Home > Japan, Special Report > Part II: Town in Fukushima “safe” – politicians said so

Part II: Town in Fukushima “safe” – politicians said so

April 10, 2012

Minister of the Environment Goshi Hosono, also responsible for the recovery of the nuclear disaster. He is the same minister who wants radioactive debris burnt all over Japan. Source AJW

Part II, continued from April 9, 2012 “Town in Fukushima ‘safe’ – politicians said so” (click here to read part I first)

Plant Safety

“Leaks” and low levels of water at reactor No. 2 in recent weeks cast doubt on the current safety of the plants, with “cooling water up to only 60 centimeters from the bottom, far below the 10 meters estimated when the government declared the plant stable in December,” said the Japan Today. The NY Times also reported that an internal investigation showed the “badly damaged uranium fuel might not be completely submerged and, therefore, is in danger of heating up (see here). Tepco is not even certain the levels of melted fuel or water in the inner vessel of the No. 2 reactor. “The plant is continuing to pump water into the reactor.” If the cooling system is fine, then why is water being “pumped” in? There is also the little matter of earthquakes, and the plant still “remains vulnerable to strong aftershocks and tsunami,” which is what the chief at the plant said himself (see here). Is this what Minister Hosono considers “a low risk” to the communities living nearby?

Despite the government’s and Tepco’s claims to the contrary, the plant itself and nearby towns are at risk if further problems occur. This is not hypothetical. There is still radiation escaping the plant. Reactor No. 2 is the epitome of disaster with virtually no water and measuring 72 sieverts – it only takes a few seconds to receive a lethal dose at that rate. The other two reactors are inaccessible, and the equipment to decommission them has not yet been invented. kids and teachers are studying at a school a little over 20 km (12 miles) away. Not to worry. Hosono says the risk is “low.”

Returning to Hosono’s comments, preventing exposure to radiation does not appear to be the government’s priority. For instance, the Yomiuri had this to say on April 2:

With the lifting of the restrictions for no-entry zones (within a 20-kilometer radius of the crippled plant), Kawauchi will be made up of zones being prepared for residents’ return (annual radiation exposure of 20 millisieverts or lower) and those with restricted residency (above 20 millisieverts to 50 millisieverts).

These numbers are not small doses of radiation by any measure. If one goes by the 50 mSv/y, it would mean that in two years the person would absorb 100 mSv, the level at which scientists agree there is an increased risk for cancers. Even at 20 mSv that would take just five years. Using the NRC’s high figure of 3.1 mSv/y of exposure to Americans, that would mean people exposed to 50 mSv/y would get roughly 16 times the normal dose. At 20 mSv/y that comes to about 6.5 times the normal dose (see NRC data here). These are per year figures, and cumulative exposure  at these rates is anything but ideal. The town of Kawauchi does register lower readings, but to Hosono and the Japanese government, the numbers represent an acceptable risk.

Perhaps it is best the Yomiuri did not discuss radiation in detail in its article. It might ruin the fantasy-like story of “rebirth” and happy children returning home. In June 2011 the government announced it had detected strontium in towns nearby the plant

Of the 11 locations, Namie’s Akogi district had the most accumulation, registering 250 becquerels of strontium-90 and 1,500 becquerels of strontium-89 per kilogram of soil.

One of those locations was Kawauchi. The government was not worried because “at the levels found, the substance is not a health hazard.” Even if it is in the food the government insists it is not a problem. “When considering strontium’s presence in food grown in contaminated soil, as long as people adhere to the permissible limits for cesium, they won’t have to worry about the influence of strontium.” This despite professor Hideo Yamazaki at Kinki University saying “strontium is extremely difficult to measure,” and that it is highly unlikely farmers or gardeners have the specialised tools to detect such substances. They can rest assured that all food is being thoroughly for caesium, strontium and other isotopes – or can they? No. Only a fraction of the food in the Tohoku area is even tested, with the fish coming under special criticism by Greenpeace for inadequate testing (see here). The testing is not much better on land, with insufficient personnel and a gross lack of equipment.

The government allows people to grow food in radioactive soil, which it says is safe. Their food test results focus on caesium, and little if any information is available on strontium, which may or may not be present. Strontium-90 is a concern because its half-life is 29 years. also, “internal exposure to Sr-90 is linked to bone cancer, cancer of the soft tissue near the bone, and leukemia,” says the EPA (see here). The only Japanese entity that saw any reason to be cautious was the Nuclear Safety Commission: “It is necessary to study at each site whether the strontium is not stirred up from the soil,” otherwise it might be inhaled. Not to worry. Parents can now rest assured their children will never stir up the soil when they go outside. Even if they do, Murphy’s Law has no application in Japan. Whatever happens, no matter how great the problem or amount/type of radiation found, it will always be safe – at least with “no immediate health effects,” that infamous cliché.

This raises further questions. In April the government changed its standards on acceptable levels of caesium ingestion from 500 Bq/kg to 100 Bq/kg. This flip-flopping caused residents all over Japan to wonder why the food they had eaten up to March 31 was is now considered unsafe. Did any of it contain strontium? If so at what levels? Such information is not forthcoming. There is also the concern of strontium in the groundwater. The 12 tonne “leak” of water in early April 2012 contained strontium and, whilst it is not known where all of it went, it would not be wrong to ask if it or any other amounts of radioactive water have got into the water table (the WSJ did in June 2011, see here). What sort of implications would that have on nearby populations? No need to worry. Readers of the Yomiuri can be assured these annoying questions need not be asked.

In part III we shall look at the political decision to expose people to radiation and its possible implications.

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