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Cleaning up with rice, in Fukushima

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TOMIOKA, Japan — On a sunny day last month, farmers emptied 30-kilogram rice bags one after another. They had harvested the rice a few days earlier, but all the grains were scheduled to be thrown out. As the pile of brownish unpolished rice - 1.5 tons in total — grew, one farmer gritted his teeth.

"One day, I will grow rice that people will enjoy eating," said Yasuo Watanabe, 63, chief of Furusato Seisan Kumiai, a rice growers association formed by 14 farmers in Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture. The association was launched five years ago.

On Oct. 9, the association members harvested Hitomebore brand rice as well as rice for animal consumption at a 3,000-square-meter rice paddy in a former no-entry zone from the nuclear accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Now the area is part of zones being prepared for residents’ return.

It was their first harvest in three years, but the members could not enjoy the harvest fully — the purpose of growing the rice there was only to collect radiation data and to preserve the farmland.

In May, the Fukushima prefectural government and the Tomioka municipal government sprayed zeolite and potassium chloride on the fields to absorb radioactive cesium emitted during the nuclear crisis.

Before the rice was planted, it was decided that all harvested rice, except for that used for checking radioactive substances, would be thrown away.

When the farmers began growing the rice, weeds grew wildly in the paddy because no one had tended to the land for more than two years. Pig-boar hybrids, known as inobuta, were ruining seedlings.

Association members drove frequently to the paddy from their evacuation sites to plant rice and cut grass. The farmers believe they grew rice as good as that grown before the 2011 disaster.

Just as the rice growers association’s market began to spread to Tokyo, the nuclear disaster struck Tomioka.

The Tomioka town government plans to return residents to the area around the spring of 2017, but the date may be pushed back because it is taking longer to decontaminate the town than the local government had anticipated.

Fewer residents want to return to Tomioka as time goes by, according to the town government.

Although the test results for radioactive substances in the harvested rice were lower than the standard set by the government, Watanabe and the association members do not think producing rice there for human consumption is feasible for the time being. First, they plan to grow rice for biofuel. With the cooperation of Kyushu University and other institutions, the association started experiments for the project last year.

"Look at our rice. It looks so good. What is the meaning of a rice farmer if we cannot grow rice?" Watanabe said with great sorrow as he harvested the rice. As Watanabe tightly gripped the rice, many of the grains stuck to his hand with their remaining moisture.


— The Yomiuri Shimbun

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