Japan’s nuclear crisis and my life

April 13, 2011

As a Reuters photographer, I have covered many disasters and incidents over the last ten years but these things had little direct affect on my life. Just like the saying: “The photographer must be taken out of the picture”, I was a third party in most of these cases. By and large, those catastrophes had nothing to do with my personal life. Once my assignment was over, I used to go back to my normal life and switch from emergency mode.

But last month’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that sparked the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in Japan was different. I am not exempt from the fear caused by the disaster nor am I immune to the threat of the invisible nuclear radiation.

Since I deployed to near Fukushima prefecture to cover the nuclear crisis story last month, two palm size radiation monitors have been added to my MUST-carry items along with my camera equipment. The first thing I have to do after waking up in the morning is not drink a cup of coffee but instead check the radiation level. The number on the device has been the main criteria on whether I can get out of the car once inside the 20km evacuation zone from the Fukushima nuclear plant.

A radiation monitor which was placed by a photographer is seen next to a damaged house and flower at a devastated area hit by earthquake and tsunami, which is about 18km from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power station, in Minamisoma, Fukushima prefecture, April 11, 2011. One thousand microsieverts make 1 millisievert.    REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Regardless of the level of background radiation, our white protective suits were mandatory to wear inside the evacuation zone. I also stood in line to receive radiation screening with other evacuees at a radiation check-up point whenever I had the opportunity during my assignment.

Photographer Kim Kyung-hoon wears protective clothing while working at Minamisoam's devastated area hit by earthquake and tsunami, which is about 18km from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power station, in Fukushima prefecture, April 11, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Meyers

Photographer Kim Kyung-hoon is tested for possible nuclear radiation at a check-up point, which is about 70km from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power station, in Fukushima prefecture, April 12, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Meyers

Even though the background radiation levels around my assignment zone recently have been very low, including inside the 20km evacuation zone in Minamisoma, I found myself getting a bit nervous about possible radiation contamination in food, water and in the air. My knowledge and the facts that I have gathered throughout this assignment tell me there is nothing to worry about yet, but negative rumors and gossip are always close at hand.

The nuclear crisis affects not only me but also my family. Two days before the earthquake hit Japan, my 7-month-old daughter was hospitalized after her arm was seriously burned in a small incident at home in Tokyo. Amid rising concerns about the nuclear crisis, my daughter was evacuated to a hospital in my home country South Korea to receive a skin graft in a more stable situation.

The surgery was successful and she is getting better but my wife decided to stay in Seoul until my daughter’s treatment is completed. She requires a long-term outpatient treatment in the same hospital and the Japanese government warned against giving babies tap water in which radioactive iodine two times the recommended limit for infants was found. Therefore our family might not be able to be reunited for a while.

Nagashima Rio who was born on March 15, is tested for possible nuclear radiation at an evacuation center in Koriayama, Fukushima Prefecture, northern Japan, March 31, 2011, located about 70 km (44 miles) from the tsunami-crippled nuclear reactor. She was born at a hospital which is located about 50 km from the nuclear reactor.  REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

But mine and my family’s suffering are nothing compared to the physical and psychological hardships confronting evacuees from Fukushima prefecture.

Some of them might not be able to return to their homes even after the reactor stops leaking radiation as accumulated radiation might pollute their land.

A dairy farmer who I met has been throwing away about 1,200 liters of fresh milk daily from his farm located about 50 km (31 miles) from the tsunami-crippled nuclear reactor since shipments of unprocessed milk from dairies in Fukushima were halted last month.

Dairy farmer Mutsuo Mito throws away milk freshly taken from his cows in his field in Shinchimachi, Fukushima Prefecture, northern Japan, April 13, 2011, located about 50 km from the tsunami-crippled nuclear reactor.   REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

One doctor who I interviewed expressed concern about possible discrimination towards evacuees who might be regarded as radioactive carriers when they move to town by people who have incorrect information and make decisions based on it.

As aftershocks keep rattling me several times per day, I pray that this crisis can be eased soon and all the evacuees can go back to their radiation-free homes someday soon.

5 comments

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Because children forget and do unwise things they regret, it will not be a safe area for children for decades.

Posted by Kyung | Report as abusive

This is very vivid story
I want to show my respect to your Job

We brought some valuable lesson from this disaster
Theres no point on whats already happened
All we can do now is to prevent it coming about any more
And it’s time to think about alternative energy for our safety

Posted by Christin.R | Report as abusive

the power, promise, yet the downside of technology are so appallingly evident in this article, which moved me greatly, as it reveals in lenses both macroscopic and microscopic. I saw a report by Prof. Chris Busby that 400,000 cancers will develop in people that live within a 200 km zone. As someone who believed, and still believes in the promise of nuclear energy, my disappointment with Tepco, Japan and other governing bodies is severe. Accidents happen true, but this was a perfect storm waiting to happen, and I am furious
Frank Shifreen

Posted by transendit | Report as abusive

Hello Kim Kyung-Hoon,

I was so moved by your photos of the Evacuation Centers that I started a fund-raising/hope-raising project. I’m working with my neighborhood kids to do a project where we knit felted cranes and will send 1,000 of them to Japan with the wish for hope. We decided on the Evacuation Center you photographed which was for people with pets. Each crane also comes with a $5.00 donation to Mercy Corps. We thought even if people (and pets) were out of the Evacuation Center by the time we finish the cranes, it would still be a hopeful symbol for the kids in the school and honor what has happened in the building.

I was wondering if I could use two of your photos from a slide show on 3/17/2011 in my website for the project? I especially liked the one of a kitten peering through blankets, and the one of a dog eating from chopsticks.

Also, would you be able to tell me specifically where that Evacuation Center is so that we can send our finished cranes there eventually?

Thank you for your time. I appreciate your work.

Kristin Bull Lyon
Madison, Wisconsin

Posted by knityourpeace | Report as abusive

Oh, I’m the person who wrote about the Hope Crane project.

I forgot to mention you can reach me at knityourpeace.com.

Thank you,

Kristin Bull Lyon

Posted by knityourpeace | Report as abusive