Japan: Risking generations of radiation

With engineers wrestling to control the damage at Japan’s shaken nuclear plant, the public gauge if and when to panic.

TEPCO said on Tuesday that it had found seawater with 7.5 million times the legal limit of radioactivity [EPA]

With many foreigners – or gaijin – turning into flyjin and booking out of Japan as fast as their embassies and travel agents can negotiate flights, the locals have been left to make tough choices.

To leave – but go where? – or to stay and deal with shortages of all manner (from food to fuel) in addition to the looming spectre of whatever is unfolding at the Daiichi nuclear reactors in Fukushima, damaged in the March 11 earthquake.

Some have left, many have simply moved as far away from Fukushima as possible, others have taken to hoarding supplies. This has led to a spate of articles in which nuclear experts and pundits, albeit from a safe distance, have spoken out about a perceived overreaction by the Japanese population. Some of the articles take a somewhat paternalistic tone while others are simply dismissive

The BBC’s website carried a “viewpoint” piece by a nuclear and medical physicist at the University of Oxford, which suggested the Japanese government was overreacting by virtue of even issuing a warning to parents to avoid giving infants tap water for a few days.

The piece compares the throttled Fukoshima plants to Three Mile in 1979 (a meltdown) and Chernobyl in 1986 (an explosion), saying that neither were as devastating as originally projected.

Another recent article in Scientific American cautions against “hysteria” and points out that, “Although cases of thyroid cancer soared 16-fold among the highly exposed population of children who drank radioactive milk [in Chernobyl], by 2005, the United Nations Scientific Committee on Effects of Atomic Radiation reported that only 15 had died.”

The number of deaths linked to Chernobyl, said the article, fell short of what was projected and are still lower than the number of those killed after being exposed to pollution from fossil fuels.

Reason to worry

There is little reassurance to be found in any story on the nuclear plant. Three weeks after the earthquake, employees of Tokyo Electric Power Company (or TEPCO), which operated the plant are still struggling to cool the fuel rods, contain with the contaminated water which is leaking into the sea from an unknown source and seal a crack first with cement and then a mix of polymers and wood chips.

And that was before they started dumping thousands of tonnes of radioactive water into the ocean (as opposed to trying to contain it as it leaked).   

Of course, the prospect of a nuclear meltdown is potentially dangerous and worrying under any circumstance.

But in Japan, a narrow island nation, the threat is more pronounced, and not only because the country’s densely-populated capital is just south of the precarious plant in Fukushima or what may happen to the country’s economy, with ports and farms in the region – already destroyed – also facing radiation contamination.

Many feel that the very continuance of Japan’s culture and people are at risk, because in addition to the massive number of elderly who are vulnerable to the current conditions, Japan also has one of the world’s lowest birth rates, a trend that has been going on for three decades.

If that sounds hyperbolic, consider this: For years, the Japanese government has offered its people incentives to have children. To put it bluntly, many feel that the population is slowly dying out.

According to the country’s statistics bureau, more than a quarter of Japanese are 65 or older, while roughly 15 per cent are under the age of 15. By 2050, it is projected that nearly 40 per cent of the population will be seniors and just under nine per cent will be children.

The pressure on young women to have children is immense (in 2007 Hakuo Yanagisawa, the country’s health minister, referred to women as “birth-giving machines”) while it is common to hear those who choose to remain childless referred to as “parasites”. 

So, in this context, the possibility of a nuclear meltdown or contamination that might affect the lives of children or the fertility of adults has grave consequences.

Already in peril

The elderly figure heavily in the growing death toll following the tsunami and earthquake, and children are already facing a tough battle after surviving the catastrophes.

Andrew Wander, the emergencies media manager for Save the Children, says that there are roughly 74,000 children in the tsunami-affected area.

A toddler darts past the quaratine ward at an emergency shelter in Rikuzentakata, Japan [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

“They’ve had their homes destroyed, they’ve lost family members, their pets, everything … Kids are really resilient, they bounce back, and they need the space to do that.” 

At the moment, its unknown how many children have been left orphaned by the tsunami and earthquake, but Japan’s ministry of health, labour and welfare said it is working to assess that number.

Wander says that while many families are considering moving children as far away from Fukushima and the threat it represents as possible, that “there are 74,000 children who don’t have that option”.

