuse, neglect, or other reasons, their official addresses remain unchanged. For this reason the health screening notices went to parents, some of whom didn’t pass them on to the orphanage.

“We get information on where each child lives from the municipal governments. If the municipalities don’t have the child’s [correct] address, it’s hard for us, within this system, to reach them. We want to contact the orphanages [directly] but that is something we still need to work on,” a press officer at the Fukushima Health Management Survey’s oversight center says.

Ichikawa says that ultimately, she had the children screened through a nonprofit organization rather than through the prefecture.  

At Fukushima Aiikuen, lowering radiation exposure remains a daily concern.

The cleanup reduced radiation below the officially targeted level of 0.23 microsieverts per hour on most concrete surfaces, but where runoff collects, hot spots more than 50 times that level remain. For that reason Saito has nearly eliminated outside playtime for toddlers and reduced it to two hours per day for elementary-aged children.

One 9-year-old girl who lives at the orphanage with two younger siblings says she worries about the contamination.

“I’m the big sister. I try to tell my little brother and sister not to touch anything when they are outside,” she says.

For his part, Saito is focused on the future. He devoted the past year to working with Fukushima’s other orphanages to develop a disaster response plan in case the still-unstable reactors release radiation again. He has also carefully recorded exposure levels and health data in a file for each child.

“These kids will have no one to support them when they leave here,” he says. “I hope they never need this data, but I think it’s likely that lawsuits will happen down the line. If they develop cancer, and someone says, ‘How can you prove what caused it?’ they’ll be able to come to the orphanage and get this file. We have a responsibility to do this.” 

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