Japan’s radiation: Ignorance isn’t bliss

Feeling that officials aren’t doing enough, everyone, farmer to housewife, is learning about radiation contamination.

Muneo Kano has gone from fretting over his organic crops to studying the patterns of radiation contamination in his area [D. Parvaz/ Al Jazeera]
Muneo Kano has gone from fretting over his organic crops to studying patterns of radiation [D. Parvaz/ Al Jazeera]

Iitate Village, Japan – Second-generation farmer Muneo Kano has not been able to tend to his cattle or grow crops since the Daiichi nuclear power plant contaminated land, air and sea after being damaged by last year’s earthquake and tsunami.

He had his 11 cows scanned for radiation and sold them to another farm outside the radiation area. Kano’s own seven-hectare farm is 45km from the nuclear site, and the soil has been deemed too contaminated for farming.

And Kano has had to learn all about radiation and soil fast – he now tracks and maps radiation dips and spikes on an iPad, and has a series of maps he consults to check what authorities say about farms in the area.

Soil samples tested in Iitate still contain ten times the acceptable levels of the radioactive isotope Caesium-137 for agricultural soil, and the government has yet to remove the top layers of contaminated soil and wash the streets.

“It’s been a year already, and nothing,” said the 61-year-old farmer, visiting his land the day before the anniversary of the earthquake. Indeed, Greenpeace recently issued a blistering report on the sluggish pace of government response and the failure of implementing a nuclear emergency plan.

Like some 80,000 others, Kano, his wife, his father, his son, daughter in law and two grandchildren been living in temporary housing in Fukushima City since explosions at three of the plant’s reactors spewed radioactive steam across the region. His plans to pass down his organic farm to his son now remain uncertain.

“My main concern is that, if any country has the technology to build a nuclear plant, then it should first have the technology to prevent accidents and to protect people,” said Kano.

While the Japanese government is making efforts to neutralise fears of radiation contamination, there are a couple of cold, hard facts it can’t overcome.

First, there is little in the way of data showing how the levels of radiation seeping out of earthquake and tsunami damaged plant (operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. or TEPCO) will affect the local population in the long run.

Second, radiation levels aren’t the sort of thing that hold steady – they change with the wind, with accumulations of snow or dust. Scooping up contaminated dirt, bagging it and burying it (the current plan) doesn’t make it disappear, nor does washing the roads in evacuated zones, as that water – and the radioactive dust – finds its ways into gutters and onto sidewalks.

“They shouldn’t build things they can’t control,” said Kano.

Fear of a faulty plant

Indeed, control is in short supply in these parts, and it’s hard to keep up with the worrying news that comes at people on an almost daily basis.

There was the report saying that things were so unstable at the nuclear plant that the government was on the cusp of having to hatch a plan to evacuate 30 million people; a report by the Japan Meteorological Agency recently announced that there were 10,000 more quakes this year – that’s eight times more than the previous year, and, this week, local media reported that some of the thermometers used to make sure water in the plants stayed below boiling point were broken. 

Additionally, the problematic reactors at the Daiichi plant have not entirely been dealt with. There are thousands of barrels of contaminated water being stored on the plant’s site, and the (some say unrealistically short) timeline to decommission it stands at 40 years.


A tourism poster at Fukushima City’s train station sells the prefecture’s idyllic past  [D.Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

These factors combined make it hard for some of the radiation-zone evacuees to accept what they’re being told – that it’s safe to move back to the homes they were told to abandon a year ago.

All but two residents from Kawauchi – 21km from the plant – evacuated the area and moved into temporary housing in Koriyama, which, due to wind patterns, has a higher level of radiation than Kawauchi itself.

And yet, response has been tepid to the government announcement that, starting in April, it will be safe for them to return to their homes, where the radiation levels are still lower.

The village’s vice-mayor, Mitsugi Igari, told Al Jazeera that a survey of the evacuees showed that 39 per cent did not know if they wanted to go back – and that 28 per cent flat out did not want to return.

“Japanese law says that, in case of an earthquake, you can stay in temporary housing for three years without paying rent,” said Igari. Residents must, however pay for utilities and groceries, as well as mortgages back home.

“So if they don’t want to move back, we cannot force them to. But there is no law for radiation evacuees, so a new law must be implemented if they want to stay here beyond three years,” said Igari, noting that most who didn’t want to return were in their 20s and 30s, and those who wanted to return were in their 60s and 70s.

