AFP: Japan tells tourists says ‘it’s safe’ to come back, with budgets to dispel “public misperceptions about the effects of the nuclear disaster”


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Hi Blog.  After we’ve been told long after the event that things were a lot worse than they were reported at Fukushima (in other words, we were lied to), now here we have spokespeople for Japan telling us that Japan is safe for tourism — despite having nuclear reactors still belching out radioactivity into the air, sea, water table and food chain.  They are earmarking megabucks to dispel “public misperceptions about the effects of the nuclear disaster”, decrying comparisons with Chernobyl.

This is just, in a word, bullshit.  GOJ:  If you want international sympathy, just come clean and tell the truth — that things are not yet fixed, and that we need international help to clean up this mess that we created through our systematic negligence and continuous coverups.  But that’s probably too much to ask.  Instead, we just tell everyone to keep calm and carry on, as radiation accumulates and we remain unbeknownst.  And invite more people over to share in it.  Culture with a side order of radiation.  More memorable than just boring old bedbug bites, I guess.

I’ve had this on my mind for some weeks, and now it’s time to say it:

I see slogans of “Pray for Japan“.  I don’t approve.

I think the better slogan is, “Pray for the Japanese people.”

Because the Japanese people have to live under this system and government that got us in this mess in the first place.  Yet the GOJ just keeps on ducking responsibility and telling us that black is white, day is night, and dangerous is safe, no matter how much of a burden gets placed on the Japanese public.  Pray that either The System shows mercy, or that the Japanese people wake up and achieve demands for change.  Arudou Debito


Japan tells tourists says ‘it’s safe’ to come back

by Jim Mannion –Thu May 19, 2011, Courtesy of DS

LAS VEGAS (AFP) – Japanese business leaders launched a campaign Thursday to woo tourists back to Japan after the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that sent foreigners fleeing the country.

“I would like to say: Japan is safe,” said Atsutoshi Nishida, the chairman of Toshiba, told a high-powered gathering of travel and tourism executives and officials from around the world.

Accepting the group’s invitation to host the next Global Travel and Tourism Summit in Tokyo in April 2012, Nishida said he hoped to welcome participants to a Japan at “full strength” by then.

International travel to and from Japan plunged after the 9.0 magnitude quake March 11 off Sendai, Japan that sent a tsunami surging through nuclear power complexes along the coast, magnifying a disaster that killed 15,000 people.

While tourism represents only a small part of economy impacted, it is an important bellwether of confidence in Japan.

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, the number of tourists arriving in the country dropped by more than 50 percent, and leisure travel collapsed by 90 percent, according to the Japanese Tourism Agency.

Japanese departures from the country were estimated to have fallen by 18 percent in March from the same month in 2010.

There were tentative signs of recovery in May, and Japanese officials said that travel during the Golden Week holiday in late April and early May when Japanese celebrate their famed cherry blossoms, were better than expected.

But Oxford Economics, in a study released here Thursday, said the experience after other major disasters shows it can take as long as two years to get back to normal.

“Recovery rates depend not only on the extent of the damage caused but political support to rebuild infrastructure and promote travel and tourism, and crucially on the perception left on the traveling public by the disaster,” it said.

It said it took four years for New Orleans to return to baseline levels of tourism after Hurricane Katrina.

Japanese officials said their campaign to bring back tourism will begin with education campaigns to dispell what they say are public misperceptions about the effects of the nuclear disaster.

Only later will they proceed to ad campaigns and the like to get tourists to come back, they said.

Naoyoshi Yamada, of the Japan Tourism Agency, said the government has budgeted seven billion yen, or about 75 million dollars, this year for the effort.

It was clear from their presentations here that the Japanese representatives see fears over the lingering effects of the nuclear crisis as the biggest hurdle to overcome.

Nishida contended it was misleading to put the crisis at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear complex on a par with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, telling reporters the release of radiation in that meltdown “dwarfed” the amounts released in Japan.

He said Japan’s top rating of seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale, equal to that of Chernobyl disaster, “has made many people nervous about visiting Japan.”

He said the levels radioactive material in Tokyo drinking water have remained within allowable limits for adults from the start of the crisis, and he said Japan’s standards were stricter than those of the European Union.

