Schools in Fukushima Prefecture, still reeling from last year's nuclear disaster, find themselves in uncharted territory with a new addition to their curriculums: radiation literacy classes.
Fukushima's prefectural board of education ordained that between one and three hours of homeroom activity, or "integrated studies," be set aside every year for the topic from this academic year through all grades.
But this has emerged as a contentious issue as parents weigh in with arguments about how the subject matter should be taught in light of the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant that led to the mass evacuation of residents.
In December, the board started providing preparatory training sessions for teachers after instructing municipal governments to set aside classroom time for the classes.
But few municipalities have heeded the call due to the reaction from parents.
Be that as it may, here is how a joint class was held for the classes of first-year students of Aizu-Wakamatsu municipal No. 6 junior high school in May.
The lecture in the school's gymnasium was given by Hirokazu Ishimoto, an instruction officer from the municipal education board, not one of the teachers.
Ishimoto started out by asking the students to talk freely about their knowledge of radiation.
"The eye cannot see it," one student said. "It affects health," said another.
Ishimoto subsequently explained that background radiation is part of nature and emitted from plants and rocks. What matters most, he explained, is what does not come naturally, for example radiation spewed from a nuclear power plant.
He went on to say that current radiation levels in the community are below the tolerance limit set by the central government, adding that particular attention should be paid to internal exposure.
Ishimoto released balloons to illustrate how wind flows spread radioactive fallout from a nuclear plant. This brought cheers from the students as they began to grasp the complexities of the subject.
"I learned about the relationship with wind direction for the first time," said Satomi Hara, 12. "I had expected to hear something quite difficult, but it (the explanation) was easy to understand."
The decision to teach radiation literacy education emerged after the education ministry published a supplementary reader in October and called on schools to use it in class. The editing of the supplementary reader was commissioned to the Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization, where senior officials of power utilities serve as board members.
Fukushima's prefectural education board compiled a teacher's guide that condenses the supplementary reader. Both the supplementary reader and the teacher's guide tout the benefits of radiation, but neither of them mentions last year's nuclear disaster and the public's alarm about high levels of radiation exposure.
This led to heated criticism from parents and the prefectural teachers' union. They argued that the teaching materials effectively give formal sanction to nuclear power policy without reflecting the reality of Fukushima Prefecture.
Some municipalities in the prefecture are moving to create their own teachers' guides.
Fukushima's city board of education plans to touch on the impact of the disaster and provide instruction of dealing with radiation exposure on the premise that it is sustained but at a low level.
The classes are not expected to start any time soon.
A city education board official said the fear of protests had "unduly obstructed" a vital component of children's education.
"There will be no way to move forward as long as we keep fleeing from the task of making sure that children acquire the proper knowledge," the official said.
The prefectural education board is also considering amending the teachers' guide to incorporate the impact of the nuclear disaster on communities across the prefecture.
(This article was written by Yasuhito Watanabe and Midori Iki.)
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