All heck re-broke loose online when the Associated Press reported in the evening of October 12 that a local resident, equipped with a dosimeter, had discovered a highly radioactive hotspot in a residential area of Setagaya, one of the 23 wards of Tokyo, 145 miles from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Foreign media jumped on the story and speculated between the lines that it was yet another example of underreporting of nuclear contamination by the Japanese mainstream media.
Even the Japanese themselves—after months of misinformation, late information, or no information about radiation and fallout—have lost confidence in their government and in the media. Rather than just sit there and wait for information that might not be forthcoming, they bought dosimeters and organized into groups to patrol their neighborhoods in search of radiation. And they’ve been finding it: in sandboxes, on baseball fields, on roofs, near schools—sometimes in the most unlikely places.
But that hotspot on a sidewalk next to a dilapidated house was unique; its level of radiation was scary high, near that of some of the contaminated areas in Fukushima.
Authorities investigated. Turns out the radiation had nothing to do with fallout from Fukushima but came from dozens of small vial-like bottles in a wooden box hidden under the floorboards of the dilapidated house. When they held their dosimeters directly to the bottles, the radiation level exceeded the capacity of the device. Later the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology confirmed: 600 microsieverts per hour. But three feet away from the bottles, the level dropped to 20 microsieverts per hour.
The powder in the bottles contained radium, most likely made for use in fluorescent paint to be dabbed on such things as minute and hour hands of watches. A practice that stopped decades ago—but you might still have one of those radioactive watches in a drawer somewhere.
The owner of the house, a ninety-year old woman, stated that she’d never seen the bottles and had no clue where they came from, according to the ministry of science. She and her husband had bought the house in 1953. After his death a decade ago, she lived there alone until last February. Since then, the house has been vacant. Her husband was an office worker and would not have had any reason to be involved with this material, the ministry said. And for 57 years, her bed was about seven feet from the bottles. Yet she is not showing any symptoms of cancer.
Ministry officials put the bottles into a lead container and handed it to the Japan Radioisotope Association for safekeeping.
Without the vigilance of nervous Japanese who’ve lost trust in their government’s communications, the bottles wouldn’t have been found. They would have stayed there until the house got torn down, and workers might have carted them off along with other debris. Which poses a broader question: what else is hidden under floorboards in Tokyo? Or really, anywhere?