Episode 12: The day it snowed radiation on Iitate village

Episode 12: The day it snowed radiation on Iitate village

What really happened the day radiation snowed on Iitate village near Fukushima? Why were the ecological consequences even more far reaching than people realized? What’s the future of the farmland there? Dr. Colin Campbell gives a behind the scenes look at the cool science going on right now in the herculean effort to rehabilitate the land near Fukushima.


Dr. Colin Campbell, PhD, is research scientist and head of research and development at METER Group. Learn more about Dr. Colin Campbell:

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And then the group was like, hey, what you know, let’s test the radioactivity of these reclaimed soils. Radioactivity was gone and so they started growing rice. I went out and planted rice one day, I’ve never, never done anything like that. I grew up spending a lot of time on a farm. We had a giant seeder. Our drills would put down the seed. Well, here, they grow these rice seedlings in the hoop houses, and they bring them out and we put the plugs in. And so there I was kind of, you know, calf deep in the mud. New experience. I’m not great with bare feet, right and I’m out there “I don’t know about this I like having shoes”. But we’re out there planning rice with this whole group, there are probably 30 or 40 volunteers, and we were out there just plugging this rice into the soil. Just this experience. I’m like, I never thought that I would be planting rice by hand.


We Measure the World explores interesting environmental research trends, how scientists are solving research issues, and what tools are helping them better understand measurements across the entire soil plant atmosphere continuum. Today’s guest is Dr. Colin Campbell, who has been a research scientist at meter for 21 years following his PhD at Texas a&m University in soil physics. He is currently serving as Vice President of Meter environment, and is also adjunct faculty with the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Washington State University, where he co teaches environmental biophysics, a class he took over from his father Gaylon, nearly 20 years ago, Dr. Campbell’s early research focused on field scale measurements of co2 and water vapor flux, but has shifted toward moisture and heat flow instrumentation for the soil plant atmosphere continuum. And today, he’s here to talk with us about his collaboration with environmental scientists working in Fukushima, Japan. So welcome, Colin,


Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.


Yeah. So I would assume that the majority, if not all of our audience are familiar with the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster triggered by, you know, huge earthquake, tsunami. But I’m wondering, how did you get into this situation? And can you just tell us a little bit about the backstory of how that came to be?


Yeah, there’s, there’s a ton of backstory, and so we can go through it. And maybe I’ll start and then just keep backing up from the original. So I was friends with Professor Massaro Mizuguchi at the University of Tokyo. And I’ve spent a lot of time in Japan. And when the disaster happened, it was you know, I think like many most looking at it on the news, looking at these incredible pictures of, of walls of water moving through these beautiful Japanese communities. And of course, it didn’t really connect, but we saw this problem with the nuclear reactor when the seawater inundated the engine room, you know, the support engine room, the diesel generators, which were supposed to be kind of the secondary cooling mechanism of the reactors. And as I understand it, you know, at that point, we had a meltdown. There was a large plume of radioactive cesium that was released into the atmosphere. And so these are the things we saw on the news. And like many news stories, we saw that and were concerned about it, but the, but there wasn’t, you know, like so many things. Immediately, I didn’t think hey, what can I do about this? I thought, Oh, this is a real challenge. I wish there was something I could do about it. But like so many news stories they pass on, you kind of forget about them. And really this nuclear disaster actually evolved over time, right? It wasn’t that same moment that the tsunami came in. It was days later where they ended up not being able to cool the reactor and we had a breach and then we have this plume of radioactive cesium. Environmentally speaking, the process was pretty straightforward. We had this plume went up into the upper atmosphere, it kind of slowly moved over with the prevailing wind. And it was March 11. Right and mid March and in Japan, in this particular location, the Fukushima Prefecture that meant snow and so it snowed on this area, and specifically the thing that we’ve come to really know as, as Fukushima, quote unquote, is not actually Fukushima. Fukushima is a city and it’s a prefecture it’s a it’s an area and within that there’s a little Little is maybe the wrong word for it, but a beautiful mountainous region that’s kind of across a, a divide from the Fukushima the city, which is a Iitate village. And it’s not really a village I expected when I went there to see a village. It’s not really a village, it’s just a community of spread out homes in this beautiful mountainous region of Japan. And that cloud essentially went over to this region and couldn’t make it over the mountains that are blocking Fukushima and snowed right there on Iitate village. I didn’t know anything about this. Mostly what I knew about it was that disaster happened, we did have this reactor breach, and there was a problem. But the problems were all around. In fact, most of the things that we connect with were, were things that I visited, you know, and one trip, we got to go to the area of Sendai. And we saw where the tsunami had come in and wiped out all these rice fields, wiped out this beautiful little school, you know, killing many, many of these school children, just sad, sad stories. So the impact there was really recognizable, right that the rice fields have been destroyed. How are we going to recover from this? We were helping in the recovery by deploying some of our conductivity, temperature depth sensors there to look at: hey, how’s the water? How are we getting from saltwater, which isn’t going to grow anything, back to freshwater? So it in this location, it was easy to see the damage, the damage was clear, it came in, destroyed all this land, we have all this big machinery trying to put it back the way it was, you know, the school was there, we got to visit this school and just really, you know, feel the suffering of this people.

