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Reticent government to blame as new media tell true nuclear story

Dear Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano and Environment Minister Goshi Hosono,

The rise of the Internet has allowed more and more people to turn to nontraditional media, such as blogs, feeds or wiki forums, for information. While there is often a heightened need to scrutinize and corroborate information from such sources, these new media sources serve an important role when traditional sources disappoint.

In post-Fukushima Japan, the government and nuclear industry “expertitioners” often claim that bloggers and tweeters monitoring the crisis have fanned the flames of mistrust and impeded reconstruction and recovery efforts. Yet, in too many cases, nontraditional sources were the only ones that revealed the extent of contamination in certain areas, the severity of the Fukushima disaster, the consequent risks, and the presence of food contamination the government’s own monitoring failed to detect.

Prominent examples that come to mind include:

• Petitions tens of thousands of parents of young children in the Tokyo area signed, forcing the metropolitan government to begrudgingly measure ground-level radiation at 100 locations around Tokyo in June 2011.

• Crowd-sourced measurements by the Radiation Defense Project across the Kanto region exposed soil contamination in some locations so severe it would have triggered evacuations after the Chernobyl crisis.

• A farm cooperative in Fukushima detected contaminated rice in several areas a month after the government declared all Fukushima rice safe based on the results of its spotty and resource-poor testing system.

• A citizen group monitoring Meiji baby milk formula found radioactive cesium at levels that some organizations, such as the German Society for Radiation Protection, consider unsafe for human consumption. Meiji disregarded the information for two weeks, branding the citizen group’s results as unreliable, before having to pull the product from shelves.

• After an examination of the thyroid glands of more than 38,000 Fukushima youths, the prefectural authorities reported abnormal growths in 0.5 percent of those tested. Various groups, including the Vancouver-based Peace Philosophy Centre, have, however, challenged the prefecture’s definition of abnormal growth — more than 5 mm — as inadequate. The center cites cases of thyroid cancer in Chernobyl that emerged years later from abnormal growths that were much smaller one year after that disaster. When accounting for such smaller growths in the Fukushima study, the 0.5 percent figure rises to 35 percent.

These examples illustrate a point that your government doesn’t grasp: In the Internet age, if the information is out there — and it is — concerned and motivated groups or individuals will find and widely disseminate it. Aware of this, many global companies now refrain from trying to choke off the spread of information and rather adopt full disclosure, muting alarmists that may further damage their reputations.

Instead of blaming skeptics for generating “harmful rumors,” the government should look in the mirror to see who is encouraging such rumors. Lies, obfuscation of data, delayed release of information, and qualified statements intended to only imply safety but really to limit liability are like oxygen to a fire, guaranteeing it will spread. Better to smother it with a blanket of disclosure.

The government needs to confront its bumbling dishonesty and regain public trust. For a start, it must expand food tests that in the past year Nobutaka Ishida of the Norinchukin Research Institute has found total only 1 percent of those Belarus (affected by contamination from Chernobyl) has conducted in the same period.

It must require waste companies, which were awarded contracts to burn disaster-area rubble with little or no competitive bidding, to fit incinerators with filters capable of capturing radioactive particles. It must ensure openness among medical professionals and institutions, and with citizens, regarding data on health effects as they emerge.

And it must resist rushing any reactor restart until it truly accounts for lessons learned from Fukushima and formulates a feasible, long-term plan to shift Japan’s energy sector toward renewables.

DAVID POSTILION
Chicago

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