High school classroom (illustrative)
High school classroom (illustrative)Israel news photo: Flash 90

Almost 4 years after it was revealed that students of the Ashkelon state-religious Neve Ilan school have been exposed to non-ionized radiation, due to its proximity to an Israeli Electric Company (IEC) power line, Mayor Itamar Shimoni has decided to remove all of the school's students from affected classrooms and place them elsewhere until the problem can be solved. 

Shimoni made the decision after a marathon of meetings about the subject in the Ashkelon municipality. After studying the issue closely, Shimoni discovered that the problem had bounced between municipal offices since 2009 without being addressed.

Shimoni has made the radiation problem top priority, especially in light of new regulations from the Ministry for Environmental Protection regarding the safest proximity to a radiation field. The new regulations limit children from ages 15 and up to a 4 mJ (millijoule) exposure over 24 hours - and younger children to less than that. 

In 2009, an investigation revealed that the power line voltage near the school, which is some 161 kilowatts, releases up to 13mJ of radiation in some areas - over 3 times the recommended limits. The school's western playground showed levels of 7-10 mJ; the classrooms on that side of the building, between 4-7 mJ.

Shimoni appealed to all of the involved governmental bodies and asked them to produce a feasible solution to the problem for the sake of the students' health. At first, Shimoni himself presented a number of possible solutions; but after it became evident that implementing those solutions would take too long before the radiation could aversely affect students even more, he made the unusual move to evacuate the school, moving classrooms to a local community center. Classes will remain in the center until work to reduce the radiation output are completed. 

Sunday morning, Shimoni also toured the school with principal Ariella Elbaz; Hilik Kravani, the Chairman of the Parental Board; Uri Goldstein, Coordinator of Radiation and Air quality for the Municipal Environmental Association; and Keren Erez, Director of the Municipal Environmental Association of Ashkelon. Rabbi Yaakov Avitan, the Chairman of Municipal Education, and Yoram Shefer, Director of Engineering and Environment, also accompanied Shimoni on the tour. 

Elbaz turned to the Ashkelon municipality multiple times about the serious and ongoing problem. After receiving no reply, she took the initiative backed by locals, to threaten to abandon the entire wing of the building, and only use classrooms on the western end for a few hours each day to limit exposure. 

"Unfortunately, the Ashkelon municipality has not moved forward with the radiation problem. Though we presented evidence that some classrooms are exposed only to borderline levels of exposure, several parents have withdrawn their children from the school," wrote Elbaz, in a letter to municipal authorities last August.  "Other parents continue to leave their children in the school because they are not ready to abandon the notion of state-funded religious education, but they come to us with concerns about the matter all the time." 

"I predict that if we are not given a proper response, within a few short years you will have a beautiful structure - but no students," the letter concluded. 

After touring the structure, Shimoni decided immediately to evacuate the classrooms, telling the school board that even if those classrooms are only used for a few hours each day, radiation levels are still dangerously high. He called on local community center director Gad Manor to find a solution for the students, and to provide them with learning space until the problem could be solved. 

Shimoni also called a meeting Sunday night for parents, to present them with different options to combat the radiation and receive their input. "I can promise you tonight," Shimoni said to parents, "that the 'Neve ilan' school will be a safe place for your children to learn."

"I know that the problem has been passed back and forth through City Hall since 2009, but I'm not here to assign blame or look backwards," he continued. "Once I found out how dangerous the exposure is, I made up my mind: children cannot learn in these classrooms until the problem is solved." He then informed parents of the evacuation and its duration. 

Shimoni also revealed that recent tests have shown radiation exposure on the school's soccer field, and that he wants to build a fence around the field to prevent students from cutting across the area, even while the school is closed. "I worry about your children as if they were my own, and I would want my own children to be safe from any possible danger at school," he said. 

Shimoni presented a number of options to concerned parents, emphasizing that none would be immediate - or cheap. One potential solution includes burying the power line underground, a proposal that would nonetheless take 3 years and millions of shekels to complete. Other options include moving the power line farther from the school - which would involve cutting through bureaucratic red tape - or building caravan classrooms farther away from the radiation points. Yet another solution, which seems most likely, involves coating the line with a special substance to reduce the radiation output, which would take 4 months and 800,000 shekels.

Shimoni also assured parents that, in the interim, the municipality would cover the additional costs of the students being moved elsewhere while the problem is taken care of. 

Last month, 8 Bezeq employees in the same office in Tel Aviv's Azrieli Center were found to have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer over a 2-year period; while an internal investigation revealed that radiation was not the cause of the problem, critics have met the results with skepticism.