On the other hand, you know, not far away was Iitate village and there was no tsunami and in a Iitate village just up in the mountains. You know, there was no kind of panic there. Nothing happened there. That was so fast that this cloud came over in perfect silence, right and snowed down there in Itate. And little did we know that this is another environmental disaster this, this, in some ways, further reaching environmental disaster was occurring right there. And so the really the first thing I knew about it was Dr.Massaro Mizoguchi, we call Mizo. He’s a wonderful man. And if you go on Meter’s website there, you know, you can see videos of Mizo. And he wrote to me and he said, Colin, Were there a lot of us who were really concerned about this, this Iitate village area wasn’t where the tsunami went. But the agricultural impacts and the personal impacts of this particular incident were far more reaching and fewer people are involved. Is it possible that you could figure out how to plug a Geiger counter into an EM50. So an EM 50s were our data logger at the time. And, he wondered if we could somehow get a voltage output from one of these devices and read it on our data logger. So we could create a history of what was going on there and trying to understand the impacts of the radiation fall in the snow that came and see what we could do over time. And we said yeah, of course we let’s see what we can do. And it was kind of cool at the time. In Japan, they have a kind of an entrepreneurial culture. So when we actually went over there, it was several months after the disaster, but we went over there for a visit. And we got to sit down with some of these groups that, hey, I’m a, you know, I do biological engineering most of the time and this little startup, but we really want to help our countrymen here in the Itate area than in Fukushima. And what we want to do is put together a little Geiger counter that will help you know a cheap, inexpensive device that we can just deploy there and just get an idea of, hey, what’s the radiation level? How is it changing over time? What is the impact? And so that’s really how we got introduced to Mizo and his group of friends and is truly a group of friends, right? It’s not new, there was nothing dictated that said, hey, you need to go and help these people. But a group of people said, this has happened and we feel morally responsible to help to try to change the world in whatever way we can. And that’s kind of how we got introduced was we sat down there. I remember at his desk at the University of Tokyo, we had this long table we sat around, we said “Hey, what are some of the things that we could do? Whatever, however small, to try to change the impact of this disaster?


How extensive was the impact amongst Iitate village And the agricultural surroundings there and what exactly was going on? You talked about this cloud of radioactive cesium, you talked about the snowfall, then that then brought the cesium down into their fields. From that point on what happens to, to their, their, you know, to their fields to the rice to their livelihoods?


Yeah, it’s a great question and one that I didn’t know, right, our biggest experience really, with any of this is Chernobyl, which kind of evolved in a very different way, the community in Japan is extremely strong as, as you know, and so, you know, after this happened, there really wasn’t a complete understanding of, of what the impacts were, but everybody kind of knew one thing, that the people in Iitate village needed to leave. And so the people left, as quickly as possible. And I don’t know what timescale that was in, they were taken out of their homes in Iitate, and they moved essentially over into the city of Fukushima. And, you know, from when we would travel around there, it was one of these really eerie ghost towns. Initially, when we went in there, there were just people and then there weren’t people. And so house is it, you know, nothing happened, like this great tsunami that pushed houses over and destroyed things. It was pristine in the village, but what essentially happened was, you know, through the crack cracks in the asphalt, we’re growing wheat, right. And, and, and the stores that you would recognize as a functioning store somewhere else in Japan, it was there, but the doors were closed, and no one was in the parking lot. And so essentially, people were just, you know, the government came through and said, Hey, you must leave and people left. And I don’t, you know, the timeline is not clear to me, but, but when they left, they went over into, into kind of some refugee centers. And after a while, the government was able to house a lot of the people of Iitate, in in kind of manufactured small, small manufactured trailers or homes, with small community centers, but they were, they were situated in, in parking lots, that that they put people where they could, and even and I visited one of these, these relocation areas, even for four or five years after this, and the people are still living there, and trying to wait to see what happens. At the same time, the government kind of immediately responded to try to deal with the radiation. And also there are a lot of people from around the world that kind of mobilized and came in. And the radiation was such that people could go into the area for a day, right. And they, they were their radiation tags to, you know, see how much dosing they had over a day, but they could go in there. And essentially what people were doing was going into the homes, going into the, to the parking areas around the homes and trying to clean those things to try to wash them all down and remove the radiation. And so that was initially what happened was that people all simply left the area, just grab, you know, the stuff you need, and go out. And the there was a large response from the government and kind of concerned citizens from around the world who came in to try to clean


So yeah, exactly. I mean, that goes into my next question about what was the government doing both local and national government to, not only I mean, clean up the city itself, or the village itself. But then that, that next step, what were they doing to help clean up or remediate the radioactive fallout there in the soils itself?