“By EU standards, there is absolutely nothing to worry about,” he said.

He said food in shops and restaurants were “safe to eat,” and there was no reason to worry about radiation levels outside of the immediate evacuation zone around the stricken reactors.

Despite the destruction caused by the quake, Nishida said, visitors can travel around Japan with ease. High speed rail travel has been restored, and the damaged Tohoku Expressway to the north has reopened, he said.

“Consumer confidence is on the way to full recovery, by summer I hope,” he said.


28 comments on “AFP: Japan tells tourists says ‘it’s safe’ to come back, with budgets to dispel “public misperceptions about the effects of the nuclear disaster”

  • But it IS safe. I am in absolutely no danger where I live. 95% percent of Japan is in no danger, in fact. Tourists can come to Japan and, unless they plan on violating the restricted area, the situation at the plant will not threaten them in any way.

    Right now, there’s an international misconception that Fukushima = Tokyo = Japan. It’s absolutely imperative to fight that regardless of how people feel about nuclear power or whatever needs to be done to cleanup the reactors.

  • sendaiben says:

    Basically, having lied to the Japanese people and the world for the last ten weeks, the government is now pinky-swearing that everything is fine…


  • james grey says:

    “I would like to say: Japan is safe,” said Atsutoshi Nishida.
    Yeah, me too. I won’t hold my breath though.

  • Debito, not sure what you are trying to say with this. Are you suggesting that Japan isn’t safe to visit due to radiation or that it isn’t safe to visit due to the potential of officials lying in the future about risks of any new disasters?

    There have been plenty of comparisons with the Chernobyl accident (this is inevitable with so few incidents with nuclear power), and all the sensible ones say that it is completely different. The international nuclear event scale is misleading to the general public and with so few data points doesn’t really mean much – the maximum 7 , is a major release of radioactive material, with risks spreading over a wide area. The five level 5 incidents that have previously are all completely different to each other too, particularly in immediate and long term health risks. If you have evidence that the amount of radioactivity released at Fukushima and the dispersal pattern is similar to the Chernobyl incident, I would like to see the source, please.

    If the tourism spokesman was advocating a 6 month beach holiday to the Fukushima prefecture coast in the restricted zone, then I can understand your concern, but suggesting that vast majority of Japan is safe and open for business is surely a good thing. Most areas have returned to similar background radiation levels as before (and even that their height in Tokyo for example they were still below normal background for many areas of the world where people happily exist). If you are worried that the the levels are being misreported by government/Tepco, there were plenty of independent data sets available; my own readings matched the official ones by the way. If there are any risks due to radiation, it is from long term exposure due to increased background levels near the plant and it is for this reason that evacuation zones are being extended based on potential annual doses, but even in these areas the immediate risk is low. To think that it’s dangerous for tourists to visit Japan must also mean that it is dangerous for residents and the whole country should be evacuated; but as it is safe for residents then there is no radiation risk for short-term visitors. Enough lives and businesses have been ruined or destroyed by the events of 11th March, the effect of this drop of in visitors will impact massively on many other business unless international confidence in Japan can be restored.

    Indeed, as the site is more fully explored they are finding that what happened at Fukushima-daiichi was by far at the worse end of the spectrum of possibilities put forward at the time. This isn’t important now, as people have an understandable, but ignorant, fear of the Nuclear word, they had to be reassuring at the time, but what was important then and now is the hard data on radiation doses. There has been no acute pathology to humans so far, and very few cleanup workers have been exposed to doses that increase long-term health risks.

    Sorry for the long post, but at least I’m on topic this time – as many people have pointed out, the average person lack understanding about radioactivity, so it is important to discuss the facts. I can’t see anything in the tourism spokesman’s statement that is disputed – but you may know better than me, so it would be good to hear your specific concerns and see the evidence and sources that support your standpoint.

  • beneaththewheel says:

    I would like to add my support to what Nogbad said. He said what I was thinking a lot more elegantly than I could.

    I wanted to add something about trusting the government and TEPCO. For both, it seems if lying it in their best interest we should assume they might. They cannot lie about the amount of radiation, because the whole world is watching. Lying about plant specifics would also be very difficult with the massive international spotlight on them.

