Despite the education ministry's recent move to set a new nonbinding target to reduce the radiation children in Fukushima Prefecture are exposed to at schools, experts, local educators and parents don't feel reassured.
On May 27, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry said it will strive to limit the radiation exposure of students to 1 millisievert or less a year while they are at school.
The move came after a barrage of criticism from parents in the prefecture who fear radiation leaking from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant could increase their kids' chances of developing leukemia or cancer. Some, supported by activists, lodged a protest outside the ministry on May 23.
But the new limit is only a "best effort" target, and an earlier — and binding — radiation limit is still intact. In April, the ministry set a limit of 3.8 microsieverts per hour for playground use at schools in the prefecture. Together with estimated exposure from outside of school grounds, total annual exposure could grow to 20 millisieverts.
"The way the ministry is handling the school radiation issue makes me feel like it's someone else's problem," said Junko Matsubara, a former member of the Nuclear Safety Commission. "Just setting the 1 millisievert target doesn't get anywhere."
The former member of the state nuclear watchdog urged the education ministry to take real action instead of playing with figures and lead local authorities as they try to remove contaminated soil from school grounds.
So far, the ministry has provided no specific guidance or instructions to help local governments reduce radiation levels at schools. It took until Tuesday simply to organize a hearing in Tokyo attended by radiology and education experts.
During the session, radiology expert Shigenobu Nagataki of Nagasaki University introduced what he called a "globally shared view" that radiation exposure must exceed 100 millisieverts to affect human health, adding that the impact of lower levels remains unknown.
Instead of challenging science, Hidenori Tomozoe, an expert in sports education at Waseda University, warned that limiting school exercise hours could have a negative impact on children's growth.
Takashi Eto, vice president of the Japan Child and Family Research Institute, blasted the ministry's handling of the issue.
"Announcements by the education ministry never help parents grasp what is really going on," he told the session.
Whatever steps the ministry may come up with, many schools in Fukushima have already banned students from using their school grounds over fears of radiation exposure.
In late April, the city of Koriyama became the first to remove soil from school grounds on a voluntary basis.
Koriyama was followed by the cities of Nihonmatsu and Motomiya and the village of Otama, which decided to scrape up the surface soil at their schools.
Initially, the central government had brushed aside such efforts, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano saying, "Based on the guideline of the education and science ministry, there is no need for (soil) removal."
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Motomiya Mayor Gigyo Takamatsu was disappointed and said the central government lacked accountability, noting that his "confidence in it had waned."
Now the ministry plans to cover most of the soil-removal costs for public schools, with local governments saddled with the remainder. The state hasn't decided how much it will help private institutions.
The May 23 protest by Fukushima parents may have pushed the ministry to amend its policy, but it was dealt a body blow weeks earlier.
In what government officials call a "shocking incident," Cabinet adviser Toshiso Kosako, a radiation safety expert, questioned the ministry's previous radiation yardstick and on April 29 said he was stepping down.
The University of Tokyo professor told a news conference that day, "I just cannot tolerate requiring such figures for infants, toddlers and elementary school pupils."
Even if school grounds are decontaminated to some degree, the land beyond their borders will remain tainted.
Having seen the difficulties the cities of Koriyama and Date have experienced in finding places to dump removed soil, Otama, roughly 60 km from the crippled nuclear plant, dug holes to dispose of tainted dirt and covered them over. Where the radioactivity goes from there is anyone's guess. The method was proposed by Kunikazu Noguchi, a 59-year-old specialist on protection against radiation at Nihon University.
On May 14, Noguchi gave a speech at a meeting sponsored by the village. The audience was keen to hear what he had to say and many were also eager to seek his advice on issues such as safe clothing for children or whether they can play barefoot. Noguchi told the audience they should not be overly concerned, but added he does not think he can remove all their concerns with the soil method he proposed.
Meanwhile, Asaka Reimei High School in Koriyama, located around 60 km from the leaking nuclear plant, has been publishing detailed radiation data about the school premises on its website since March 11. The website has drawn up to 4,000 hits per day.
Koji Ito, a 43-year-old teacher at the school, said: "Data published by the state do not showed the details of the situation. We thought it important to gather information on our own."
On the school grounds, radiation was 50 times higher than normal, while inside school buildings and the gymnasium, it was up to 10 times higher, he said. These data were first posted on the website on April 18.
He said that based on the data collected, he anticipates no major decline in radiation in the days ahead. "It's necessary to remove soil or take other steps for soil conditioning."
Data are updated roughly once a week and their coverage has been expanded. A school premises map has also been added to show radiation differences by location.
Despite local efforts to mitigate children's radiation exposure, however, some frustrated parents are opting for the last resort: leaving Fukushima.
According to education ministry data released Tuesday, a 9,998 students in Fukushima Prefecture had enrolled in other schools as of May 1. Although the data provided no breakdown for the reasons, radiation fears are believed to be the leading cause, along with the difficulties of living in disaster areas.