Yes. So when you see the village, and you think about this, the radioactivity raining down on the village, the thing that’s hard to conceptualize is how widespread the the radioactivity is, because this area isn’t just kind of a wide, you know, a wide open town, there are these gorgeous mountain forests, just thick with vegetation, I mean, I’ve walked kind of up to them and, and they’re not forest that I’m used to here in the Pacific Northwest, I go out in the forest and you can kind of walk among the trees and really enjoy yourself, you can kind of make your own path. In the forests of this, it taught a village area, Fukushima Prefecture, that at least my impression is that when I walked up to there wasn’t going to be kind of a really easy way to get into the forests. They were also very steep and rugged. And so cleaning up this area was a tall task. So what happened was essentially, first of all, we needed to clean up the houses and the surroundings within, you know, say 50 meters around the house. And then the thought was we need to Clean up the farmland. And that’s really where I started to get involved in this more deeply is that the people we worked with specifically Dr. Masaru Mizoguchi and others, were looking at this challenge of how do we remediate the farmland from an ecological point of view. And when you think about it and we talked about this before, in other in other videos that meter has made, but the upper 10 centimeters of soil is a critical zone where we have organic matter, we have, you know, we have microbes, we have all these things working in concert to create this high fertility that grows, rice, or whatever, particularly in this area, the rice and the plan was by the government. And I understand why they wanted to do this because we needed to clean up a very difficult situation. Their plan was to essentially move and remove the top 10 centimeters of soil, they bagged them up, and they put them in the center of Iitate. Now there is a little village area and these were in the center, but it’s far, again, far more spread out than you kind of when I say Village, this doesn’t look like kind of what pops into the mind for a village. And, and so this they removed the soil, and then they went to a mountain and they were taking down this mound crushing the granite that was in this mountain, forming it into sand sized particles. And then they’d lay that back down. So you can imagine just scraping the surface of the soil, kind of bagging that all up these bags, I’ve seen them here in the Northwest, they’re things that bag wheat, right, you know, or, or, or beans or lentils or something, that’s what they put them in. These were the soul bags. And they’re not made to last forever, right? They’re just canvas bags. But that’s what they had. And now if you go there, there are huge piles of these canvas bags covered with tarp. And the hope is that, you know they stay there. But the challenge is these aren’t going to last forever. So that was their plan. And Mizo looked at that and said, Look from an ecological point of view, if you remove all this topsoil, you’ll essentially kill the soil. And let’s not speak too strongly about that. But you’re taking away much of what makes this soil a soil and so he devised a plan that because there were rice fields, and because of the soil that was there, it’s pretty heavy clay, that clay has binding sites for cesium. It’s kind of a cool confluence of science and chemistry, that or physics and chemistry where we can have these clay particles that are charged on the surface and that cesium will bind there. And he said, What if we went ahead on these rice fields that get mixed, get mixed anyway, and that we can flood anyway. What if we went ahead and mixed these things up and made just like a milkshake of soil. And what if we took all that water off into a pit, what would change about the radioactivity of the soil. And so he did a few experiments, and even did this on a few fields. And the amazing thing was that you could actually we mixed it up all the sand and silt would kind of sink to the bottom, the clay would remain in suspension. And then you could just poke a little hole in the dike of this rice field and let all the water run out into a pit. And if you cover that pit, the gamma ray radiation can’t go very far into the soil. So it’d be perfectly safe for humans to be there. If you cover that up. And then they found that the radiation was virtually gone from the field. Now, they did this on a few fields, it’s harder work. And in the end, the government said, Hey, thank you so much for doing this. But we want to get this taken care of. And there are a lot of fields there. And they didn’t use this technique. One of the farmers that we worked with there. We remediated his field that way. I was there that day when we did it. It was such a wonderful experience. So many volunteers coming down from Tokyo and surrounding just taking their weekend and working there and we completely removed the radiation from this field, we had all this instrumentation out to measure it and and do the things that I love to do. And then after that we had this beautiful field that was devoid of radiation that he went and planted all these beautiful irises and so when I came back two years later, there was just as huge field of irises and just you know his Yeah, Okubo-Sun is I recall was the name of the farmer and, and he just said, you know, I’m old. And I just want to turn this area into a thank you site to those people who came and served me. He put all the names of the people who came up on a sign and planted beautiful trees for those people individually. It’s a little orchard. So that was some of the stuff we did, you know, and some of the early work that we did out there.


So with the government’s efforts, and saying, you know, thanks, but no thanks with this project, was it just a matter of it not being cost effective in their, in their mind to time extensive that kind of thing?


