December 5, 2013
HERALD IN JAPANSunday, September 29, 2013
Learning to live with the risks of radiation
A visit to the tsunami-damaged nuclear plant in Fukushima reveals a harsh reality
Meticulously organized with all the resources of the world’s third economy, Tokyo’s bid to stage the 2020 Olympics had only one weak link — the shadow of the Tohoku east coast tsunami 30 months ago and the sequel of the resultant Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant accident. Now that the bid has proved successful, it is perhaps more rather than less important to answer the questions — especially with recent reports of radioactive water leaking into the ocean and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announcing the closure of the last two of Daiichi’s six reactors on the last day of the Japanese summer.
The Herald is not in a position to answer all the questions — all we can do is to pass on the information culled on the spot in Fukushima prefecture on July 11-12. For this information we would like to thank Hitoshi Aoki of the Decontamination Information Plaza in Fukushima and Kiyioshi Usami, the Planning and Public Works Secretary of Soma City (the seaside town which perhaps most bore the brunt of the tsunami) who tirelessly spent virtually the entire afternoon briefing the Herald.
The Herald was not only in Fukushima but also drove through its special decontamination area in Iitate Village (one of three ghost towns where human habitation is forbidden) and has lived to tell the tale — perhaps this says something in itself. Virtually all Japanese are apprehensive about two extremes in world reactions to Fukushima — that they imagine Japan to be on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe and then, once their worst fears have been reassured, that nothing much really happened and that the upsurge of global solidarity with Japan was wasted sympathy. Finding the balance between these two erroneous extremes is an extremely delicate task — perhaps too delicate for the generally slapdash nature of journalism but we will try.
Aoki described learning to live with the risks of radiation as a continuous process. There was no radioactive cesium in the air, he explained, but the positive ions of cesium can all too easily be absorbed by negative particles in the soil, making its control and decontamination extremely painstaking — the contamination of the water table under Daiichi was perhaps the big anxiety. There had been six weeks of food shortages in Tokyo in the immediate wake of the disaster, he said, but now the canteen in the Prime Minister’s office in Tokyo takes pride in serving only Fukushima rice.
While food and water are vital, the most urgent concern was for human health and here the impact of the disaster was found to be relative.
Although fallout areas with minimal radiation can be found just a few miles outside Tokyo 150 kilometres south of Daiichi and also over 200 kilometres to the west well inland, the special decontamination or no-go area on the map is a red arrow a few kilometres wide stabbing 32 kilometres north-west of Daiichi — its direction an exact reflection of the way the wind was blowing on March 11, 2011. The most vulnerable demographic group of all — some 1,000 children from this zone — were examined and all found to be well under the threshold of thyroid cancer development risk with an 0.05 percent increment of cancer death risk for the population at large.
Finally, Aoki pointed out that there is plenty of natural radiation worldwide and Japanese levels of this are around 62 percent of the global average, allowing some leeway, but it would be impossible to go into more depth here without getting very technical.
In Soma City town hall Usami had more to say on the tsunami itself and the subsequent reconstruction although the radiation risks are far from neglected — there is individual monitoring via Geiger counter (whole body for children) with constantly updated averages for each neighbourhood on a wall chart in the disaster room. Information is given on a “need to know” basis, says Usami, and that need is high in order to defuse nuclear scares. Usami also showed dumpsites outside town with impressively high piles of suspect débris.
The bulletin board from March 11, 2011 (first entry 2.56pm, just 10 minutes after the earthquake struck) has been preserved in the disaster room. Of Soma City’s 36,232 inhabitants, 458 perished that day with 19 still missing (just one of the fatalities resulted from a collapsing wall, all the rest from the tidal wave).
Almost 10 times that number (4,514) had to be evacuated and were lodged in the schools (except for the badly injured, handicapped and elderly who went to hospital) with no classes until April 18. Of Soma City’s 13,897 households, 1,175 remained uninhabitable in mid-2013. Around two-thirds of the 1,500 homeless families at the peak of the disaster have been relocated — some in a council housing estate proudly shown off by Usami and some building their own homes.
Beyond the housing damage, the fishing port was entirely destroyed and there was no rice harvest throughout 2011 — Usami argues that the disaster could be an opportunity to restructure agriculture.
Every tragedy has its statistics but they can never convey the full horror.
(The two items on this page conclude a series of 16 articles based on the author’s visit to Japan in July).