Earlier this year, NHK rebroadcast a documentary it made in the late 1980s about the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident. It showed how the Soviet Union and European countries tested people for effects of radiation throughout the region. Appended to the doc was a discussion with experts who compared the accident with the one that happened at the Fukushima No. 1 reactor in 2011, implying that Fukushima wasn’t as dire as Chernobyl but stopping short of saying it was nothing to worry about. As long as radiation levels and residents’ health were continually monitored, the situation could be managed.
Still, the documentary left a chilling impression, if only for its repeated use of the phrase “ashes of death” (shi no hai). Though the commentary was meant to be reassuring in that Fukushima was presented as being less dangerous than Chernobyl, where radioactive ash actually fell from the sky, the language conveyed the feeling that any nuclear accident is potentially deadly and the farther it is from your backyard the more dramatic you can be in describing it.
It follows that you should be less dramatic in your own neighborhood. Remember how after the Fukushima accident then-Minister of Economy Trade and Industry Yoshio Hachiro was pilloried for calling the evacuated area “cities of death”? Even now you have to be cautious about making any public pronouncements regarding the safety situation in the affected regions.
There is a group of self-appointed social-media police who audit related information coming from the press for anything that might cause anxiety. Their main target is the foreign media, which, in line with the above-mentioned credo about backyards, are seen to be carelessly “sensational” in their coverage. This group denies it is trying to censor the news. It only demands the press be “responsible,” but the end result is much the same as far as the affected people are concerned. The argument this group advances, that there is still no scientific consensus about the long-term effects of radiation on the human body, has no traction with the residents of Fukushima. If there is the slightest possibility that even low-level exposure is harmful, they want to know.
On Nov. 1 the mayor of Minamisoma in Fukushima Prefecture, Katsunobu Sakurai, who became world famous after posting a YouTube video calling for help shortly after the accident, spoke to reporters at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan and blasted the government, business community and media for acting as if the accident were a tragedy the country has already gotten over. Sakurai was talking about the push to restart nuclear power plants, which requires that the Fukushima story be closed, but he was also suggesting that cleanup cannot proceed smoothly until everyone recognizes it as something that is not only necessary for people in the contaminated areas, but vital to the interests of Japan.
The domestic media has been vague about what the cleanup (josen) entails, except to say that irradiated waste is being shipped to other localities that don’t want it. Again, it was foreign media that first explained the difficulties involved. Last February the New York Times and CBS News, to name just two, ran stories that described how no one carrying out the cleanup at the time knew what they were doing.
Several weeks ago, NHK broadcast a new documentary that detailed the effort so far. In fact, it focused on Minamisoma, which lies just outside the evacuation area but in the path of the radiation drift from the crippled reactors. Though residents weren’t forced to evacuate, many did, especially if they had children, and they were impatient to commence with cleanup operations, which started in a piecemeal fashion a year ago. Immediately, the residents realized the problems they faced, not just in terms of physical work — it takes one hour to clean 10 sq. meters — but in terms of measuring achievement. Their target radiation level of 0.23 microsieverts/hour turned out to be elusive. After cleaning, some areas were below the target while others were above it, and these levels kept shifting with time. “You can’t remove radiation just by cleaning once,” said Tatsuhiko Kodama of the University of Tokyo, who was advising residents. “You need at least three cycles to understand where radiation is concentrated.”
The 0.23 level is important because the government will subsidize cleanup when radiation exceeds it but not when it drops below. Some families want to get their levels even lower, so they clean their properties themselves, going as far as destroying gardens and trees, even though the effectiveness isn’t clear. What’s more, contaminated water, soil and vegetation have nowhere to go. The current policy involves moving materials to temporary storage sites while the government works on locating and building a final permanent site, but so far localities chosen for the temporary sites have resisted. Most of the contaminated materials are being stored on the properties from which they were removed.
Meanwhile, costs are skyrocketing, and these localities realize that government guidelines dictating payments don’t apply to the real situation on the ground. As one resident put it, they are “fumbling toward a solution” on their own while the government does nothing. Some localities have come up with their own solutions, but if they use different means than those sanctioned they won’t be reimbursed.
The ramifications of this confusion can be seen in last week’s Asahi Shimbun scoop about companies hired to do cleanup work that have not passed on special allowances the government contributed for workers. Some subcontractors said they never received the allowances from contractors while others passed it on but lowered wages accordingly. In its February article the New York Times reported that commercial interests were exploiting the confusion for their own gain — which isn’t to say that the Asahi is behind the curve, only that when it comes to stories as controversial as this one, better late than never.