You know, it’s a great question. It was a time intensive cost effect. I think it could have been done effectively. But one of the challenges we have as soil scientists, is that, is that, that we’re not necessarily can I say this about us? We’re not necessarily mainstream, you know, like, I know, my kids go to school, they’re like, hey, you know, what is your dad do? Well, he’s a soil scientist, right? And they’re like, Oh, well, um, yeah. Let’s move on. Right? So I, there may have been a component of like, Hey, we’ve got this, you know, I know you guys want to do the ecological thing. We kind of know what we’re doing. And also, you know, it’s, it’s maybe easier to mobilize and mobilize it was there were hundreds 1000s of workers, driving trucks, dumping this, you know, this crush granted on fields and rolling it on, it just seemed like they came up with a plan, and they wanted to execute the plan. And I and I understand that at some level, but ecologically speaking, we came back, and I’ve said that a few times. And the reason I’m talking about that is we went out there. And I looked at these fields, and there were some decontaminated fields, and some that hadn’t been decontaminated, sitting right by each other. And, of course, I mentioned weeds. And that’s what the fields were growing, right, because everybody had left and so no one was farming the fields during this time, and the decontaminated field, just looked like a barren field, I just saw this crushed granite, you know, kind of a, you know, a light brown color laying out there. And I saw most of the soil and right next to it, there were just these fields of weeds growing. And the weeds were kind of speaking for, for the ecology, saying, hey, this isn’t really our ideal situation, you know, maybe we’ll come back to that one day, but, but this new soil is not really very easy to grow.


I was gonna say, Yeah, crushed granite, I mean, how did they come up with that idea of Is it a viable replacement for the soil? Is there or at least for that medium?


So I would say, say eventually, maybe that not I mean, imagine? So is, you know, when you take your first soil science class, you talk about soil forming factors, right? Here are the five soil forming factors. And essentially, the government said, Hey, we’re going to participate in soil forming, we’re going to go to this hill that has granite, and we’re going to crush it into small little bits, and then we’re going to, you know, lay it out. And so, soil, I mean, it has a portion of the soil, right, the small particles, you know, that define soil, and yet it has no cat ion exchange capacity, it has no ability to, even if it were extremely small, the ability of clay to bind cesium, you know, this crushed granite did not have that, right. In the mineralogy of it, which I don’t know, I never test I’m not exactly sure. You know, what’s this court, you know, what, you know, what made up this granite? And yet, as a soil scientist, you would say, Well, this is kind of a pre soil. This is a, you know, what is soil that’s just brand new and beginning to form, forms, soil forms over 1000s of years, right? So this is not going to be a viable solution without other inputs, like fertilizer and things to do that. And one of the other questions we had about the soil and the process was, hey, this is great to have kind of a a soil put down but what other properties does it have? So we used our SATURO, the dual head infiltrometer and went out there and measured one of our campaigns over there just to say, Hey, what is the impact of this? And on that trip, we went to Okubo-Sun farm, and they were just remediating the last field, the last rice field. And there on the rice field was a roller. It was like something you’d use on a road, you know, big industrial instruments. The guy is driving a roller up and down on the soil that they’ve just laid there. And there’s one thing I know about soil is that you don’t want to drive a roller on it! Right? You just can compact the heck out of it. And, and so we went off with the SATURO and we measured you know, in this field that they’d remediated actually multiple fields, and the data came back it was somewhere between you know, kind of an, an extremely compact soil and a concrete in terms of its ability to infiltrate water in there. And I’m not saying this won’t change. And I’m not saying that the plants can’t be grown in this, it just creates a challenge. And, and I understand why it was done. But it is kind of an interesting thing to think about as we deal with disasters. And presumably we’ll continue to have this as a society as humans living on Earth, considering that the ecological and biological consequences of making certain choices should be done rather deeply. And I know people thought about this, but it’s a challenge.


Speaking of the ecological impacts, were there other environmental impacts that they were concerned about? I mean, you talked about these dense forests that are around in the surrounding areas, concerns with, you know, runoff, or leaching, or maybe other other things like that. But then at the same time, you have these weeds that are growing, you know, the old Jurassic Park adage that life finds a way type of thing. Can you speak to some of those concerns?


Yeah so, so I guess we had a hierarchy of thinking as we approached the this remediation and again, I want to reiterate, I played a very small role in this you know, we tried to, to support as much as we could we visited regularly we are at the site, but there are some amazing individuals that were really putting a lot of energy into this and so many that I can’t name by name, but they’re these individuals who made it their their weekend work every weekend to go up and donate time to, to this effort. And, and so initially, we’re thinking about rice fields, and another farmer who worked with Okubo Sun and just this wonderful gentleman and his wife that we got to work with. First we focused on the fields, and then this boundary around the house, and then eventually we started thinking, Okay, what are we going to do about the mounds, the runoff and things like that? So, but certainly even early on, we had samplers out in the stream then put them there somebody did, you know, these disc samplers were out there, sampling the stream waters, seeing what was coming down in runoff. Because you have a big problem. If you’ve got contamination in the mountains, you know, that’s gonna move, or it can potentially move. Cool thing about having a lot of clay out there is that it’s going to bind that and hopefully keep it in place. But if we have a lot of runoff, where we have, you know, in, in a world of climate change, where we get these more intense storms coming through, we can then drive that runoff and we see, you know, some bulk movement of soil. And if we get that, especially where we get clay and suspension, that can move and it can move a long way. So thinking about retention, how do we retain this, you know, and then clean up whatever kind of retention ponds are there, and make sure that get’s done was in the consciousness of the group.


And you mentioned in passing a few times, now these volunteers that would come down and help out, I was wondering if you had any, any stories of those, and you know, what they were doing specifically to help out with this effort?


