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Fear and Uncertainty for Fukushima

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"Be Strong, Fukushima!" This has been the Fukushima prefecture's slogan since the earthquake, tsunami and explosion at Daiichi nuclear power plant a year ago. But these words offer little comfort for Kiyomi Yamada, the father of two small girls, who lives in Koriyama City, 60 kilometers from the nuclear plant.

He gave up on waiting for the government to measure the radiation levels near his house, bought a radiation counter, and did it himself. Despite the government's assurance that all areas outside the mandatory 20-kilometer evacuation zone are safe, he found elevated levels of radiation in his own backyard -- and in his house.

Japan, with 10 percent of the world's earthquakes, had been considered well-prepared for disaster response. Its response following the March 11, 2011 disaster, however, has been considered by many to be plagued with missteps and lacking in transparency and accountability. To be fair, any government would struggle to respond to a crisis of this magnitude. A year later, the people I have interviewed over the past week in four cities surrounding Fukushima have little patience for what they see as excuses and ineptitude. Among the residents I spoke with, nearly all said that they still can't get consistent or accurate information about their health and the levels of radiation in their food and the environment.

People want more health and environmental testing, more information and clearer answers. In Soma City, a few kilometers outside the recommended evacuation zone, people described frustrating and futile efforts to separate facts from fiction. The city government told residents that food sold in the markets and tap water is safe. But many people remain distrustful of the government due to its initial handing of the crisis and the ongoing reports in the news of contaminated food even far outside of the evacuation zone.

Last week, Aya, who was eight months pregnant, stopped by the offices of Bridge For Fukushima, a non-profit organization funded in part by a neighboring prefecture government that is providing bottled water and powdered milk to 17,000 residents of Soma City, to pick up supplies. "The government has said that this area is safe to live in, that there is no problem with breast milk, and that mothers should breastfeed their babies," she told me. "But a new mother I live near managed to get her breast milk tested and there was cesium in it. I know I won't get access to a breast milk test, so I am going to just use powdered milk, even though it's not as good." She said that though she lives a stone's throw from the evacuation zone, neither the national nor local government had provided her with any information about the risks of radiation to pregnancy, or how to protect her fetus.

As a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Japan is obligated to provide information about health. But the lack of information raises questions about whether Japan is meeting this obligation, particularly for children and pregnant or nursing women, who are most vulnerable to radiation exposure.

For starters, the government needs to make testing for radiation exposure available and accessible to all Fukushima residents at risk. Perhaps even more important, it needs to create a transparent and consistent process both for testing food, water and milk, and for disclosing the results. Announcing that all food sold in the markets is safe without providing any data creates only mistrust. No one is discounting the huge challenges the Japanese government faces. Much of the reporting about Fukushima has focused on the government's lack of preparation for the possibility of a reactor meltdown, and the missteps in the immediate aftermath and the systematic problems with its nuclear testing. But the health and safety needs of the people in the vicinity of the plant and beyond are equally urgent.

Telling Mr. Yamada and his family to be strong does him little good. His family now spends every moment they are home in the one small room that they have determined with their own testing has the lowest level of radiation. Land he recently bought to farm is contaminated, so he can't use it or sell it. And he lost his job as a nature guide when people stopped going outdoors because they feared radiation exposure. But for Mr. Yamada the biggest concern of all is the unknown: the health of his children.

The Japanese government should provide access to testing for all residents in Fukushima prefecture so they don't have to guess what is happening to their bodies. The government should increase the scope and frequency of tests of food and water, and immediately publicize the results. And they should disclose information about safety and health in a reliable, consistent and transparent way. "Be Strong, Fukushima!" should not mean: "You're on your own, good luck!"

Jane Cohen is a researcher in the health and human rights division at Human Rights Watch.