Misa Yasumiishi grew up near Fukushima, Japan, but was in Clarence when reactors went into meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Six years ago Saturday, a massive earthquake set off the tragic chain of events. When a tsunami tore apart the nuclear facility, radiation spewed out over a large area and forced people in the affected towns and cities to evacuate. Her family survived – a relative lost a house and her father lost his car in the tsunami – but the fourth-most powerful earthquake ever recorded killed 15,894 people, injured 6,152 and forced some 164,865 people to evacuate.
The disaster also changed Yasumiishi's life 6,338 miles away.
She quit her job as a website consultant and went back to school. Yasumiishi enrolled in the University at Buffalo's geography department – headed by an international expert in disaster response and natural resources management.
“When the disaster happened, I thought maybe I can do something to contribute,” Yasumiishi said.
She learned how to collect and sift soil. She learned how to map locations using a Global Positioning System. And she learned how to measure radiation.
Last summer, Yasumiishi joined a research delegation from the University at Tokyo. She collected hundreds of soil samples in rice paddies and in a forest in an evacuation zone just 12 miles away from the nuclear plant.
Then she analyzed the samples in a laboratory in Tokyo. The nuclear material couldn't be transported overseas, so she brought her data back to Buffalo along with her desire to make a difference.
"Nuclear disaster might not happen in many places. But disaster can happen anywhere – even in Buffalo," Yasumiishi said. "And, when something like that happens, how do you take care of the people?"
Dangerously high radiation
The disaster sent radioactive isotopes – mainly cesium – into the environment.
Radioactive rain and snow fell from the sky.
Farm fields and rice paddies became coated with radiation.
Isotopes, many with half-lives of 30 years, got into the soil, water and throughout the villages and towns Yasumiishi knew.
Radiation even seeped into crops and vegetation. And, the animal population.
Even recently, reports surfaced that the meltdown might be worse than originally thought.
A robot equipped with a temperature gauge and camera was sent into one of Fukushima's damaged reactors. It melted after two hours. Reports said it was exposed to radiation levels that could kill a human in seconds.
Power company officials said the dangerously high radiation was contained within the reactor.
Outside, ongoing cleanup efforts in Japan from 2011 still involve scraping contaminated topsoil off the land, isolating it in large flexible containers and then refilling the areas with clean soil.
Yasumiishi’s research will help determine how effective those efforts have been.
Her work will help gauge the progress of radioactive remediation in the wake of the tsunami that caused Fukushima Daiichi's meltdown.
Yasumiishi, a second-year student in a Ph.D. program at UB, expects to earn her doctorate in geography in 2019.
Yasumiishi isn't ready to give away too many details from her analysis. That’s for her dissertation, she said.
Generally, Yasumiishi said she found lowland areas, like the rice paddies, have lower radiation levels than surrounding forested areas.
“It appeared that the surface soil scraping method was working,” she said. “The samples collected in the undisturbed forests surrounding the rice paddy still showed very elevated radiation levels, especially in the top layer.”
But what about the future?
“How about if someone clears the forest? What happens if a massive typhoon with heavy rain hits the area? How much would the rice paddy at the bottom of the hills be affected? What happens to wild animals living off the forests? Was the surface scraping worthwhile?” Yasumiishi asked. “There are many questions I need to think about.”
Six years has passed since the disaster.
Fewer than half of the more than 164,865 evacuees were allowed to return to their homes. Nearly 89,000 residents remain displaced – roughly the population of Cheektowaga.
There's an ever-present anxiety among those who have gone home, though.
"They feel that they are surrounded by radiation constantly," Yasumiishi said. “They cannot see the radiation, but they know it’s there."
"When I talked to the locals, they kept using the Japanese word 'fuan,' which means 'uneasiness' or 'anxiety," she said. “This feeling stays with them all the time."
Yasumiishi likened it to those who lived around Love Canal.
Chris S. Renschler, Yasumiishi’s adviser, is familiar with disaster.
The UB associate geography professor and Fulbright professor has been solicited by the United Nations for his expertise. His research and expertise about soil science and erosion has provided guidance on hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions around the world.
Renschler said Fukushima presents many of the same issues, but comes with unique challenges because of the radioactivity.
“There are spacial and temporal dynamics that aren’t visible,” Renschler said. “There are elements that can move them around.”
That's why research like Yasumiishi’s is so valuable.
“Is it different than before? That’s the big question. When can (evacuees) go back?” Renschler asked. “The more we as scientists understand it, the more we can assist people in reacting to it.”
“In Japan, we have limited land for farms and high population concentration," Yasumiishi added. "We have to find a way to remediate so people can come back.”