SUKAGAWA, Fukushima — When small amounts of radioactive cesium were detected in the hay needed for this city’s annual fire festival, event organizers decided to break tradition and use materials from other prefectures for the first time in history. However, when their decision was heavily criticized for intensifying radiation rumors, they began wondering whether their choice was correct or not.
Every year in November, about 30 torches (10 meters high and weighing three tons) made of hay and other wood materials, light up the sky. In regular years, the event gathers approximately 100,000 people.
Organizers planned to hold the event to mourn the victims of the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing tsunami.
This year, however, for the first time in history, festival organizers took the decision not to use Sukagawa hay, but instead asked other local bodies, organizations and members of the general public to provide the necessary materials.
The move came after a radiation test, issued by city authorities, detected 84 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kilogram of Sukagawa hay. While Sukagawa is approximately 60 kilometers away from the damaged Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, some people had expressed concern about using Fukushima hay because it came to light that rice straw in extensive areas of the Tohoku region was tainted with radiation.
Despite the test results, however, Sukagawa’s environmental advisor, Michio Sato, a professor of chemical engineering at Fukushima University, advised the city that the radiation amount is not health-threatening even if the hay was to be burnt during the festival.
Nevertheless, in consideration of residents’ safety, organizers decided not to use the local materials, and in late September launched an online campaign asking other local governments, organizations and individuals to donate resources.
Officials at the Sukagawa tourism department, however, were flooded with protests over the decision. “Fukushima Prefecture is trying to convince the public of the safety of local products. It’s wrong to do something that runs counter to such efforts,” one of them said.