Not enough whole body counters to go around

Public denied access to devices that check internal radiation levels

by Minoru Matsutani

Staff Writer

The health department in Kashiwa,
a city in Chiba Prefecture
with multiple radiation hot spots,
has received numerous inquiries
from worried residents wanting
to find out their internal radiation
levels.

Kashiwa official Seiichi So meya
says he understands their concerns,
especially when it involves
parents with small children, but
he still has to ask them to wait.

“We want to (conduct radiation
checks) and are holding
discussions with a radiation research
institute, but there is no
concrete plan yet,” he said.

People who want to measure
their internal radiation exposure
are unlikely to have access to a
whole body counter — the expensive
high-tech piece of machinery
used to check radiation
inside the human body — unless,
that is, they live in certain
areas in Fukushima Prefecture.

A whole body counter is the
only machine for measuring
internal radiation, and typically
comes in the shape of a chair or
a bed, on which a person is required
to either sit or lie still. The
longer the person remains still,
the more precise the device’s
reading becomes.

The Fukushima Prefectural
Government conducted internal
radiation exposure checks on about
3,000 people in Iitate, Na mie and
part of Kawamata from late June to
the end of August, in cooperation
with radiation research institutes
that own whole body counters.

Preliminary checks of 122
people in the prefecture from
June 27 to mid-July found excessive
internal radiation levels in
some of the residents. The prefectural
government disclosed
the results of 109 people who
underwent the checkup by July
10, and 58 of them had internal
exposure exceeding the minimum
detectable level — 320
becquerels of radioactive cesium-
134 and 570 becquerels of
radioactive cesium-137.

The highest level found was
about 4,000 becquerels of cesium-
137, which for adults roughly
translates to 0.052 millisieverts
over a person’s entire life. The
widely accepted threshold beyond
which the risk of cancer
increases is 100 millisieverts, but
the health effects of small radiation
doses remain unknown.

There are at least 106 whole
body counters in Japan, according
to research by a government
panel on helping victims of the
nuclear accident. Power companies
have 49 of the machines
at their nuclear plants, although
four at the leaking Fukushima
No. 1 complex, another four at
the Fukushima No. 2 plant and
one of the two devices at the
Onagawa nuclear plant in Miyagi
Prefecture were damaged in the
March 11 disasters and are out
of commission. Hospitals and
research institutes own the rest.

Kazue Suzuki, a Greenpeace
Japan official, has called for radiation
checks using whole body
counters to be carried out on everybody
in Fukushima and its
neighboring prefectures.

“We checked the urine of 10
randomly selected people in the
city of Fukushima, which is not
designated as an area where residents
have to evacuate, and all
10 of the samples were found to
contain radioactive cesium. That’s
a big warning sign,” Susuki said.

But municipalities outside Fukushima
Prefecture haven’t been
checking residents’ internal radiation
levels and have no plans to
do so anytime soon, claiming it
is an unnecessary measure.

“The central government
leaves the decision on checking
residents’ internal exposure up to
municipalities,” said Hirotaka Oku
of the technology ministry, adding
that it has no plans to order or
import any whole body counters.

As for companies and institutions
that own whole body counters,
the devices are only used on
those who are strongly suspected
of having been exposed to
excessive radiation, and not in
low-risk cases involving healthy
people who want to learn their
level of exposure.

Hospitals may also be unwilling
to provide radiation checks
for healthy people. For example,
Kitasato University Hospital in
Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture,
has a whole body counter,
but says on its website that
it only treats patients who are
known to have been overexposed
to radiation. The hospital
doesn’t accept requests from
healthy people who just want
to check their internal radiation
level, according to its website.

Although high levels of radiation
have been detected in northwest
Chiba Prefecture, there are
no plans to check residents’ internal
radiation levels, said Keiko Inoue,
an official in the prefectural
government’s health section.

“We will monitor the results of
Fukushima’s radiation checks,”
Inoue said.

Masahiro Fukushi, a radiation
professor at Tokyo Metropolitan
University, said checks using
a whole body counter on residents
in Kashiwa — even though
radiation levels in the city are
higher than most parts of Japan,
excluding Fukushima Prefecture
? would be ineffective, as their
level of exposure is too low for
the device to record accurately.

“If a person sits still on a
whole body counter for 24 hours,
the result may be precise, but (a
24-hour test) is highly unrealistic,”
Fukushi said.

In Tokyo, meanwhile, metropolitan
government official
Shigenobu Nakamura said the
city’s radiation levels in the atmosphere,
soil, water and food
are so low that checking residents’
internal radiation levels is
at present unnecessary.

“But if radiation in food and
the environment increases, we
will consider checking internal
doses,” he added.

While worried parents can’t
rely on municipalities to check
them and their children for internal
radiation exposure — except
in Fukushima Prefecture
? and are unlikely to persuade
institutes that own whole body
counters to use the devices on
them, there could be a more
fundamental problem — Japan
may not have enough whole
body counters in working order.

Besides the nine unusable
ones at nuclear plants in Fukushima
and Miyagi prefectures,
it is unknown how many of the
other machines are currently
out of order, said Shozo Hongo,
a spokesman for the National
Institute of Radiological Science.

The institute, which helped
Fukushima Prefecture carry out
its preliminary checks on 122
residents, has three whole body
counters, but only one of them
is suitable for people who aren’t
engaged in work — or affected
by other factors — that could put
them at a higher risk of radiation
exposure, Hongo said.

The second device is for research
purposes only and can’t be
used on humans, while the results
of the third whole body counter
are at present imprecise and the
machine must be thoroughly inspected,
Hongo said.

Tokyo Electric Power Co.,
which has four whole body counters
at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear
plant in Niigata Prefecture,
only uses them for workers at the
plant and has no plans to make
them available to the general
public, said Hajime Motojuku, a
spokesman for the utility.

Tepco’s eight whole body
counters at the Fukushima No.

1 and No. 2 plants are either still
broken or don’t produce reliable
data due to high ambient
radiation at the sites, according
to research undertaken by the
government’s panel on helping
nuclear accident victims.

However, “Not having enough
whole body counters isn’t a good
enough excuse. The government
can ask other countries to lend
Japan the machines. I’m sure we
would get plenty,” said Greenpeace’s
Suzuki.

The Fukushima Prefectural
Government’s preliminary
checks on 122 residents in Iitate,
Namie and Kawamata were used
to work out a smooth procedure
for conducting the checkups.

Once the procedure was established,
the prefecture conducted
a second round of checkups
on 2,800 residents from the
three locations between July 11
and Aug. 31.

The prefecture notified residents
of their exposure levels
the same day they had their
checkup, and plans to publicly
announce the results later in
September in a manner that will
respect people’s personal privacy,
prefectural health official
Yoshifumi Baba said.

The prefecture started a third
round of checkups Sept. 1 and is
currently measuring the internal
radiation doses of 10 percent of
residents in another seven municipalities.

The checks will be
expanded in the future to cover
more areas, according to Baba.

The Fukushima Municipal
Government, meanwhile, plans
to buy this year a vehicle with a
whole body counter — costing
¥105 million — from U.S.-based
maker Canberra, city official
Tsuneyoshi Watanabe said.

The city will try to check all
residents who wish to be tested,
but will prioritize children and
people who live in areas where
especially high levels of radiation
have been recorded.