    One thing I’m worried about is the government’s reluctance to nationalize TEPCO and other electric companies and creating a plan for transparency. I think it should have been done as soon as Kan realized TEPCO wasn’t telling the whole story in the first few days after the earthquake.

  • I am not quite so indignant at the speech. The spokesperson was entitled to tell tourists to come to Japan not only because it was his job to do so, but because what he says is basically true-in most of Japan there is not and will not be a radiation risk. Hardly a comfort for anyone now banished from Fukushima I know, and his speech surly invites satire for that reason alone, but otherwise I don’t think Nishida-san is being that mendacious. The argument about radiation risk clearly runs deep and has been discussed elsewhere, as does our hope for a more active public sphere to debate national policies.

    One reason for writing is that my ageing parents will finally be visiting me in Sendai this summer, and have run the gauntlet of people in the UK asking about ‘that’ power station. I suspect there will be a lot of spare hotel rooms, but if nothing else, Miyagi-ken could do with the business.

  • Hey, I traveled to Tokyo last week. My family was desperately trying to convince me not to go. “But teh radiashuns!! It’s scary! Bin Laden is ded, don’t get on an airplane!” I came anyway; the background radiation levels in Tokyo have been twice above normal background, but I still probably got a higher dose of radiation by being in the airplane than any I got on the ground in Tokyo. Unfortunately, I was still made to feel like a “dirty gaijin.” Now I finally understand the rage that people feel when racially profiled. Oh well. If they want to increase tourism, then perhaps they might want to work on other things first.

    And I fully agree with Nogbad…this incident is in no way comparable to Chernobyl. Chernobyl resulted in a much larger spread of isotopes over a much larger land area. Although TEPCO had no choice but to release the contaminated seawater back into the ocean, it’s like putting a drop of food coloring in a swimming pool. It gets diluted on a grand scale. The area around the reactor, I wouldn’t go anywhere near, but I had no qualms about spending a week in Tokyo, and I would go back tomorrow if I could afford it.

    Science magazine (arguably one of the most reputable scientific publications in the world) has an excellent set of research papers and commentary articles out this week, all free access. Normally you have to be a subscriber to access content, but they put this issue out for free. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the facts about the quake itself and the nuclear crisis.

    — Send us a link, please.

  • I do want to say though, having watched NHK World coverage and US media coverage…NHK was too “calming” and the US media went berserk and acted as if radiation is some sort of invisible sticky goo that will make you glow and make your kids grow extra legs. The NHK coverage was extremely flippant about it, although they did get some interviews of people in the shelters actually expressing their feelings about being lied to.

    If anything good comes out of this, hopefully it will be a higher public demand for alternative energy sources. I have colleagues that are working on engineering bacteria and algae to break down wood into ethanol. There are thousands of research teams using millions of dollars to investigate alternative energy sources. SURELY there is a better way out there, what is keeping the public from having access to clean, safe energy?

    — Without a sense of outrage, there will be little public demand for anything except vague notions of “safety”. By keeping the public “calm for their own good” by lying to them and deliberately confusing the issue with a dearth of information, that sense of outrage will be diluted, and nothing will change, just as it hasn’t changed for two other nuclear accidents in Japan. This is one more reason why I don’t believe sounding the “all clear” (and lending overt or tacit support to it) is a good idea.

    Tourists should stay away also because of the constant public disservices of the GOJ. Call it a form of economic sanctions, if you will.

    (No doubt people will counterargue, “don’t punish the people for the acts of its government”, but that’s how economic sanctions work, sorry.)

  • @Dr H. Regarding the amount of radiation, you may think that you are getting less radiation than a flight in a plane but you are talking about “exposure”. The concern here is “contamination”. Once you ingest (eat, breath, drink) radioactive particles you are contaminated and will be constantly exposed from then on. This is the REAL risk.

    Regarding “Japan is safe”, the people proclaiming this are almost CRIMINAL. These are business people that are only interested in generating revenue ($$$) and do not care one bit about your health. I uprooted my life of 15 years in Japan and left very hurriedly with my family as I did not trust what the news (government and TEPCO) were saying. In retrospect I am glad I did. Going to Japan at this time while things are still in a state of flux is a very decision IMO. The biggest risk in going to Japan IMO is the food.

