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Japanese adults and children in Fukushima told to endure radiation on par with nuclear plant workers

March 29, 2012

This map illustrates the distance between the Daiichi nuclear power plant and the Kawauchi office. It comes in at 20km. Some parts of the town are within the exclusion zone.

Kawauchi, a small town in Fukushima prefecture, had to be evacuated due to its proximity to the radiation coming out of the plant. One year later, several hundred people have returned, or what represents roughly 1/12th of the 3,000 residents who used to live there.

The idea, it appears, is that the town is supposed to return to normal. The municipal office has been reopened, and “elementary and junior high schools are set to reopen” in April, says the Mainichi newspaper. The Mainichi  quotes an old man who said, “It’s nice that there are a lot of people at the office again.” Surely the people in the disaster area have the right to rebuild their lives, and repopulating a village is an integral part of that.

Unfortunately for those residents, the city of Kawauchi is situated about 20 km from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. That means anyone who lives there will be exposed to levels of radiation that exceed what most safety experts consider to be safe. The levels exceed some areas of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. One would never know it by looking at the positive spin the Mainichi or Japan Today newspapers have given the story. It’s an emotional story of a “rebirth” (reminiscent of the legendary Phoenix ).

The Japan Today newspaper reports: “the village told more than 2,500 residents that” Kawauchi has “levels below 20 millisieverts per year, which it says is safe” (see here). This leads one to believe that the levels are close to 20 mSv. Some of the town lies in the exclusion zone (see here). There is no comment, questioning or anything other than the clause “it says is safe,” and the next sentence which says levels of radiation would need to be reduced further in future. The Japan Times published an article in which it said areas near the plant were between 1 to micrsoieverts, which would average close to 20 mSv per year (3 microsieverts per hourwould be 26 mSv per year. See article here). How is exposure to radiation near 20 mSv per year safe?

Does the city government have a basis for claiming that 20 mSv per year are safe for children? “The average annual radiation exposure from natural sources is about 310 millirem (3.1 millisieverts or mSv),”says the NRC (see link). The NRC is giving a high estimate; many places have levels at 1 mSv per year or lower. Environmentalists and parents often prefer the more conservative figure of 1mSv (see here). However, even at the NRC’s rate, a person would be exposed to 20 mSv in a year, which is over six times the normal recommended background levels. This figure might be reduced a little with decontamination efforts, but that might take years and, in the meantime people will have been exposed to abnormally high levels of natural radiation (not background).

For instance, if the rate of radiation is 20 mSv per year, it would take just five years for a person to be exposed to 100 mSv. Even if the rate is lower, say half that due to decontamination efforts, then it would take ten years to reach 100 mSv, which is a likely scenario under the current plan. In either case, the levels are high because 100 mSv is the point at which a person is more likely to get cancers. With regard to low doses over time, there is not total agreement among scientists, nor is there a high level of understanding. “There’s a point beneath which you just don’t know,” said Dr. Richard Monson in the NY Times, a respected epidemiologist (read here), who is among scientists who use the atomic bomb data in part to support his views (there is not much else to go by). In other words, putting residents in areas with such high levels of radiation is an experiment. It is possible it is “safe” like the people at the Kawauchi office claim, but they are taking a position on a subject that many scientists are saying is anything but clear.

To put it into perspective, workers at American nuclear plants can be exposed to up to 5 rem or 50 milisieverts per year (see here). It is one thing to have limits, but in actual terms of exposure, “Few U.S. nuclear workers ever exceed more than 1 rem [1mSv] of exposure a year,” reported USA Today (see here).  The Japanese standard went up after the disaster because their workers were being exposed to levels that, according to USA Today, are simply not normal in the US (from 100 to 250 milisieverts see here). This is not considered low radiation. “This is a considerable amount of radiation,” CNN quoted G. Donald Frey as saying, who is a  medical physicist and professor of radiology at the Medical University of South Carolina (see here, and he was discussing levels only up to 150 mSv. Note Japanese in Kawauchi may read 100 mSv in a few years).

This map appeared in the Japan Times March 8, 2012 article. It shows the areas and radiation from the Fukushima power plant. Kawauchi lies in a heavily contaminated zone.

This is not theoretical. Exposure to Japanese workers have even exceeded the new limits possibly by a factor of two (see here). In essence, people in Kawauchi will experience levels of radiation way beyond what American plant workers get and may be up there with the extraordinarily high levels Japanese nuclear plant workers are exposed to. Most countries consider radiological exposure  an occupational hazard. Children do not work in plants and are not normally exposed to those levels – not in places outside Japan at least.

Second, the type of radiation in Fukushima is not the same as background radiation – it is a false equivalent says Dr. Christopher Busby. This not exactly the normal type of radiation one might get from normal background radiation. These are alpha, beta and gamma emitters, some of which are not easy to detect, and can wreak enormous damage if put inside the body. Fukushima did not emit just a little bit of solar rays or radon gas. Like a volcano it spewed untold amounts of caesium-134 and 137; add to that plutonium, strontium-90 and many others. Moreover, the exposure standards count external radiation, not what is ingested or inhaled, which could be very serious (see Dr. Busby’s comments at 3:14). In discussing the return of people to their homes now that “cold shutdown” has been declared, “Those people should not return to their homes…this is discourse manipulation,” commented Dr. Busby.

Internal radiation exposure is not probably not theoretical. Of the ten children tested for internal exposure (radiation in their bodies) with a urine test, all had delectable levels. Whilst scientists may argue over the long term ramifications of the on children’s health, the fact is that when they urinate, caesium-137 and caesium-134 is detected. Their ages? Between 6 and 16. Is Article VI of the Convention on the Rights of the Child being respected? It says Japan has a legal obligation to “ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child” (see here). Is that going to happen by exposing children to such high levels of radiation?

Third, the power plant is not stable by any means. It is still emitting radiation, and reports are coming through that plutonium and other substances being detected as far as 45 km away from the plant (Kawauchi town is about 20 km away). It is not inconceivable that some of these isotopes could be there as well. Further, it “leaked” 120 tonnes of radioactive water just a short time ago, and has some of the world’s most contaminated water in the ocean nearby – thanks to earlier “leaks.” If this is stability, then either the Japanese have rewritten the dictionary or the standard against which it is being measured is Chernobyl, which in and of itself is a benchmark for disaster.

A nuclear plant that is a complete wreck and emits radiation constantly just a short distance away can hardly inspire confidence. Only about 200 residents have returned to Kawauchi, an area that for all intense purposes might be as vacant as Chernobyl, if the similar standards were being applied. The Japan Times reported that more than 1,800 refused to return when asked, citing radiation. In true Edward Bernays style, some in the Japanese press – hardly a neutral observer- promotes this re-population by selecting emotionally ridden comments to which we return: “It’s nice that there are a lot of people at the office again.” Is it really? A press that refuses to ask the simple question, “Why is anyone returning to that area?” is hardly an independent source of analysis.  Be it Suzuki’s or Noda’s government, people are expected to sacrifice for the good of the nation. Has anything changed?

Civis Journal

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