Experts struggle to collect data in Fukushima

Is enough being done to ensure solid data, key to making future nuclear safety plans, is being gathered in Fukushima?

A protester shows his radiation dosimeter as he attends an anti-nuclear rally in Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture March 11, 2012, to mark the first anniversary of an earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands and set off a nuclear crisis. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao (JAPAN - Tags: ANNIVERSARY DISASTER POLITICS ENERGY)
Officials must balance the expense of evacuating towns with the risk of staying in contaminated zones [GALLO/GETTY]

Fukushima prefecture, Japan – Within the tragedy of this country’s disaster rests opportunities to study and learn from what went wrong. In the case of the earthquake, there are lessons in better construction; with the tsunami, surveys of evacuation plans and retainment walls can be fruitful.

But it is the nuclear disaster at the Daiichi plant in Fukushima – damaged and leaking radiation for a year – that offers the most unique opportunity for learning, for information on such meltdowns is hard to come by.

For one thing, because of its ties with governments and weapons programmes, the nuclear industry is rather secretive. One of the nuclear experts who spoke to Al Jazeera said that, if the laboratory for which he worked found results that negatively impacted the nuclear energy industry in Japan, those results would likely be suppressed.

Also, fortunately, accidents on the scale of the Daiichi meltdown are not common. Experts still commonly refer to data from the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb attacks in 1945, when data gathering and analytic tools were not what they are today, or they point to data from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine.

The trouble with the latter incident is that a series of cover-ups, coupled with a slow response left room for many questions, and estimates for deaths resulting from the massive explosion vary from 4,000 to 100,000.

David Boilley, physicist and chairman of France-based citizen’s lab, Association pour le Controle de la Radioactivite dans l‘Ouest (ACRO), said no agency had been charged with gathering data from multiple sources – ministries, universities and NGOs – and providing it to the public in a digestible way.

Still, he said, an abundance of information, however piecemeal, is better than too little information.

“For Chernobyl, we have almost no data – the first map of the [radiation] fallout came out almost three years after the disaster, and the people are not monitored,” said Boilley.

“Japan is completely different – they have almost the best research on the topic because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so I think it will be better.” He added that the challenge now will be “more political”.

Given that an outfit such as ACRO is only allowed to work with Japanese NGOs and individuals and not government researchers, Boilley said he was not sure if the information would be based on “open science, data shared with foreign experts”, or “kept among a few Japanese scientists, disclosing just what they want to disclose”.

“That is the challenge,” said Boilley.

Forensic research

Shinzo Kimura, a professor at the Laboratory of International Epidemiology at the Centre for International Cooperation at Dokko Medical University, recognised the immediate need for capturing as much data as possible.

At the time of the earthquake and tsunami, Kimura worked as an occupational therapist with the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, treating radiation workers. He told his bosses that he wanted to gather radiation data from Fukushima, but was advised against doing so.

Kimura quit his job and drove 5,000km, criss-crossing the area with a device that noted radiation levels every 30 seconds. Based on his findings, he created a radiation exposure map and wrote a book entitled “Hot Spot”. He’s been collecting data in Nihonmatsu, 45km from the plant, since May on behalf of another ministry.

Kimura gives public seminars on radiation and how to minimise contamination [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

He has tested more than 11,300 people for external exposure to radiation and 1,500 for internal radiation exposure (from eating contaminated food) and his results have not shown any large-scales of high contamination.

Kimura examined the health survey sent out to Fukushima residents in November by the local government and said that, while it could be scientifically useful, there were issues with it.

“The main problem is, obviously, if someone asked you what did half a year ago, what did you eat [a key question for determining internal radiation exposure], how accurate can you be?” said Kimura.

His method for gathering information in Nihonmatsu involved interviewing entire families (often prompting discussion and better answers) and jogging their memories by using key events to help remind them of where they might have been when the explosions at the nuclear plant happened on March 12, 14 and 15, 2011.

For example, he might ask a family where they were the day before high school entrance results were announced on March 16.

He also collected clothing worn at the time of the explosions (or shortly thereafter) that had been stashed away, unwashed, testing it for radiation.

“Although it’s a tedious job to go around and ask for clothing and what have you, even small fractions of information are important,” he said. “You have to accumulate different types of samples … to come up with a bigger, more accurate picture,” said Kimura, who cites the government’s unwillingness to admit that a serious nuclear disaster was a possibility for the reason there are so few medical radiation experts in Japan.

Before the Fukushima accident, the International Commission on Radiological Protection indicated that the level of exposure to radiation in a regular city should be one millisievert of radiation (mSv) per year.

“But after the accident, they said, well, within this sort of situation, up to 20 mSv, so between one and 20 mSv per year is still OK. So the Japanese government can decide where to set the limit,” said Kimura.

“But that’s a political decision.”

Furthermore, he said that making decisions based on radiation exposure from the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – where rates of exposure were in the magnitude of hundreds and thousands of mSv/year – is wrong, as not many were exposed to the lower doses of 20mSv to 100mSv per year.

Based on his own research in Chernobyl (he spoke to Al Jazeera shortly before going there for the seventeenth time), he believes the limit for an adult should be set at five mSv per year.