Parents who have the option to leave have been taking it in the days following the first signs of trouble at the Daiichi plant.

“The government is telling us that we do not have enough children,” says Kuniko Tomi, shopping at a market in Morioka in northern Japan. The mother of a toddler, she is worried about what to feed her daughter and if they are far away enough from the plant.

“They tell us not to be scared, but then they tell us not [to] give our children certain foods and drinks,” she says, referring to the warnings on some produce and milk.

“But if something happens to all these children because of the contamination … maybe Japan will not have a future.”

After waiting for the situation to normalise for more than a week after the earthquake and several days after an explosion and fires rocked reactors at Fukushima, Ariyah Okamoto also decided to leave, taking his 83-year-old mother to Incheon, South Korea, where they remain.

While authorities may be able to get the situation under control, Okamoto says he is not willing to take the chance.

“The real fact is no one knows for sure – and the risk is catastrophic, so why not leave if you can?” said Okamoto.

“Plus, I’ve heard that the radiation accumulation is not linear but exponential … too many uncertainties to gamble with one’s life if you don’t have to … if all turns out okay, let’s say in six months, one can always return.” 

Conflicting reports

Just as there are studies saying that even Chernobyl was not so bad, there is also no shortage of papers and articles showing the reverse – that Chernobyl’s effects were dire and far-reaching.

the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organisation estimated that 9,000 would eventually die from being exposed to radiation and that 50 deaths were directly connected to the explosion.

Compare that to what the National Commission for Radiation Protection in Ukraine told The Guardian newspaper in 2006 – that in that country alone, “500,000 people – perhaps more – have already died out of the 2 million people who were officially classed as victims of Chernobyl”.

The point here is that once contaminants such as Iodine 131 and Caesium 137 (I-131 and Cs-137) get into the air, water and soil, there is a certain element of the unknown in determining the damage – current and future – they do to the exposed population. 

For example, in 2004, a group of Swedish scientists blamed 849 cancer cases in their country on radiation from Chernobyl. While their findings were questioned by the Swedish Radiation Protection Authority, there is no real way of calculating how many cancer deaths are linked to Chernobyl.

Scott Davis, a researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said that fundamentally, what most people want to know is “Will this affect me and if so, how and when?”

“Unfortunately … my opinion is that there is not a definitive answer. Even after 25 years, there is tremendous uncertainty of the human toll from Chernobyl,” Davis says.  

“Determining the impact of an event like this is exceedingly complex and depends on so many factors. I really don’t think it is possible to predict at this point what the effects on the lives of people there will be in the years to come – as unsatisfactory as that is.”

Risk assessment

With increasingly higher levels of radioactivity detected in the water, it seems the local population has reason to worry. But when should worry turn into panic, and when can panic give way to calm?

Davis suggests that avoiding milk and leafy vegetables and fresh fruit from the area is a good idea if there is a high level of I-131 contamination, as the Japanese government started doing roughly two weeks ago.

If, on the other hand, the contamination is primarily from a contaminant with a much longer half life, such as Cs-137, Davis says he would also consider leaving the area. 

“It is important to understand that ‘radiation isn’t radiation’ in the sense that there are different types of radiation that have different characteristics and that can inflict damage to a person in different ways … it makes no sense to talk about blanket measures in a situation like this,” Davis explains.

“Since the half life of Cs-137 is about 30 years, this kind of contamination will unfortunately be in the environment for our lifetime and generations to come.” 

The IAEA has already confirmed what it deemed high concentrations of Cs-137 in a village roughly 40km away from the Daiichi plant.

If the situation gets worst – that is to say, more fission material is released – then Davis says health concerns “would be driven by how much material continues to be released, what it consists of … and where it goes”.

“It is difficult to say with any certainty what the specific risks might be, or how far away is safe.”

This is disconcerting news, given how infants and young children are especially susceptible to the effects of even I-131, with its short half-life. The young are more likely develop thyroid disease or cancer at lower exposures that might not harm adults.

Japanese authorities have been examining the thyroid glands of large numbers of children in the area to see if they have reached harmful levels of exposure. The last press release issued by Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said that the exposure was “not at the level of having harmful influence”. 

Then there is the issue of what is happening in the sea and how leaking/dumping radioactive water into that environment will affect marine life. While it is true that I-131 has a short half life, it does build up in food sources such as seaweed, a popular ingredient in the Japanese diet. And accumulations of I-131 can be cancer-causing.

