On Third Anniversary of Nuclear Crisis, CSU Students Travel to Fukushima, Japan, as Ambassadors

Note to Reporters: CSU Health Physics students who took part in the first Fukushima Student Ambassador trip to Japan will offer a campus presentation at 10 a.m. Tuesday, March 25, in Molecular and Radiological Biosciences Building Room 123. Media representatives are welcome to cover it.

Colorado State University has launched a first-ever ambassador program that allows graduate students studying health physics to travel to the site of the most important radiological event of the new millennium in Fukushima, Japan, and to act as agents for recovery.

“The nuclear accident in Fukushima happened around the same time that I was looking into studying radiation protection. I realized that this event would be critical to my field,” said Jessica Gillis, who is pursuing a master’s degree in the CSU Health Physics Program. “The new facilities in Fukushima offer a massive potential for environmental research. The opportunity to visit is truly a gift, and I hope to reflect on it throughout my future career.”

Gillis is among five students who recently returned from a two-week trip to Japan for observation, radiological studies, volunteer work and cultural exchange. They were the first to take part in CSU’s one-of-a-kind Fukushima Student Ambassador Program established in partnership with Fukushima University.

During a campus presentation about their experience, the students noted that air radiation levels in Colorado – because of elevation and natural soil composition – are notably higher than those measured in Fukushima since the nuclear meltdown on March 11, 2011.

Three years ago, the major earthquake and tsunami that struck Fukushima killed an estimated 20,000 people and forced the evacuation of some 150,000. The natural devastation also sparked the world’s most significant nuclear crisis since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, causing equipment failures, nuclear meltdown and release of radioactive material from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Yet there have been no human deaths attributed to Fukushima radiation exposure.

“Imagine the physical destruction of an earthquake and tsunami. Now imagine, instead of people rushing to your aid, they’re scared of you and blame you for a worldwide nuclear disaster,” said Nicole Martinez, a CSU doctoral student in the Fukushima Student Ambassador Program. “The earthquake and tsunami were physically devastating to Fukushima, but the nuclear accident damaged the society with negative preconceptions.”

It is not yet clear whether cancer risks could be higher after the Fukushima reactor meltdowns – nor are effects of environmental contamination, especially ongoing water contamination, fully understood.

What is clear, CSU student ambassadors said, is the people of Japan deserve accurate information, understanding and help with recovery.

“The propaganda against radiation is holding Fukushima back from recovering more quickly,” said Derek Bailey, another CSU student ambassador. “People need the resources to understand the information that is given to them. The best thing we can do as students is promise to communicate and be more transparent in our future careers.”

While in Japan, he saw first-hand that Fukushima’s stigma presents a challenge.

“I was sitting and talking to a man in Tokyo after our trip to Fukushima,” Bailey recalled. “He asked where I had traveled. When I mentioned Fukushima, he jumped up and backed away – like I was contagious or something.”

The Fukushima Student Ambassadors hope to promote change by breaking down hurdles, including fear, distrust and displacement.

“Real-life experiences give our students more knowledge than the average student,” said Thomas Johnson, an associate professor in the CSU Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences. “This program lets our students apply their existing knowledge through research, outreach and education. They aren’t tourists. They are there to help.”

The Fukushima Student Ambassadors Program is an outgrowth of collaborations the CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences has formed with health and higher-education institutions in Japan. The ongoing partnerships are aimed at advancing knowledge in health physics, radiological sciences and cancer treatment.