Japan Crisis: Going to School 32 km from Fukushima

Ian Thomas Ash and cameraman Colin O'Neill visit a school just outside the 30 kilometer radiation exclusion zone to ask one basic question: are the children safe?

Ian Thomas Ash, originally from New York, is a freelance documentary filmmaker who has lived in Japan for 10 years. When the magnitude-9.0 earthquake hit off the coast of northeastern Japan on March 11, Ian felt its effects in the nation's capital, Tokyo. The impact of the quake, tsunami and the ongoing threat of radioactive fallout from the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant 150 miles away is taking its toll.

In a recent guest article for Discovery News, Ian documented the impact the ongoing crisis was having on the populace of the nation's capital. He also wrote about what he saw during a trip to the city of Ishinomaki, one of the many cities hit hard by the tsunami. In April, Ian documented the journey made by a group of volunteers led by three brothers who travel to tsunami-devastated Ishinomaki City. He also interviewed ENS Margaret Morton, who was stationed aboard the Navy destroyer USS Mustin when the earthquake struck.

In this third article of a four-part series, Ian ventures inside the stricken Fukushima power plant's 30 kilometer radiation exclusion zone with cameraman Colin O'Neill to document the conditions the local population are currently enduring. Part 1, Japan Crisis: Entering the Radiation Zone, was published on May 9, and Part 2, Japan Crisis: The Children of Minamisoma City, was published on May 18.

You can see more of Ian's documentary work by visiting Ian's YouTube Channel. He also regularly updates his personal blog, Documenting Ian.

As the children who live within the 30 kilometer zone of the damaged nuclear power plant in Japan headed back to school last month, my cameraman and I were there to document it. I spoke with the parents of the children and with the children themselves. I met with school teachers and city officials. I also interviewed the superintendent of schools and the mayor of Minamisoma City.

I asked each person I met the same question: Are these children safe?

Shockingly, the overwhelming answer always seemed to be: We don't know.

My cameraman and I were confused; radiation levels published by public interest groups tend to focus on the peaks and hotspots while the figures released by the government tend to present the averages.

One medical doctor told us there was no danger to children (even while admitting that it would be "better" to voluntarily evacuate one's own children) while one of the local pediatricians who was remaining in the city to continue to treat his patients had evacuated his own wife and child to Tokyo where it was "safer."

In part 3 of this behind-the-scenes look at the children living in the radiation zone of Minamisoma City, the children prepare to go back to school. But before they do, I ask their elementary school principal a tough question: "Are the radiation levels at the school which is 32 km from the damaged nuclear power plant (and therefore technically outside the zone) significantly lower than the radiation levels inside the 30 km zone?"

More by Ian:

March 22, 2011: Despite Radiation Fears, ‘I'm Not Leaving Tokyo'

March 28, 2011: After the Tsunami, ‘To Be Alive Is Enough'

April 1, 2011: Japan Tsunami Clean-up: So Much to Be Done

April 7, 2011: Japan: Pride, Honor and Respect in the Face of Chaos

May 9, 2011: Japan Crisis: Entering the Radiation Zone (Part 1)

May 18, 2011: Japan Crisis: The Children of Minamisoma City (Part 2)

Video credit: Ian Thomas Ash and Colin O'Neill