Editorials

False perceptions cloud Fukushima

Seven years after the triple meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant in 2011, misinformation and groundless rumors about the state of affairs in the prefecture remain persistent and deep-rooted. Consumer concerns over radioactive contamination of agricultural and fisheries products from Fukushima have not been dispelled, even though those products are being shipped to market after rigorous tests confirm no presence of radioactive substance exceeding official limits. A think tank survey pointed to an exaggerated perception among people in Tokyo about the impact on health from radiation exposure after the Tepco plant accident — which might breed prejudice and discrimination against people in and from Fukushima. These problems need to be addressed by repeated efforts to publicly share accurate information.

Earlier this month, an event at a Japanese restaurant in Bangkok featuring flatfish caught off Fukushima Prefecture — the first time fresh marine products from Fukushima were exported since the March 2011 nuclear disaster — was canceled following protests by a local consumer group citing worries over radioactive contamination. Of the more than 50 countries and regions that restricted imports of Japanese foodstuffs after 3/11, roughly half have lifted such measures. But the other half — many in Asia — still maintain strict regulations, such as continued import bans on products from parts of Japan, including Fukushima.

Concerns over safety of farm and marine products from Fukushima continue to persist in Japan as well. In a Consumer Affairs Agency survey of people in major metropolitan areas in February, 12.7 percent of respondents said they hesitate to buy food products from Fukushima because they want to eat foodstuffs not contaminated with radioactive substances. The ratio was in fact the lowest since the survey began in 2013, when 19.4 percent of those polled gave such an answer. However, discriminatory treatment of Fukushima products by retailers persist as they cite consumer concerns. Prices of many Fukushima products, which plummeted in the wake of the disaster, have not recovered to levels prior to 2011.

Such Fukushima products are shipped only after they clear tough screening against radioactive contamination. Since 2015, no Fukushima-grown rice, which is subject to blanket radiation screening, has exhibited levels of radioactive cesium that exceeded the government-set standard. In addition, no locally grown vegetables or fruit, which go through sample testing, have registered cesium levels above the official standard since 2013. Local fishermen operate in specified areas off the coast of Fukushima and catch a limited number of species. They ship only the products that have cleared their own standard that is set at a more stringent level than the state’s guideline.

There are signs of improvement. The European Union has eased its regulations on food imports from Japan, including Fukushima-grown rice. Tourism is also on a recovery path. The number of visitors to the prefecture, including inbound tourists, reached 52 million in 2016 — closing in on the 57 million in 2010.

But equally worrying is the exaggerated perception of the impact of radiation exposure from the Tepco plant accident on public health. In a web-based survey last August by Mitsubishi Research Institute on 1,000 Tokyoites, 53 percent of the respondents said they think there is a high probability of people in Fukushima Prefecture suffering from health problems in the future, such as being diagnosed with cancer due to exposure to radiation from the accident. Nearly 50 percent believed that the health damage will extend to future generations, including to the children and grandchildren of those exposed to radiation.

Such perceptions are not based on scientific grounds. Except in areas where people were told to evacuate, radiation levels in Fukushima Prefecture — and the associated risk of health damage — are not much different than elsewhere. In its assessment of the health impact of radiation exposure in the Tepco plant accident, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has maintained that future increases in the occurrence of cancer are not expected due to the low levels of contamination.

Still, the fact that a majority of people in Tokyo seem to think there will be lasting health damage from the Tepco plant accident that extends to future generations, the think tank report warns, is worrying because it might breed prejudice against the people of Fukushima Prefecture. In fact, we have heard many cases of people who evacuated from the prefecture in the aftermath of the nuclear plant accident being bullied or discriminated against as they’re associated with radiation. Such prejudice is fueled by the lack of relevant knowledge. Disseminating accurate information holds the key for a better public understanding of the current situation in Fukushima.