Letters from the West

Hiroshima reporter comes to Idaho seeking radioactive story

For Yumi Kanazaki, a reporter for the Hiroshima newspaper The Chugoku Shimbun, the aftermath of the atomic bombing that ended World War II is not just another story.

More than 180,000 survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 are still alive, and many of them are readers of The Chugoku Shimbun. Those survivors are known in Japan as hibakusha. Their lives are inexorably tied not only to those attacks, but also to the radiation research that has taken place since.

And the Hiroshima bombing is a personal story for everyone who works for The Chugoku Shimbun. More than a third of the 300 people who were working at the newspaper on Aug. 6, 1945, died, many of them instantly.

“Our newspaper is, in a sense, victims and a survivor of the A-bomb too,” Kanazaki said.

She came to Idaho to follow up on the December “Irradiated” series the Statesman did with our McClatchy colleagues in Washington, D.C., and other papers, looking at the radioactive legacy of the U.S. nuclear weapons program. She talked to Ralph Stanton in Idaho Falls, the nuclear worker whose story about his contamination by plutonium in 2011 and his health and compensation struggles since were central to our series.

Kanazaki also went to Emmett to interview Tona Henderson, one of the thousands of people in Gem and other Idaho counties contaminated with high levels of radioactive fallout from Nevada nuclear tests in the 1950s and ’60s. She and her neighbors have unsuccessfully sought compensation for more than a decade, watching friends and relatives die from thyroid and other cancers. Residents in other states have been compensated, but Idaho is not included in the federal program. Henderson is working with Sen. Mike Crapo, seeking to join the downwinders who have been compensated, a story she told Kanazaki.

Like thousands of other Americans contaminated with fallout from atomic tests, and tens of thousands of nuclear workers exposed to radiation working on nuclear weapons during the Cold War, they are linked to Kanazaki and her readers. They are, in a sense, America’s hibakusha.

Like the hibakusha, the downwinders had no choice in their contamination, Henderson said. She and Kanazaki told each other stories.

“Sitting, talking to her was just overwhelming,” Henderson said of the interview.

Kanazaki has been a reporter for 20 years and has traveled in the U.S. extensively. She spent a semester in college at Amherst in Massachusetts and has visited California, Washington, D.C., New York City, New Mexico and North Carolina.

Her primary beat is nonproliferation, a fundamental cause for the people of Hiroshima. Earlier this month, ministers of the G-7 nations visiting Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park agreed to a declaration that says they share the goal that nuclear weapons never be used again. President Barack Obama might visit Hiroshima in May.

Her Idaho trip was for a story examining the latest research on the effects of low-level radiation, the impacts on American nuclear workers and the ties to the hibakusha, the average age of whom now exceeds 80.

After our interview, I took her on a tour, visiting Lucky Peak and Hyde Park, and driving up 8th Street into the Foothills. When I asked her what she wanted for lunch, she grinned.

“How about an Idaho potato? Everyone in Japan knows about Idaho potatoes,” she said.

At the Westside Drive-in on ParkCenter, she got a big baked potato covered in butter and chives, which she loved. I urged her to drive up to Idaho City, since most of what she had seen of Idaho was sagebrush on the lonely drive from Eastern Idaho, the canyons of the Snake and the Malad, the volcanic wonderland of Craters of the Moon, and mountains in the distance.

The forests of the Boise Mountains were the icing on the cake.

“Now I will say, back in Japan, that ‘Idaho is the best place in the U.S. as far as I know,’ ” she wrote me.

Like the good reporter she is, Kanazaki can tell only what she knows to be true.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker