User:Cropje/Japan nuclear crisis: citizen groups organise as confidence in authorities wanes

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Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2002
Image: KEI.
Location of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan
Image: Saneef.

Friday, September 9, 2011

In the face of mounting public concern over Japanese authorities’ response to the ongoing radiation emergency at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, unofficial efforts to measure the exposure of the population to dangerous radioactivity are ramping up. The trend comes as a series of recently-published studies suggest public support for nuclear energy in countries such as the UK is holding up despite ongoing confusion over the true health and environmental risks posed by Japan’s nuclear crisis.

Scientists and public health experts have expressed frustration over the slow release of information by Japanese authorities in the six months since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which triggered a series of hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima plant, releasing radioactive particles into atmosphere.

Widespread frustration with the slow official response has seen more and more Japanese scientists join with citizens to collect data and kick-start clean-up efforts in affected areas. Much concern centres on the adequacy of official contamination maps, which are insufficiently detailed to be of much use to local communities.

Shin Aida, a computer scientist at Toyohashi University of Technology, hopes to give a clearer picture of the extent of contamination around the plant through a project called “participatory sensing”. The initiative involves deploying a peer-to-peer website where members of the public can contribute samples from their homes or farms. The samples are tested by a radiation measurement centre, before the results are collated into detailed contamination maps published to the website.

Findings by citizen groups have at times been disconcerting. In the Kanto region, which includes Tokyo, levels of radioactive caesium exceeding those observed in areas contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster have been observed. Readings in one area of Saitama were over 900 000 Becquerels – a level greater than that which resulted in forced relocation after Chernobyl. In parts of Tokyo, Chiba and Ibaraki yielded measurements over 200 000 Becquerels, placing these areas on a par with much of the voluntary exclusion zone established around the Fukushima plant.

Citizen action on identifying radiation exposure in the face of slow release of official information has also taken the form of concerned parents organising private analysis of urine samples from their children. In late August, the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported on a mother in Saitama Prefecture who privately arranged for testing of her daughter’s urine. The results revealed higher than normal concentrations of Caesium 137 – a radioactive isotope with a half-life of over 30 years and one of the main elements released from the Fukushima plant in the wake of the disaster.

In the face of such results, Japanese authorities have contended that such low-level cases of exposure pose no risk to human health. However some experts beg to differ. “We cannot simply state that there are no potential health problems because the amount detected is low,” says Sakiyama Hisako, a doctor and influential radiation health researcher. “We simply do not know what happens when even extremely low levels of radiation move through internal organs, the nervous system, and the brain.”

The latest official data from Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency revises estimates of total radiation released upwards, so that the total estimated releases of caesium-137 are now thought to amount to 17% of those from Chernobyl. Total radiation levels estimated by the Japanese government remain broadly unremarkable – roughly 5-6% of Chernobyl levels.

Meanwhile, it has been revealed that authorities underestimated radiation releases from the crippled plant as part of its initial response, according to a report by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency released this week. The error was attributable in part to untimely rainfall and changes in the direction of the wind around the damaged reactors, which caused radiation to wash down over a broad area instead of being blown out to sea as was initially expected. As a result, residents well outside the mandatory 20-kilometre exclusion zone are likely to have been unnecessarily exposed to radioactive fallout from the stricken plant.

Compounding the problem, the mountainous terrain around the Fukushima Prefecture meant that contaminated rainwater caused radiation to pool in numerous “hot spots”, the true extent of which are even now not fully understood.

Potentially unsafe levels of contaminated are particularly prevalent to the northwest of the exclusion zone – where an official survey of 2200 locations has shown a roughly 35-kilometre-long strip northwest of the plant where contamination appears on a par with areas evacuated after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Authorities’ belated decision to evacuate these areas – which came in late April – has come in for particular criticism both domestically and internationally.

Citizen-based efforts to circumvent the lacklustre official response are also focusing on clean-up efforts in affected communities. In Minamisoma, a city at the edge of the mandatory evacuation zone, residents are organising the removal of topsoil from schools, while similar efforts in Date, to the northwest, have centred on peach farms.

Barriers to unofficial radiation measurements – vital in order to speed up vital clean-up efforts – remain formidable. Bureaucratic hurdles, overstretched local officials and an absence of funding are particular issues for foreign and Japanese researchers wishing to make a contribution.

Some see in ongoing obstructionism from Japanese officials a deliberate attempt to downplay the scale of the problems, as opposed to attempts to simply avoid undue concern among the population. One such critic is Dr Andrew Kanter of Columbia University, a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

"The last six months have shown a continued pattern of secrecy, cover-up, and minimization,” he said on Wednesday. “[The] news media and some so-called authorities have repeated the false information that doses under 100 millisieverts have no health effects. All radiation doses have some effect, particularly when large populations are exposed.”

Kanter also lambasted the Japanese government's decision to increase the maximum allowed dose for citizens of Fukushima (including children) from 1 millisieverts per year to 20 millisieverts. He claims that children are several times more susceptible to radiation. “[This measure] is unacceptable and remains in place despite vehement public and international pressure."

Despite the ongoing confusion over the true environmental and health effects of the Fukushima disaster, public support for nuclear power in countries such as the UK remains strong. A poll conducted by Populus on 2050 people showed that the number of Britons who believed the benefits of nuclear power outweighed the risks had continued to rise over the past year regardless of events in Fukushima.

Support among men (58%) was significantly stronger than women (25%). While it remains unclear whether poor public awareness of the evolving situation in Japan has had any bearing on the result, additional findings suggest the disaster has at the very least prompted a rethink on the risks of nuclear power. While waste management previously figured among the main concerns about nuclear power, that issue has now been replaced by the risk of a major accident.