So, hey, you know, one of the things about being able to visit there every year is that I wasn’t there every weekend, but I could see the progress. So one of the things that they thought about when we, you know, kind of in conjunction with this challenge with the soil. And it’s not really as a result, but we knew that the soil wasn’t gonna be super productive, because it was so dang hard, right? And water can’t infiltrate very well: it didn’t have a lot of fertility. So they set up some greenhouses, so that Manaoson could go out and grow some crops and then you know, that wouldn’t be in contaminated soil. And then hopefully, the people of Japan would want to support these farmers who are coming back to their land by purchasing the crops grown. So the first time we came back there were these beautiful hoop houses set up to grow. And a lot of the electrical engineers that the gadget guys were setting up little control systems, so Manaoson could set it up. And they’d irrigate, you know, based on the soil moisture in the root zone, and he could grow crops and harvest them himself, which was a great, you know, a great idea. And, it even worked. And then the group was like, hey, what, you know, let’s test the radioactivity of these reclaimed soils. radioactivity was gone. And so they started growing rice, I went out and planted rice one day. I’ve never, never done anything like that. I grew up spending a lot of time on a farm. We had a giant seeder. Our drills would put down the seed. Well here, they grow these rice seedlings in the hoop houses, they bring them out and we put the plugs in. And so there was kind of, you know, calf deep in the mud, a new experience. It’s not great with bare feet, right, and I’ve been out there like this. I dont have any shoes. But we’re out there planting rice with this whole group, there are probably 30 or 40 volunteers. And these volunteers were, were PhD students and professors at the university and you know, bank managers and people who just were, who’d heard they were friends with friends and came out, and they were all down there. And we were out there, just plugging this rice into the soil, just this experience. I’m like, I never thought that I would be planting rice by hand, it just isn’t. And I even worked on rice as a PhD student. But again, here in the United States, we don’t plant rice that way. After we finished planting the rice, I didn’t know this, but we kind of had a planting celebration. And there was no facility to support us there. So we rolled out this giant tarp. And somebody brought in bento boxes. Now I love them. Everybody had lunch right and passed out, you know, some rice balls and bento boxes, and we all sat down cross legged on the tarp. And, and I think I don’t remember exactly, I think it was Manaoson, his grandfather, I can’t remember, I think over 100 years old, came very frail, older gentleman, and he’s saying the harvest song, or the day or the planting, sorry, the planting song to the group, this long song about, you know, the meaning of planting and the meaning of being able to harvest in this situation. And it was amazing. And many people had tears in their eyes just because it was a re-birth there. Right there are people who came out. And it meant enough to get Manaoson and his family back on the land that they did this. And the next time I came there in the same spot, just a little off the side was a brand new house, they built Manaoson. And they tore down this old house. There they built a new house for a headquarters. In addition, so Manasa family lived in the house and also a little area for the the students that were coming in experimenting there from the issue of Tokyo University, it’s Knowmia in other places, and also the just the volunteers, they would come out plan their work there, this beautiful wood house, I can still remember the smell it was so I was just fresh and new. Got to go in there, we plan to work. And then we were out there and out doing things. So each time I came back I witnessed little steps. We went to a restaurant that had opened up and it was completely serving food from Iitate village, from the villagers, from the greenhouses, and from the decontaminant field. So cool, cool experiences.


That’s great. I know you’ve mentioned this, and maybe for our purposes with cutting, um, you have you have talked about some of your interactions with some of the farmers that you’ve dealt with, I was wondering if you had any other any other you know, stories or interactions with people from the village? Was everyone in the village connected to the farmers in some way? Or? Or did they have their own separate, you know, specialties that then they, you know, worked on? Did you interact with any of the other people from the village there?


I think one of the hardest parts of going to a village like Iitate was that. First of all, the population of Iitate was generally older, in fact, at the time, and I don’t know what the current statistic is: the mean age of Japanese farmers is 69. A lot of the young people have just moved off the farms. And a lot of the people that were displaced during this disaster were elderly people, in fact, mostly not young there, there were there’s a school there, and there were some young people but by and large, elderly people. And so the language barrier was really challenging. And so even talking to Manaoson, and trying to, to kind of I wanted to get a feeling for the impact of the challenge in his life it for me, it just helped me connect with with what happened and and really understand on a very personal level what the meaning was because as we are far away from it, it’s in the news and things. The personal nature of this kind of disaster isn’t necessarily something we understand. And so I did get a little bit of that. But it wasn’t until actually this year earlier this year, we had a large zoom conference where we all got together and talked about Fukushima and some of the research that we’d, we’d done and we had in time interpretation there. So it’s fun in Japan. Sometimes we can get an interpretation that just essentially runs real time. And Manaoson got up and he talked in this conference. And finally I kind of heard him speak about the challenge, about the disaster, about his family and about what it meant to be able to come back. And it was incredible it was, it was not something you know, through Mizo or one of our colleagues here at Sean Weldon went with me over to do some work there. He speaks Japanese, but it’s really, you know, he can translate some for me, but he’s listening and connecting. And for me, I’m often kind of, okay, so what did they say? Right. But then I finally got that opportunity to hear about the challenges of Manaoson and his family and what it meant to one day just lose everything. I mean, this was something that had been in his family, right, it had been for years and years. And, one day, suddenly, they were living in a space, any square box, you know, in a parking lot in Fukushima, and, and the impact of some of the things that happen in the world. I mean, I think it’s important that we think about scale, right? Seeing it on the news is not like what really happens to people there.


