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Fukushima: health disaster or PR fail?

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One thing about having a nuclear accident in a rich country is that at least there is going to be good medical care and long-term monitoring. The repair and clean-up operation is another matter, of course — which is why Japan is currently under pressure to accept help from abroad in fixing the appalling mess caused by the three reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

But having great monitoring, assessment and medical treatment of citizens is one thing. It is quite another making sure information is communicated to the public clearly and openly. That is something at which neither the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), nor the Japanese government have succeeded at all well. And without good communication, fear and misinformation about radiation can understandably grow.

I was talking about this last week with Gerry Thomas, who runs the Chernobyl Tissue Bank (CTB) at Imperial College London. The CTB collects and analyzes samples of tissue from people exposed to radiation after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the USSR (present-day Ukraine) in 1986, and monitors the occurrence of thyroid cancer in contaminated areas.

About Fukushima, she is dismissive of the health risks. That might seem cavalier to people in the Tohoku region of northeastern Honshu who are worried about radiation contamination, but Prof. Thomas has seen what happened in Chernobyl — which released far more radiation than Fukushima has to date.

“Fukushima is nothing compared to Chernobyl,” she told me. “It really is nothing, it’s a tenth of the dose of cesium.” (For the World Nuclear Association report on this, see bit.ly/17urZKd)

The problem in Japan, she says, is more one of communication than public health.

“They’ve got a huge problem out there — largely a PR problem; it’s not a health problem because none of this is going to do anything health-wise,” the professor said.

Our conversation came about because I’d seen a news clip on NHK reporting 18 cases of thyroid cancer in a monitored population around Fukushima.

Fukushima Medical School monitors some 360,000 people who were aged 18 or younger at the time of the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. What you might conclude from the report — but you’d be mistaken — is that there is a direct link between the cases of cancer and the release of radioactive material following the meltdown. I asked for Thomas’ opinion.

What we don’t know, she told me, is whether these thyroid cancers are to do with the environment in Fukushima — or whether there is something about the genetics of the people monitored.

We also don’t know, she pointed out, whether the frequency is similar to that seen in other areas of Japan. In Chernobyl (where children were exposed to more than 100 times the maximum dose of radioactive iodine seen after Fukushima), thyroid cancers did not present themselves until four or five years after the disaster.

“Given what we know about radiation dose and time elapsed since the accident,” says Thomas, “I personally cannot see how this finding can be related to the radiation — the doses were too low and the time too short, based on what we know from Chernobyl.”

She directed me to a recent scientific paper reporting the results of radiation monitoring of adults and children around Fukushima. The paper, published in Proceedings of the Japanese Academy, Series B (which you can see for yourself; DOI reference: 10.2183/pjab.89.157), reports on the whole-body radiation screening of nearly 33,000 people.

“Internal exposure levels of residents are much lower than estimated,” write Ryugo Hayano and colleagues of the University of Tokyo.

In the town of Miharu, about 50 km from the stricken power plant, Hayano’s team monitored 95 percent of schoolchildren (aged 6-15). The radioactive cesium in the bodies of all the children was below the detection limit. In other words, they are emphatically not eating food contaminated with radiation.

This sort of nonsensational, reassuring result isn’t something that will generally get reported by NHK or other media outlets.

We are all exposed to radiation, all the time (this fantastic dose chart makes it clear: xkcd.com/radiation) There is, however, a special fear of radiation that is introduced to the environment by human activities. But that fear can get out of hand. Far more radiation was released in the Chernobyl disaster than has been so far from the Fukushima plant, but even the Chernobyl disaster — the world’s worst — can be put into context.

“If you compare Chernobyl with what we allowed to escape into the atmosphere as a result of the nuclear tests in the Nevada desert, that was far, far more than Chernobyl,” Thomas says. “We’ve got a short-term memory about things like this. Instead of looking back and saying, ‘What do we know from exposures in the past?’ we just panic about the next one.”

Her advice: Talk to people.

The Japanese authorities — whether officials from Tepco, the government or monitoring agencies, or academics — ought to be open and learn to communicate better.

As Thomas puts it: “They have got to talk to the local population, they have got to talk to the fishermen, and they’ve got to make people understand that low levels of radiation don’t matter because we’re all exposed to it all the time.”

Rowan Hooper (@rowhoop on Twitter) is the News Editor of New Scientist magazine. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human).”

  • Sam Gilman

    Wow. Japan Times actually allows a scientist with expertise in radiation and health a voice! Well done. Seriously. This article is greatly appreciated.

  • charlesjannuzi

    Isn’t really addressing the status of the rod pile or the melted down cores. This is mostly about the exposure due to the explosions and emissions in the first few weeks of the crisis.

    Until you can start to give detailed info. on the melted down cores and the rod pile in No. 4, you are for the most part blowing smoke and confusing people.

  • rideforever

    Gerry Thomas is doing a great job !
    This is how you become a successful scientist in 2013 … you say exactly what the industry wants you to say. “Yeah, Fukushima – no problem, no nothing to worry about, radiation – nah, forget it … everything is fine. 6 reactor meltdown – don’t worry !!”
    In this way, Thomas ensures she will be funded by big business in the future who will pay for her “research”; because they know she will find “the right thing”.
    And that’s how mankind does business.

  • $3849430

    I had a “vision” that it would take 60-65 yrs. for the Fukushima accident to wipe out Japan. It “said” now would be a good time for a Japanese to emigrate to New Zealand.