  • First off, I’m biased. Your proposed economic sanctions would adversely affect me, an innkeeper in Nagano.

    I do have my doubts not only about the ethics of the ‘Come to Japan — it’s safe!’ push, but about the effectiveness as well.

    Ethically because saying ‘Nagano is safe’ intrinsically implies that Fukushima isn’t. (Would an innkeeper there feel bummed I should get tourist money while he suffers? Or would s/he feel there’s no need for me to lose tourists just because Fukushima can’t accept them?)

    Effectiveness-wise because would the typical backpacker decide to go to Japan after all just because someone in the travel industry says it’s safe?

    And a question to Debito-san: When do you propose lifting your ‘economic sanctions’? When the radiation risk is 100% eliminated?

    Chernobyl’s radiation problem isn’t 100% solved and it’s been 25 years. Yet 25 million foreign tourists visit Ukraine ever year. There are even ‘Chernobyl Tours’ (

    — That’s the thing about radiation, and why a nuclear meltdown is a special kind of accident. Anyway, when we have the source no longer emitting radiation, then we can say all but the thus-far irradiated areas (and their food chains and water tables) are “safe”. But right now, Fukushima is Japan’s still-burning toxic “tyreyard fire”, and until the fire is out at least, sounding an “all-clear” is premature. But again, that’s just my opinion, and I’m in no position of power like these high-level prevaricators are.


    Free access articles on the earthquake and following disaster. I haven’t read them all yet, but I like that they have made these articles free access to the general public. The first three are research articles on the earthquake itself, the “news focus” articles are editorials on the nuclear fallout and earthquake physics.

    Notice that the second research paper (Simons, et al) predicts a possible quake of similar magnitude is likely to occur just south of the 2011 quake. They don’t say when (too hard to predict) but it’s worth making the public aware of it.

    — Okay, I tally that as one comment each on radiation. Let’s get back to the topic at hand, thanks.

  • So it’s safe for tourists to come and get the cold shoulder, be stopped by police, be turned away from restaurants and hotels in a comparatively expensive country that doesn’t have much to offer other than 1000s of identical looking shrines and temples with a smattering of concreted over mountains. Great, I’m sure it is much more appealing than say, the bahamas, hawaii or the seychelles at the same price…… I guess you wouldn’t get to see the funny men in black vans screaming hate though….

  • “Japanese officials said their campaign to bring back tourism will begin with education campaigns to dispell what they say are public misperceptions about the effects of the nuclear disaster.”

    There are no misconceptions outside of Japan.

    Everyone outside of Japan can see the lies the corruption and the laissez-faire attitude the GoJ has with safety et al.

    The Japanese, it seems, put up with it. Since there is no evidence of an “asian uprising” (like in the ME). This does not mean that the rest of the world must acquiesce to such blatant lies.

    Agreed. Pray for the Japanese people.

    However, i would add the caveat, as noted above. In the ME (Middle East), the citizens finally rose up against brutal and violent dictorships, at the expense of their lifes, and happily (in many cases), for a better life. The conditions they were all forced to live in are much worse than those of Japan.

    So, unless the Japanese start or even just attempt to take control, as those in the ME have done, i feel our “prays” and “support” can only go so far. If they really want change, they must fight for it. Otherwise, why flog a dead horse?

    It is rather like offering a dying starving man some food. Only to find out he has money in his pocket but is just too lazy to get up off his arse and go to the shops…ergo would rather starve! Helping those that continuously do not help themselves (yet have the power to do so) leaves me feeling rather empty.

    My parents fled a strict brutal communist regime. They took action to better their lives whislt facing real real danger daily. The risk was worth it, so they took it; despite being shot at as they ran. If you want it, change that is, you must fight for it….it is a state of mind.

  • richardbaroda says:

    Just saw a news program outside Japan with George Lim, a tourism spokesman who tells us, in English, that Japan is very very safe. Then we get his Japanese counterpart, (who of course only speaks Japanese, koko wa nihon dakara) who says something very telling
    -Because of (whats happened)we have to attract foreign tourists to improve the economy-

    “Have to”….Right. I suppose it cannot be helped, shoganai ne. That pesky foreign money.

