Koyu Abe has been planting sunflowers to help absorb radioactive materials in the soil.
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Yuriko Nakao / Reuters
Abe and a group of volunteers try to clean up radioactive hot spots.
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Yuriko Nakao / Reuters
The earthquake and tsunami last march devastated Japan and caused a nuclear catastrophe.
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Jim McMahon
Fighting Radiation With Sunflowers
A monk is helping clean up radioactive waste near the site of last year’s nuclear disaster in Japan


As the one-year anniversary of the earthquake in Japan approaches, Japanese citizens are still struggling to pick up the pieces. Koyu Abe, a Zen monk at the Joenji Temple in Fukushima, is one of many doing his part to help his community.

Last year on March 11, a powerful earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. People evacuated the area surrounding the plant within a 12-mile radius. However, wind and snow spread dangerous radiation, or high-energy rays, even farther into the countryside. Parts of the Fukushima region are now contaminated, making it unsafe to plant food in the soil there.

“Nothing looks as if it’s changed, but really, radiation is floating through the area,” Abe tells the news agency Reuters. “It’s hard for those hit by the tsunami, but it’s hard to live here too.”

Abe set out to help. He hosts workshops at the Joenji Temple to inform people about radiation and how to handle the widespread contamination.

Abe works with a team of volunteers to search for “hot spots” where a lot of radiation has built up. They use Geiger counters, radiation-detecting devices, to find areas of high radiation.

When the team finds a hot spot, they dig up nearby soil. They load the contaminated soil onto trucks and wash down the area with powerful hoses. Abe and his team bury the radioactive waste behind the Joenji Temple. They have collected a total of 800 pounds of waste.

Abe has also been planting sunflowers to help heal the ground. Plants like sunflowers and field mustard are thought to absorb radiation from the soil. He hopes the plants will also spread cheer to local residents, who lost a lot in the disaster.

Cleaning up will take many years, and the citizens of Fukushima have already faced many difficulties in resuming their former lives. “It is as if an invisible snow had fallen on Fukushima and continued to fall, covering the area,” Abe told reporters. “This snow, which doesn’t melt, brought a long, long winter to Fukushima.”