  • philippesama

    There are clearly 2 attitudes in front of the Fukushima disaster. Both have, or claim to have, a “scientific” approach. Every serious citizen should consider carefully each of the 2 positions. Since science is apparently unable to decide simply and clearly between the 2 protagonists, it is good to look for other explanations. It is disturbing to see that many “specialists” are directly dependent on the nuclear industry. Their “research” and their “reports” are generously funded by the designers, manufacturers and operators of nuclear power plants. Similarly the “authorities”, in particular members of the Government, receive aid and support of same industry. In front of them, there are repentant who prefer risking their careers, if not their lives, to finally say what they know. In front of them there are revolted victims who have direct experience of suffering allegedly impossible. In front of them there are ordinary humans who have no other interest than their own lives and those of their families, who have no other means than the energy of despair. There are also many other differences. I hope that more and more men will finally think about the real reasons for all these lies, and in the future of humanity. The answers are complex, and television never gives true explanations.

  • billsimpson

    The only people in serious danger are the people working close to the damaged nuclear reactors, not people miles away from the plant.

  • K. Zoldi

    1. The article says: “Fukushima is nothing compared to Chernobyl,” she
    told me. “It really is nothing, it’s a tenth of the dose of cesium.” –
    Is it really? Somebody please explain to me, just HOW EXACTLY was this
    “fact” (???) established, since the radiation-measuring gauges were
    BLOWN TO SMITHEREENS during the explosions of the reactors at the
    plant… Not to mention the REAL fact, that Chernobyl was only ONE
    reactor versus FUkushima’s THREE, and let’s not forget to add the loaded
    Spent Fuel Pools, especially the one at the No. 3 (MOX) reactor, which
    did not exactly come out unscathed from the explosion…

    2. Even the data by “SPEEDY” could not be considered reliable immediately
    after the accident, due to the large number of radiation gauges destroyed
    during the explosions… So, just HOW are these low figures to be
    trusted, please?

    3. In addition, the regrettable INCOMPETENCE of the worldwide news-media certainly has not been helping either…

  • El Anon

    rest your mind at ease. As Abe said: “some may have concerns about Fukushima. I can assure you. Everything is under control.” Now you’re under control. Yah, you do what we tell ya’. Ya you’re under control. Yah, you do what we tell ya.

  • philippesama

    “Nuclear power is a hell of a way to boil water.” Albert Einstein is as objectionable as you and me, but infinitely more credible as a scientist than many other …

    Just two important remarks to the debate:

    If I am not mistaken, the only thing that a nuclear plant is essential is making plutonium. And what is it for, plutonium?

    And only 10% of the world’s energy comes from nuclear power, it is quite negligible. And this share has been declining steadily for several years! Happy;-)

  • Toolonggone

    “Fukushima: health disaster or PR fail?”

    For volunteer workers at the Daiichi Nuclear power plants, it’s the former. They are working in the excessively stressful environment in which they put their life on the line of duty due to the risk of exposure to high radiation in the facility.

    For most of us in Japan and around the world, it’s the latter. Unlike Chernobyl, Fukushima is located on the coast side. Most radioactive materials spewed from the reactors in the first 9 months since 3/11 were blown off to the Pacific Ocean–not toward the inland. That’s why evacuation order was limited to certain areas of Fukushima, plus small warnings about the radiation hotspots outside the prefecture. Government’s mishandling of crisis situation and progress report on decontamination did nothing to debunk the myth or exaggeration made by foreign media. It actually led to induce the fear or phobia toward radiation, by creating the stigma toward local residents who have lived in the community nearby the nuclear power plant, and volunteer workers who are working 24/7 days at crippled facilities in no-man’s land until today.

  • GRLCowan

    The Japanese electorate chose the least antinuclear government it could.

    “Largely a PR problem; it’s not a health problem” — for the Japanese government, and its friendly news outlets, is it really a problem at all? If its natural gas tax rates are typical, that government is gaining half a billion dollars for every month that it can keep Japan’s citizens’ nuclear power stations offline.

  • charlesjannuzi

    http://enenews.com/gundersen-spent-fuel-rods-break-during-removal-process-fukushima-unit-4-racks-distorted-fuel-overheated-pool-boiled-suspects-will-be-stuck-long-long-time-audio

    Alex Smith, Host: In a previous Radio Ecoshock interview you said that the Japanese should start unloading nuclear fuel bundles from Reactor 4 as a priority before that building collapses. Are they doing it?

    Arnie Gundersen, Nuclear expert with Fairewinds Energy Education: Well, they’re planning as of November to begin to do it, so they’ve made some progress on that. I think they’re belittling the complexity of the task. If you think of a nuclear fuel rack as a pack of cigarettes, if you pull a cigarette straight up it will come out — but these racks have been distorted. Now when they go to pull the cigarette straight out, it’s going to likely break and release radioactive cesium and other gases, xenon and krypton, into the air. I suspect come November, December, January we’re going to hear that the building’s been evacuated, they’ve broke a fuel rod, the fuel rod is off-gassing. […]

    I suspect we’ll have more airborne releases as they try to pull the fuel out. If they pull too hard, they’ll snap the fuel. I think the racks have been distorted, the fuel has overheated — the pool boiled – and the net effect is that it’s likely some of the fuel will be stuck in there for a long, long time.

    Smith: I should point out to listeners that you were a fuel rack expert in the nuclear industry, so you know what you’re talking about.

  • charlesjannuzi

    And by the way, they have been working on removing the rods for about a year. If there are no problems, what is taking so long?

  • philippesama

    Old discussion but don’t forget, Fukushima is the worst accident ever happened on earth. NO MORE NUCLEAR.