‘Doctor 100 mSv’

Kimura is one of the experts often cited in the press as the counter-argument to Shunichi Yamashita, a doctor who is also an expert on radiation exposure.

Yamashita, known as “Dr 100 mSv”, has been vilified by anti-nuclear activists for saying that there was little proof that  being exposed to up to 100 mSv/y was particularly harmful.

There are several videos of Yamashita on YouTube stating as much, repeatedly. Sometimes he cracks jokes, saying that Fukushima had become effortlessly famous. He occasionally takes questions from the audience – in one famous incident, Yamashita tells a mother that he wouldn’t be alive long enough to be held accountable for any harm that might come to her child as a result of his recommendations.

“They were not prepared for that [nuclear accident] so it was improvisation from the beginning.”

David Boilley, Chairman of ACRO

Some, such as Hiroshi Iwase, an assistant professor in radiation protection at the High Energy Institute, defend him. Iwase told us that, if he were called upon to comment on the limits of safe radiation exposure, he would say precisely what Yamashita had.

“What he said was based on information that we have from Hiroshima,” said Iwase. “I agree with him, but most people don’t.”

Yamashita did not respond to a request for an interview, but spoke to Der Spiegel in August, when he said he was surprised by how stressed out people were about exposure radiation.

He was also shocked, he said, by how unprepared Fukushima was for a nuclear disaster.

“People in Fukushima did not even know that there were 11 reactors in their region,” said Yamashita. “The medical faculty of the University of Fukushima didn’t have a single specialist in radioprotection medicine.”

Yamashita is also in charge of collecting data from the health questionnaire mailed out to Fukushima residents. Prefectural employees told Al Jazeera that only 21.5 per cent of the population had responded to the survey.

The low rate of response – too low too be scientifically valuable, said Kimura – might be attributable to two things. First is that many residents seem not to like the fact that Yamashita is in charge of dealing with their data (a citizen group tried have him removed from the post).

The other is that some Fukushima residents do not trust the government with their health data, and feel that they’re being used as test subjects.

Yuichiro Saito, whose children were among many asked by school officials to carry a display-less Geiger meter for a month, said many parents did not allow their children to wear them. “They do not want them to be guinea pigs for the government,” he said.

‘Improvisation from the beginning’

When it comes to exposure to radiation, communities were either overlooked or received mixed messages. 

“The people don’t trust the authorities any more. They said that the power plants were safe and they turned out not to be safe, and then they made the mistake of not evacuating people soon enough,” said Boilley.

“And the authorities [didn’t] trust the population at the beginning … they considered the population as children, not adults who can understand the risks.” Evacuating people, he said, is expensive, and at this point, “money dominates the decisions” – decisions officials have been making on the fly. 

“They were not prepared for that [nuclear accident] so it was improvisation from the beginning,” he said.

More features from D. Parvaz on Japan

undefined Frustration dominates in Fukushima
undefined Japan’s radiation: Ignorance isn’t bliss
undefined Japan fights its own bureaucracy to rebuild
undefined Nuclear plant clear up to take decades 
undefined Fighting for a radiation-free Japan 

undefined Nuclear safety: A dangerous veil of secrecy

He added that the government was starting to come around, but it remains hard to tell if it will earn people’s trust after some serious missteps.

The village of Kawauchi, for instance, within 30km of the Daiichi plant, was evacuated and residents taken to Koriyama, outside the evacuation zone. What authorities failed to note was the the radiation level in Koriyama was higher than that of Kawauchi.

The 6,000 residents of Iitate village did not get much clarity either.

One of the village’s former residents (now evacuated), who did not want to be named, said that Tweets sent out shortly after the explosions at the plant indicated that it was assumed that the village had already been evacuated.

It had not.

This prompted some of the younger residents in Iitate to tweet appeals for media coverage, calling attention to their situation.

He said from March 15 to 18, they were seeing media reports of high radiation in the area, but the government, which many older members of the community trusted, kept saying that everything was “fine”.

A diary created by a community group obtained by Al Jazeera includes a timeline of official communication with the village. It shows that, starting March 25 – ten days after the third explosion – the government sent a doctor to speak with residents, telling residents there was no reason for concern.

“Not only did he not say that there wasn’t a problem, he also told us we could eat local produce,” said the former Iitate resident. Then Yamashita came to Iitate [PDF] and told people that there was no evidence that being exposed to up to 100mSv in a year was harmful.

Near the end of March, officials also told Iitate residents that schools would be re-opened, but then they hinted on April 11 that they were considering evacuating the village. The formal recommendation to evacuate Iitate did not come until April 22 – five weeks after the third hydrogen explosion at the nuclear plant.

It took authorities about three months to evacuate the village, where, a year after the disaster, the soil still contains ten times the acceptable amount of Caesium-137.

“There will be no farming in Iitate anymore, but to keep the town on the map, the government will no doubt try to create some industry there, so that they will continue to get funding from the [national] government,” said the former resident.

“But Iitate, I think, is finished.”

Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @DParvaz

Additional reporting for this article was done from Doha, Qatar.

Source: Al Jazeera