Japan priest fights invisible demon: radiation

Fri Feb 10, 2012 5:51pm EST
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By Ruairidh Villar and Yuriko Nakao

FUKUSHIMA (Reuters) - On the snowy fringes of Japan's Fukushima city, now notorious as a byword for nuclear crisis, Zen monk Koyu Abe offers prayers for the souls of thousands left dead or missing after the earthquake and tsunami nearly one year ago.

But away from the ceremonial drums and the incense swirling around the Joenji temple altar, Abe has undertaken another task, no less harrowing -- to search out radioactive "hot spots" and clean them up, storing irradiated earth on temple grounds.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, some 50 km (31 miles) away, suffered a series of explosions and meltdowns after the massive earthquake and tsunami last March 11, setting off the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986 and forcing 80,000 people from their homes.

Radiation, carried on winds and by snow, spread far beyond the 20 km (12 miles) evacuation zone around the plant, nestling in hot spots across the region and contaminating the ground in what remains a largely agricultural region.

Many of those who fled have no idea when, if ever, they can return to land held by their families for generations.

"The damage here in Fukushima is different from the destruction caused by the tsunami," Abe said.

"You can't see it. Nothing looks as if it's changed, but really, radiation is floating through the area. It's hard for those hit by the tsunami, but it's hard to live here too."

Last summer, Abe grew and distributed sunflowers and other plants, such as field mustard and amaranthus, in an effort to lighten the impact of the radiation and cheer local residents.   Continued...

<p>Koyu Abe, a Zen priest, lights a candle at the main hall of his Joenji temple in Fukushima, northern Japan February 3, 2012. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao</p>