“We must create a safe environment so our young people and children can return – we must reassure them,” he said. Igari himself, a ward employee, must return.

“No choice but to go back,” he said, lips pursed.

Many of Kawauchi’s evacuees living in the temporary housing village set up in the middle of Koriyama have a choice, and they’re choosing to stay put – at least for the time being.

When asked why they wouldn’t want to move back to a place with less radiation, they pointed out that it wasn’t the radiation they feared.

“We’re afraid of Kawauchi’s proximity to the power plant,” said 34-year-old Hisae Wakamatsu, who is there with her three children (aged ten, seven and five) and her husband. Although both she and her husband work for the town, they plan to leave the children with their grandparents – who also evacuated – and commute to Kawauchi daily, rather than move there.

“I don’t know when we’ll move back, but right now, no, I don’t think we want to.”

The agony of uncertainty

Even if nuclear science and the impact of a nuclear meltdown on human health were simple to understand (and they are not), there is still the rather uneasy fact of dealing with a daily foe: invisible, odourless radiation.

This leaves the population to cling to numbers – how many millisieverts of radiation (mSv) can they be exposed to per year? How many Becquerels per kg of food can they take in, how much have they had for the day?

Where Becquerel counters are expensive and hard to come by – although some community groups share one, as do farmers’ markets – Geiger counters are cheaper and a must-have gadget in the affected areas, where radioactive “hot spots” are easily found.

With a push of a button, one can find out how much radiation one is being exposed to at that moment, and, if one were to remain at that level of exposure, how that would accumulate in a week or a year.

For now, the national limit for additional radiation exposure (on top of natural background radiation) is five mSv per year for adults and one mSv per year for children. Kano’s farm registered between 18 and 24 mSv per year – depending on where it was measured.

More features from D. Parvaz on Japan

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undefined Japan: Reeling from triple disasters
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undefined Japan struggles for normality
undefined Nuclear safety: A dangerous veil of secrecy

undefined Crowdsourcing Japan’s radiation levels

And a lot of people are measuring radiation these days.

Yuichiro Saito’s Fukushima-brand Geiger counters – he has also designed one that plugs into a smartphone – are on back order in the magnitude of thousands. The stand-alone counter is $230, the plug-in one goes for $120.

Saito, whose day job is running a sheet metal outfit, said he saw a need for a wider dataset for the general public. The devices are built using funds from donations and non-profit organisations – in a corner of his metal workshop 53km from the nuclear plant. 

Working with Safecast, which crowdsources radiation readings gathered by volunteers, and combines it with data from other outfits to give a clearer picture of what’s going on, Saito wanted people to be able to determine what was safe for them based on fact, not paranoia or nuclear industry propaganda.

“This will help them micro-manage their lives, to be able to know which places are safe and which are not,” said Saito, who first showed Al Jazeera a prototype of the handheld Geiger counter six months ago.

Saito has his children carry them – the local governments also provide radiation meters, but they have no display. The data from the readers is collected, and if a child shows high exposure to radiation, he or she is called in for a full body scan – for which there is a long waiting list.

While each government office provides radiation data, they only use their own meters and readings.

“The government provides data, but it’s a little bit rough and they tend to collect data from the locations they’ve recently cleaned,” said Saito.

It seems if people can’t control how much radiation they’re exposed to, they at least want to know how much they have been exposed to, let alone what the consequences might be.

Finding the truth, said Saito, is hard, because even nuclear experts – be they in the nuclear industry or medicine, pro or anti-nuclear energy – tend to contradict each other.

“People are confused – they don’t know who to believe,” he said.

For now, they’re choosing to believe numbers – the lower, the better. Regardless of high or low, the public might start to get more numbers from official sources.

Volunteer and activist, Tadao Munakata, said that, after months of waiting, the government had finally given approval to Minamisoma (a town near the Daiichi plant where the mayor famously posted an SOS message on YouTube) to allow its postal delivery staff – who ride around on motorcycles – to carry Geiger meters on their bike, thereby widening their dataset.

He said he was surprised when the request was approved earlier this week.

“It didn’t seem like they would approve it,” he said. “But they just came through with the approval, and once one city to do it, all cities can do it.”

So does that mean the official mindset is changing?

“Maybe,” said Munakata, seeming almost afraid to tempt fate.

Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @DParvaz

Source: Al Jazeera