By Robert Jacobs, Hiroshima Peace Institute

 

In March 2011 as we all watched the explosions at the reactors of Fukushima Daiichi in the Tohoku region of Northern Japan, it was obvious that large areas and populations were being exposed to high levels of radiation from the explosive releases. Primarily citizen driven radiation monitoring helped to determine that the plumes from those explosions fell across areas to the North and Northwest of the plants, as well as out into the Pacific Ocean.

During the last few months, the releases from the plants have been primarily into the groundwater and the sea, consequently the levels of radiation detected in the air throughout the world have been declining. Even as the plants continue to seep radiation into the environment the sense of spreading contamination, at a fever pitch in March, has diminished internationally. However, here in Japan, the understanding of the extent of the contamination and its impact on our lives is growing daily.

Each week has seen the explosion of a new realization of the effects of this entry of radiation into our lives. Stories of iodine in the tap water in Tokyo followed by stories of radiation detected in breast milk, followed by stories of cesium in the urine of children, followed by stories of high cesium levels found in beef—most of which had already been consumed. Each of these realizations, and their discussion in the press, has been followed by outrage and demands that action be taken to protect public health.

Picture courtesy: Getty Images

 

The response of the government of Japan to each newly reported incident has largely been episodic—it focuses on how to address the specifics of the report; promises to monitor the beef supply closely, declarations that the levels of cesium present in children’s urine is too low to be of concern, the removal of some soil around a few schools in Fukushima prefecture. But what has been missing is any sign of an understanding that these are not isolated incidents. The government has been acting as though if it responds to symptoms, it will not have to face the disease. There has been no acknowledgment by the government that large amounts of radiation have entered the environment and that there will be many incidents of it turning up in land, sea, food and people—for years to come. This situation calls for a systematic not an ad-hoc approach.

Parents in Fukushima prefecture have organized to demand that the government do more to protect the health of their children. Many feel betrayed that assurances of safety during the first weeks of the crisis, and subsequent downplaying of the impacts, has increased the amount of radiation to which their children have been exposed. Announcements that some shelters will be closed, and that the voluntary evacuation zone between 20 – 30 kilometers will be removed reinforce perceptions that the government is trying to make the problem “go away” through inaction. The realization among parents that the “dosimeters” that have been given to children do not alert them to the presence of dangerous levels of radiation, but rather record this information for later record keeping, underscore the sense that the protection of the public is not a priority.

The impact of this radioactivity, which continues to enter the environment, will not “go away” because of policy decisions. Just as atChernobyl, and at every other site of radioactive contamination, our awareness of the impact on our ecosystem and ourselves will only grow with time. What we are dealing with is not stories in the press, but the degradation of human life and the natural environment. It is a crisis that demands more than public relations responses—it requires a robust commitment to public health and safety. Instead of monitoring the long-term health of people who are living in areas with high contamination, those people should be moved out of those areas. Instead of tracking where irradiated food has been shipped to, the government needs to establish a very rigorous program of food testing so it doesn’t enter into the food chain.

As much as the Japanese government has been loathe to use the word, the Chernobyl accident should provide a roadmap. In Chernobyl the evacuations removed people from areas with much lower contaminations than have been done at Fukushima, and stations were set up to monitor and decontaminate cars that were fleeing the area. This has not been done in Fukushima and surely radiation has been tracked to outlying areas that could have been prevented. Radioactivity released from Chernobyl has been found to affect grazing animals and food crops hundreds of kilometers away, decades later. This will surely be the case at Fukushima and it is a better strategy to protect public health, and also to protect businesses, to get out in front of this wave in order to assure both safety and the quality of the products being produced. The lack of strategy to test for contamination in fish and farm products has left all products from the area tainted with suspicion and fear. This will not have the result of supporting the local businesses but of undermining them. Fear is much more powerful than denial.

The story of Fukushima has shifted. It is still essential to stop the entry of radioactivity into the environment, a goal that is at least a year away, and to stabilize the fragile buildings housing spent fuel at the site, but we have begun the period of aftermath. The large amounts of radiation that have already entered the environment will have diverse and devastating effects on the people, communities and nature of Northeast Asia. We need to work swiftly to limit this damage as much as is possible, and to remedy what we are able. Denial will not serve the public interest. The government of Japan needs to enact a comprehensive strategy of honestly confronting the radiological consequences of the Fukushima meltdowns, and be proactive, not reactive, in protecting public health. This problem is not going away. We can face it now, or face it in hindsight, in which case the human toll will have been needlessly increased.