You gave a really good overview of the project, then that you know, Mizo and that you were helping out with, can you go into a bit more detail about, you know, what exactly were you measuring? How did that process flow? Those other things that you’re trying to do in solving the problems there, in the village?


So originally, we weren’t really sure, well, we should be doing right, the Mizo went out to test ideas, even before I ever got there. For example: does cesium really bind to the clay particles? And if we kind of look at where cesium is in the soil profile, would we see what we expect to see that the cesium is up on the surface. So that was the initial part of this to try to understand where’s the cesium? And how do we capture it, essentially, to remediate this area? But at the same time, a lot of what we were doing was deploying instrumentation. So just weather instrumentation, trying to understand what what the what’s happening with the weather there, where are we seeing, we, you know, humidity, what’s the temperature, what’s the solar radiation, what’s the wind speed, and all these kinds of things and then try to understand you put cameras out to try to understand what is going to happen with with the, the flora and fauna around especially, they had wild boars. And you wouldn’t really think about wild boars and monkeys in the conversation, but they’re there. And so the wild boars would come out in the fields because nobody was there to really stop them, and they dig up the fields. And so this, this idea of trying to keep the cesium in a spot because of clay, everything might have been great, except the wild boars are coming out and kind of mixing up the soil and digging it and, and trying to find roots and all that kind of stuff. So, initially, a lot of our efforts were really environmental, soil moisture, that kind of stuff, it moved to, to try and understand the impacts of, of some of the government work on the soil. So like I mentioned, the infiltration, that was one of our big things, to try to understand the fertility of the soil, and then turning towards some of these other opportunities, like these greenhouses that were able to grow plants and essentially suspended media or reclaimed media in the soil. And it you know, when you think of the scope of this effort, sometimes you think, Well, you know, that’s not a ton of stuff, right? What what are you guys doing, you know, this was all focused on really getting the villagers to return which they did, which was an amazing time, you know, early on when we were going there, we’d spend time there and, and it was eerie, you’d see one government van pass every couple of hours. And the rest was quiet. And then as we went on more vans, more vans, then the workers and then lots of people and then regular people came back, right and, and so this whole process that that they’re going through his trying to think of and come up with ideas of how to help these villagers and, and one of the great things that Mizo loves is Mizo loves Saki, okay, and so he knew that, that this rice here in the Iitate area was well known for Saki. And it was also a wonderful beef growing zone. That’s it. People loved Iitata beef and so one of the projects like it doesn’t have to do with with necessarily instrumentation directly, right, except for the fact that we can help out with kind of understanding the agriculture but his goal was to let’s make Saki from the rice and let’s sell this this Iitate Rice Saki to the people that shows it’s not radioactive. It’s wonderful humans but it’s made with This beautiful Itachi rice that’s been known for generations, as I understand it as being this great Saki. Right and, and, and also let’s return this Iitate beef. You know, I’ve heard of Kobe beef right here in the United States. I don’t think we hear that but Mizo assured me he’s, he’s like, do you know Kobe beef? Yes, I know Kobe, this was just as good, right? And so we need to return the Iitate beef there because this was how they made their living, you know, on being able to sell these things for I mean for a really good price. And that was kind of that was the goal. And it was fun for me. So they even established inside an old hospital, like a location for all these volunteers to go right? If you have a lot of volunteers coming up, where are they going to go? Where are they going to sleep? What are they going to do to try to make this these weekends meaningful, they converted this old hospital into a hostel. And so after the day, it was done, we went over the hostel, and all these volunteers out, I was talking to probably a 75-80 year old professor from from the University of Tokyo, she taught like Japanese literature at the university, but just had heard about the effort and was coming up, we got to talk for a long time she spoke wonderful English. And she was telling me about this effort. They all went into the kitchen, I went into the kitchen, we all prepared meals there together and came out and ate these wonderful, traditional Japanese meals together and talked about tomorrow, what are we going to do? How are we going to make our time really meaningful things, okay, you’re going to the greenhouses, you’re going over to do the rice planting, you’re going to do the testing us on the soil to see the infiltration, you’re going over to talk to the growers about what what they can grow, and how we’re going to turn that into, into a commodity we can sell. And so they were making all these plans. And, you know, we were just a part of it. We were welcomed there. They’re like, Oh, we’re so happy you did all these things. But we didn’t do much, however we’re happy to be here today helping out.


Right. Were there any other specific challenges or roadblocks that you faced there? I mean, aside from you know, boars digging up new fields?


