Poisoned hometown in Japan becomes woman's field of study at UB, The Buffalo News

Misa Yasumiishi, a doctoral candidate from Japan, is researching soils irradiated by the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Yasumiishi is a native of northeastern Japan. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Misa Yasumiishi grew up in Fukushima, Japan, but was in Amherst when reactors went into meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Six years ago Saturday, a massive earthquake set off the tragic chain of events. When a tsunami tore apart the nuclear facility, radiation spewed out over a large area and forced people in the affected towns and cities to evacuate. Her family survived – a relative lost a house and her father lost his car in the tsunami – but the fourth-most powerful earthquake ever recorded killed 15,894 people, injured 6,152 and forced some 164,865 people to evacuate.

The disaster also changed Yasumiishi's life 6,338 miles away.

She quit her job as a website consultant and went back to school. Yasumiishi enrolled in the University at Buffalo's geography department – headed by an international expert in disaster response and natural resources management.

“When the disaster happened, I thought maybe I can do something to contribute,” Yasumiishi said.

She learned how to collect and sift soil. She learned how to map locations using a Global Positioning System. And she learned how to measure radiation.

Last summer, Yasumiishi joined a research delegation from the University at Tokyo. She collected hundreds of soil samples in rice paddies and in a forest in an evacuation zone just 12 miles away from the nuclear plant.

Then she analyzed the samples in a laboratory in Tokyo.  The nuclear material couldn't be transported overseas, so she brought her data back to Buffalo along with her desire to make a difference.

"Nuclear disaster might not happen in many places. But disaster can happen anywhere – even in Buffalo," Yasumiishi said. "And, when something like that happens, how do you take care of the people?"

Published March 11, 2017

The Buffalo News

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