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

Part I: Town in Fukushima “safe” – politicans said so

April 10, 2012

The radiation levels on this government made map are difficult for the average person to understand.

Part I (for part II click here, for part III click here).
As reported last week, Kawauchi town is trying to lure its residents back to the area (see our report here). In the latest development students have begun attending school, and there is an effort to return the town to a normal way of life. This may never be possible. The Fukushima Daiichi reactors are leaking radiation just a few miles away. This is irrelevant to some because “the village told more than 2,500 residents that returning to the town outside the areas of the no-go zone was safe.” A third of the town is uninhabitable because it is in the exclusion zone. Does that mean people who live a few feet away from the demarcation line are safe?
The Yomiuri newspaper reported radiation levels are lower due to efforts to decontaminate, coming in at “0.114 to 0.16 microsieverts per hour” near the schools. This translates to an annual exposure of 0.99 mSv/y and 1.40 mSv/y, respectively. No methodology is stated. It is, therefore, impossible to know what type of measurements were used or if they were done properly. For example, were they made with a Geiger counter calibrated to NIST standards, something more sophisticated or were they made by a reporter who just took a quick reading with any old Geiger counter off the internet? To the Yomiuri newspaper these details are not important even though results can using these tools can yield dramatically different results. Their reading might indicate low caesium-137, but what does this actually mean for safety? Detection of radiation is poorly understood by many, and there are a lot of myths out there about Geiger counters (see here). Maybe the Yomiuri did everything correctly. One does not know.
Assuming the Yomiuri’s numbers are correct, this would only account for readings near the schools. No further information is given on other parts of the town. But children and adults (teachers and staff) are exposed to radiation as they leave the areas near the school. What are those levels? The real point of concern is the yearly level of exposure. Simply pointing to levels near a school is like discussing a corner in a 200 room palace. One room may be clean, but the other 199? This is the sort of logic being used, and it is not very helpful. This is Fukushima, the home of the world’s second worst nuclear disaster, after all. Unlike Chernobyl, it is not under control – though the government swear it is.
Government data are virtually impossible for those without a solid background in science to understand, and can be still be confusing to those who do. The numbers, figures and measurements given often obscure the answers to simple questions: How many μSv/h are at point A, B and C? This would help estimate the levels a person would be exposed to in a year. It is a complex matter with numerous factors to take into account (rain, air, ground and water levels etc), but this could be written in a fairly straightforward manner. An Al Jazeera recording of the town around March 8 showed a detection rate of 0.288 μSv/h; this does not match the significantly lower Yomiuri numbers above. There may be a good reason for it, but there is not much to work with. Government data from Kawauchi is more detailed, but some levels appear to be higher and it is by no means an easy read for the non-science person (see here).

The areas around the Fukushima plant had high levels of radiation a year ago. The nearby town of Namie-Machi recorded 11.63 mSv from March 23 to April 4 2011. That excludes the initial radiation from the previous 12 days when the meltdowns and explosions sent untold amounts of radiation in all directions. According to a report released by EX-SKF, the measured amount would “almost [be] exceeding the OSHA 90-day limit for radiation worker of 12,500 microsieverts in 14 days” (see here). Namie-Machi is right next to Namie, which may sound familiar because it is the area whose residents the government refused to release SPEEDI forecasts to, resulting in their evacuating to an even worse location (Tsushima) and being completely unprepared for exposure – they were directly hit by large fallout (see here). Women were gathering cooking water and children were playing outside as the radiation arrived, and this was completely avoidable.

What is the distance from the elementary school in Kawauchi to the town of Namie-Machi? Not very far. Google Earth put it about 15 km (23 miles) away, and it too was exposed to a lot of fallout and had an evacuation (see map). The town of Kawauchi has since undergone a decontamination process, but about one-third of the town is still in the 20 km exclusion zone; there are police roadblocks to keep people out, but otherwise it is not possible to tell which area is more radioactive by looking at a cornered off street.

Some of Kawauchi’s residents only moved about 10 to 20 km away (about 40 km from the plant), still well inside the 80 km (50 mile) zone the NRC recommended Americans stay away from. The implication being that Japanese DNA somehow has a greater tolerance for radiation. In other words, radiation does not affect Japanese, only Americans. Is there some biological difference between “American DNA” and “Japanese DNA”? This racial theory may sound ridiculous, but this is what the Japanese basically told the world when they put a 20 km (12 miles) and the Americans 80 km (50 miles). It was divided among “race” and nationality. There are a few other plausible explanations: negligence or outright denial of the effects of radiation by the Japanese; the Americans were overreacting and there was no need to evacuate their citizens. That, however, is less likely because the Americans kept the evacuation advisory in place until the end of September after several updates.

Regardless of what one thinks of the evacuation zone, the elementary school for the town of Kawauchi is just about 20 km (12 miles) away from the disaster ridden plant, according to maps. In September the government decided to adjust the evacuation areas and allow residents to return to areas as close as 3 km away from the plant, albeit with varying restrictions and not necessarily to live. Environment Minister Goshi Hosono explained why: “There is low risk of further hydrogen explosions and cooling system failures at the Fukushima plant.” Putting aside the debate on what the explosions were and what caused them, Hosono’s comments make it look as if the cooling systems and the fuel are stable. Are they?

These and other questions will be looked at in parts II and III of this story. For Part II click here, for part III click here.

Civis Journal

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