Well, it was really, I mean, first of all, it’s just getting out there, right? And for the government to say, hey, it’s safe to actually go in there. And so you had to wear a radiation tag, you had to, you know, you couldn’t stay overnight in the area initially. And simply, I mean, really, I mean, my biggest roadblock there was the enormity of the task. When you walk in there, you’re like, I don’t know, what we’re gonna do. This is so big.


How do you handle that? Right?


Right! How do we start, and luckily, people on the project were, you know, they were forward thinking they were visionary people who saw, you know, no matter what we do, if we do something and keep trying it, it’s going to be meaningful. And that’s, that’s essentially how, how they approached it. And, and so our roadblocks, were mainly just trying, you know, a lot of you know, when we kind of proved this experimentally, this, this good method of reclaiming soils actually worked. The big roadblock was essentially no one wanted to listen, and maybe on this particular, I mean, on this, we, you know, we did some but not a lot. But for future times, these things happen. I don’t know what exactly is going to be the next disaster. I hope this never happens, this specific thing never happens again, but we don’t know. But we, I hope the knowledge we brought along here and the things that techniques we develop could be used in other places, right? You know, other other roadblocks are just trying to really understand how, you know, this is an agriculture committee community, we need to get the agriculture out again, but there’s not a surprising effect with the people who are buying, which is we don’t want your radioactive stuff. And so and that’s still today, right? You know, if you’re eating rice and the potential is that the rice has picked up some of the cesium, do you really want it now? We’ve done the work right, me and a group did the work, they’ve shown that the cesium is gone, and it’s not taken into plants. And it’s safe for human consumption. But that was certainly one of the big roadblocks initially, you know, people pay with their, you know, or vote with their wallets. And essentially, the vote was no, we’re not going to have this product. Now, my understanding is that’s improved, that they’ve worked and done enough to help the public see, hey, this is safe for consumption. And you’re benefiting these people. who so desperately need your support at this time, and I understand it’s better.


Before we talk about the future, what were some of the findings, aside from in general that the cesium was gone, that the rice is safe for human consumption? Were there any other findings that were of interest to this project?


Yeah. So, I mean, I think we learned a lot about, you know, when we have a disaster, when we need to do some remediation, some of the right ways. And I don’t say wrong ways, but more challenging ways. To do this, I think a lot of, you know, to change, to try to remediate a difficult situation, I think a lot of the learning we had was really connected between the sociology and, and the environment. And I’ve gone to conferences here. And a lot of times, it’s not what I’m used to, but a lot of the discussion is here, here’s the sociology of it all, here’s what happens to it, and displays people who, who, for all of their lives lived in one place. And now, I mean, these were really people who’ve grown up there, all of their lives, and suddenly, they’re living in a parking lot. And you can imagine, for me, you know, we moved several times, you know, in our married life, my wife and I, but these people had not necessarily, and then from being free and on the land, they move over there. So some of the findings that they learned, that the project kind of went through is; hey, what happens to people when, when these kinds of disasters happen? And then, you know, and I can’t speak deeply about that I was mostly, you know, in a listening mode, wow, that that’s interesting. And when we, when I visited one of these, these relocation camps, I was in the community center, kind of with these people, and I, they gather everybody together, and they just go through these exercise sessions. So we did it, they were like, you’re here, you’re going to exercise. And so we exercised, and we saw there, the health care efforts there. And then we talked to some of the people who had who had been displaced, and, and just, you know, psychologically, the impact was incredible. I, it’s hard to really, I mean, they were resilient, you know, and so talking to them, they weren’t bitter. They weren’t, you know, saying, you know, the devils are who did did this to us. But the light was somewhat out, right, the, you know, it was hard. It was very, very hard. And, and, and so, you know, if we switch to the scientific learning that we did, I think we learned that that recovery is possible. That, that, that remediation, has to take all kinds of parts from as you talked about, from the forest, to the, to the water, to the water balance to, to the agricultural soils to the homes and all this kind of stuff. We also, you know, we also learned that it’s really difficult to work with soil outside its native condition, and, and that we don’t really have a great process for remediation. Even in another situation where there wasn’t much clay. Let’s see here, where we live in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve got a lot of silt loam, there is some clay in the soil. I but I’m not sure whether we could even use this remediation process because A: not sure it would be bound on the cesium, and B: possibly even worse. It’s really hilly here. Right. So these disasters, you know, when we don’t, when they’re not anticipated, when we don’t have a great plan, or even if we do have a great plan, and just the situation doesn’t work. It creates difficulty.


Yeah. So what is the current state of the project? And along with that, what are the next steps or what does the future have in store for it?


