Children Don Masks, Hats in Fukushima as Radiation Looms

Students Wear Masks, Sleeves in Fukushima as Radiation Looms
Workers remove contaminated soil from playgrounds at an elementary school in Fukushima, Japan. Source: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Students at the Shoyo Junior High School in Fukushima are wearing masks, caps and long-sleeved jerseys to attend classes as their exposure to radiation is on pace to equal annual limits for nuclear industry workers.

“Students are told not to go out to the school yard and we keep windows shut,” said Yukihide Sato, the vice principal at Shoyo Junior High in Date city, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) northwest from the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear station. “Things are getting worse, but I don’t know what to do.”

Two months after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami created Japan’s worst nuclear crisis since World War II, schools in Fukushima are waiting for stronger measures from the government to protect its youngest citizens. A parents group is petitioning Governor Yuhei Sato to evacuate more than 1,600 kindergartens, elementary and junior high schools which would affect about 300,000 children and teachers.

“The governor should take leadership,” said Seiichi Nakate, the 50-year-old head of the Network to Protect Fukushima Children from Radiation, a group comprising 250 parents. “Fukushima Prefecture is the only power that can protect our children from radiation exposure.”

Thirty-five members of the parents group met with Yuichi Matsumoto, an official of the prefecture’s disaster task force, for 90 minutes today, Nakate said. The Fukushima government accepted the petition and will decide on a response, said Masafumi Mizuguchi, another official at the task force.

National Decisions

Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s administration has led rescue and evacuation efforts since the quake decimated towns and left more than 24,000 dead or missing. Decisions to remove contaminated materials in Fukushima prefecture have been left to the central government because local authorities don’t have the expertise or knowledge, said an official at the prefecture’s education department, who declined to be named.

Children and teachers at a fifth of the 1,600 schools in Fukushima are receiving at least 20 millisieverts of radiation per year, said Nakate, according to readings from the government. That’s the limit for a nuclear power plant worker, according to Japan’s nuclear safety commission.

More than three-quarters of the schools receive radiation readings of 0.6 microsievert per hour, Nakate said. That’s 10 times more than the readings in Shinjuku, central Tokyo last week. A chest X-ray delivers a radiation dose of about 100 microsieverts, or 0.1 millisievert, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A millisievert is 1,000 microsieverts.

‘Phone Calls’

“We are waiting for the national government’s advice and asking them for appropriate ways to deal with the situation,” Hisashi Katayose, an official at the Fukushima prefecture government’s disaster task force, said yesterday. “We’ve received several phone calls from residents and been asked to reduce radiation levels at schools.”

Governor Sato on May 2 had asked the national government to determine appropriate measures to prevent the situation from getting worse.

Readings at Shoyo Junior High reached 3.3 microsieverts an hour on May 2, according to Date city’s education board. The school, which has 245 students and 27 teaching staff, bans female students from wearing skirts, citing radiation concerns, said Vice Principal Sato.

Date city’s government in late April removed contaminated soil from playgrounds at two elementary schools and one day care facility after requests from local residents, said Hiroshi Ono, an official at the city’s board of education. Radiation readings had exceeded 3.8 microsieverts an hour, he said.

The soil was left at the corners of the playgrounds and covered with plastic sheets as a temporary measure, Ono said in a phone interview.

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