“The things we worry about are the things which can get out of the reactor that are volatile – gases and volatile materials – and secondly, ones that can enter the food chain, and therefore enter the human food chain and therefore be hazardous to humans,” says Tony Roulstone, the course director of the nuclear energy graduate programme at the University of Cambridge.

Prolonged fishing bans, he says, will most certainly be in place, even though this might spell the end of a way of life for many coastal communities who depend on the sea for survival.

“There’s a choice between that, and exposing the people you sell the fish to – if it’s contaminated – to radiation,” Roulstone adds.

TEPCO ‘flying partially blind’

Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the Union Concerned Scientists Global Security Program and an expert on nuclear plant design and the environmental and the health effects of radiation, says that TEPCO’s ability to assess the ongoing situation at the plant has “severe deficiencies”.

“They do have some instrumentation. They do report some values for pressure and temperature, but there are indicators that are repeatedly unreliable or out of service,” says Lyman.  

“So, you know, they’re flying partially blind.”

The crisis, he says, is being dealt with “as more or less symptom-based at this point”.

“They’re throwing water in what they can’t see and hoping that they don’t get more radiation out than they’re now seeing, you know, and they just have to treat the symptoms, but the only real symptom or the only real cure is more water. So, it’s pretty crude.”

Roulstone has a slightly less withering view of the situation. The Japanese authorities, he says, are “poor at communicating – by Western standards” at least, but he adds that the precautionary measures taken have been “reasonable and sensible”.

“What they’re doing is focusing their efforts on fixing the reactor and protecting the public with these precautionary measures.”

All that is known, says Roulstone, is that the amount of radioactivity that has escaped is much more in reactor two and its containment is leaking.

He sees what is happening in terms of the workers trying to cool down the rods in the damaged plants as largely improvisational (the same could be said of the attempt to seal a 20cm crack, first with concrete then with polymers. Both attempts failed to stem the tide of radioactive water flowing into the ocean).

“Initially, you couldn’t understand what’s going on,” Roulstone says. But now, there is more information available – though not on TEPCO’s site, he adds hurriedly. 

In terms of gauging what is happening inside the damaged plants, Roulstone seems optimistic.
“Some of these readings are inaccurate and you have to make some suppositions … from the point of view of an experienced engineer, you can infer which ones are correct and which ones are not.

“But they need to find out where this leak is. We need cameras in there.”

A continuing crisis

Even as Japanese authorities maintain the evacuation area at 30km around the plant and have yet to increase security precautions, Lyman says the fact that plant workers are still finding large sources of contaminated water from an unknown source means there is “still significant risks that there could be further damage to the cores or the spent fuel pools and we might see further radiological releases to the atmosphere.”

“Certainly … there’s already been demonstrated … radiation leaks have been demonstrated to reach as far as Tokyo’s water system,” says Lyman.

“So, it’s at least proven that there are prevailing atmospheric conditions that can drift the plume in that direction, and so there is probably 80 per cent of the radioactivity that could be leased is still contained within the fuel and the spent fuel.”

But Roulstone seems to take a slightly more optimistic view of the situation.

“The breadth of people’s estimates go from damage to the rods – this mass of what they call corium…the amalgam of metal zirconium and the fission products, which are oxides – driven by decay heat can melt through the reactor vessel, that’s what they’re concerned about, and breaching the reactor vessel at the bottom. Some people think this has occurred,” although Roulstone stresses that there is no real evidence of this. 

“There is damage to at least three cores, which leads to fission product release, so it’s a very serious accident, but I don’t think … that it’s going to melt and burrow into the earth.”

What is clear to everyone – including the Japanese government –  is that it might be some time before residents can return to the evacuated areas. But Roulstone says the worst might be behind them.

“It’s getting out of the ‘surprise everyday’ situation which were were in in week one, you know, different day, different reactor blew up … and we’re beginning to know, with some confidence, which areas to focus on.”

Still, he says he would not fault anyone who wanted to move further away from the plant.

“I don’t think that you can criticise the Japanese, in total for hysteria. They’re much more stoic than any Western nation,” said Roulstone.

“If this had happened in some place in the UK, I can’t guarantee people wouldn’t be hysterical.”

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Source: Al Jazeera

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