You know, one of the cool things I think about the project is they’re just pacing. Right and, and so the last time I went there, before the pandemic, we were putting up a lot of really beautiful greenhouses. The initial greenhouses were, were a little bit, you know, a little bit built a little bit fast, maybe, you know, they weren’t as tight as you’d kind of expect to see a greenhouse. They were hoop houses, and they were put up probably by people who didn’t know a lot about how to do hoop houses. The last time I went there, and some of that’s on METER’s Fukushima video. They were gorgeous. I mean, the rows were tight, they were bigger hoop houses, there was a lot more room and the environmental controls were really good. And so I think it’s really focusing on what these people can do to make a living. And, and I think that’s just growing step by step. So we’re getting more feels that that we’ve figured out how to at least get a little fertility back we’re growing rice And, and we’re producing I think the future holds, trying to increase the capacity of people of Fukushima to be able to produce like they did before, with the end goal being returned to, quote unquote, normalcy. Which wouldn’t be for, for a Okubo-Sun, he grew flowers, you know, he’s, he’s in his, you know, mid to late 70s now, and he’s, you know, he’s like, I’m happy here, I am growing flowers, and that is recovery for Okubo Sun. And, and so that’s just fine. From Manaosun, he wants to grow lots of plants. He’s also, you know, he’s in his early 70s. So he’s not young either. He’s full of life. And he’s growing in lots of greenhouses. And that’s what recovery looks like to these people. And I think that the goals of the NGO, the non government organization that’s running this effort is just to make sure that they can, I mean, their success is returning to as much as normal as possible. Yeah.


And I think that this, I mean, I don’t know if something along these lines has happened, you know, a project along these lines has happened, you know, at Chernobyl, or like a Three Mile Island. But this, this seems like a really unique longitudinal study to really see how ecologically, environmentally, sociologically as well, how does a location recover from, from a disaster of this nature? So?


You’d mentioned you say unique, and I think, you know, what I know, of Chernobyl and other disasters really is unique. And I think it’s a testament to the Japanese people. Because this could have been the same, you know, when we went in the first time, it looked like the pictures of Chernobyl could have been the same, but the people, the will of the people would not let that happen, cared enough about the people who’d been displaced to make sure that it didn’t happen. And that’s, I mean, if there’s, there’s a host of inspiring stories that come out in here, but that’s one of the beautiful ones. So they simply refuse to let that happen.


Any final thoughts? Anything else that you’d want to add?


Well, you know, I think the one of the funniest things about this is how it all came about. If we rewind all the way back to the beginning. I didn’t know Mizo, Mizo was just some some guy at the University of Tokyo, a wonderful, respected professor. And in 2001, one of our colleagues, works here at METER Group, was working at the University of Minnesota as a grad student, I went out there as a part of a national meeting. And while we were there, I said, Hey, Doug, will you just take us out to your research site, I want to see what you’re doing, because he and I have been graduate students together at Texas a&m. And so he gathered his major professor, Dr. John Baker, and we were going to hop in the minivan and go and this guy came up. This Japanese guy is like, hey, I want to go to and I’m like, that’s weird. I was just gonna go with my friend. And I know John Baker well, and we were just gonna go out there and I’m a little taken aback, but like, okay, yeah, come on. So so we all hopped in this car. And I can remember going to this diner, this traditional kind of American greasy spoon diner, and we all ordered burgers, and we’re sitting there and I’m talking to this Japanese professor and his good friend. And, and I said, “Hey, do you know do you know, one of my friends from graduate school? Kosuke?”, And he said, “No”. And I said,”Are you a soil physicist?” And he said, “Yeah, man I’m a soil physicist”. I’m like, “Kosuke and I are soil physicist too. And I’m absolutely sure that that’s not a big community in Japan, you must know Kosuke!?” And he said, “Kosuke?” and I said “Kosuke Noborio, yeah, you know him”. And he’s, like, “mmh, I don’t know a Kosuke” and, and I’m like, “There’s just no way” and he’s like, “Okay, fine. Just write it down!” So I wrote down Kosuke Noborio. And I gave him the paper and he said, “OHHHH!!! Oh! You mean Kosuke!” And, and that weird kind of interaction experience. We somehow got to be great friends. And then, just later that year, I went over and visited Mizo, an amazing guy. I can now see why he jumped into that trip. Like, Hey, why, why do you want to because he just loves to learn, loves to experience and he did know Kosuke and and then launched this friendship for, you know, over 20 years now that Mizo and I have been collaborating on all kinds of fun stuff. And I asked, as you said, I asked Kosuke later I’m like, “why did we call you Kosuke all these years if if your name was Kosuke”, and he said, “You know, I went to Texas, you know, we were at Texas a&m and I met Dr. Murray Milford. Good old Texan. He said, Hello, Kazuki. And I just said, I thought that’s how they said it in Texas. So I was Kazuki”, and i was like “it would have been helpful to know, you were actually Kosuke. We didn’t know. So that was one of the fun stories, I guess, you know, as we, you know, on the podcast talking about things of science, these random meanings, you know, and associations actually mean a ton. And so as you’re going out and having these associations and looking for opportunities to collaborate, we can do great things. And this great thing, this thing that I value so much as a part of my career came out of a chance meeting: of driving out to field and eating in a diner that that was forced by initially, I was like, What the heck, why are you coming on with this Mizo. And, and I’m so glad he did. Right.


I think that’s it. Anything else?




You’re good. All right. Our time is up today. Thank you again, Dr. Colin Campbell, for taking time to share your research with us. Pleasure. Stay safe, and we’ll see you next time on We Measure the World

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