    Responding partly to Rolands post above, this is just following the cultural mindset that Jack first pointed out with his sports center story on the “making friends” thread; ie. one guy at the top decides they need foreign money or participation, but segements of the rank and file could care less, or are even hostile.

    Once again,

    1. Nishida and this spokesman spoke for the group, but it was in fact tatemae, to achieve a (business) goal.
    2. He wants foreigners for “window dressing”, ie. want foreign money or
    3. For improving their image as an “international” one, but members of the rank and file could care less, and carry on as normal, making no attempt to help the “gaijin” fit into the group, with the treatment Roland describes.

    I said it in 1990 and I ll say it again. Is this really a G7 country?

  • FYI.
    Japanese Officials Ignored or Concealed Dangers
    Published: May 16, 2011

    OMAEZAKI, Japan — The nuclear power plant, lawyers argued, could not withstand the kind of major earthquake that new seismic research now suggested was likely.

    If such a quake struck, electrical power could fail, along with backup generators, crippling the cooling system, the lawyers predicted. The reactors would then suffer a meltdown and start spewing radiation into the air and sea. Tens of thousands in the area would be forced to flee.

    Although the predictions sound eerily like the sequence of events at the Fukushima Daiichi plant following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the lawsuit was filed nearly a decade ago to shut down another plant, long considered the most dangerous in Japan — the Hamaoka station.

    It was one of several quixotic legal battles waged — and lost — in a long attempt to improve nuclear safety and force Japan’s power companies, nuclear regulators, and courts to confront the dangers posed by earthquakes and tsunamis on some of the world’s most seismically active ground.

    The lawsuits reveal a disturbing pattern in which operators underestimated or hid seismic dangers to avoid costly upgrades and keep operating. And the fact that virtually all these suits were unsuccessful reinforces the widespread belief in Japan that a culture of collusion supporting nuclear power, including the government, nuclear regulators and plant operators, extends to the courts as well.

    Yuichi Kaido, who represented the plaintiffs in the Hamaoka suit, which they lost in a district court in 2007, said that victory could have led to stricter earthquake, tsunami and backup generator standards at plants nationwide.

    “This accident could have been prevented,” Mr. Kaido, also the secretary general of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, said of Fukushima Daiichi. The operator of the plant, Chubu Electric Power Company, temporarily shut down Hamaoka’s two active reactors over the weekend, following an extraordinary request by Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

    After strengthening the plant’s defenses against earthquakes and tsunamis, a process that could take a couple of years, the utility is expected to restart the plant.

    Japan’s plants are all located in coastal areas, making them vulnerable to both quakes and tsunamis. The tsunami is believed to have caused the worst damage at the Fukushima plant, though evidence has begun emerging that the quake may have damaged critical equipment before the waves struck.

    The disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, directly led to the suspension of Hamaoka here in Omaezaki, a city about 120 miles southwest of Tokyo. But Mr. Kan’s decision was also clearly influenced by a campaign, over decades, by small groups of protesters, lawyers and scientists, who sued the government or operators here and elsewhere.

    They were largely ignored by the public. Harassment by neighbors, warnings by employers, and the reluctance of young Japanese to join antinuclear groups have diminished their numbers.

    But since the disaster at Fukushima and especially the suspension of Hamaoka, the aging protesters are now heralded as truth-tellers, while members of the nuclear establishment are being demonized.

    On Friday, as Chubu Electric began shutting down a reactor at 10 a.m., Eiichi Nagano, 90, and Yoshika Shiratori, 78, were battling strong winds on the shoreline leading to the plant here. Mr. Shiratori, a leader of the lawsuit, led the way as Mr. Nagano followed with a sprightly gait despite a bent back. The two men scrambled up a dune, stopping only before a “No Trespassing” sign.

    “Of course, we’re pleased about the suspension,” Mr. Nagano said, as the strong wind seemed to threaten to topple him. “But if we had done more, if our voices had been louder, we could have prevented the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi. Fukushima was sacrificed so that Hamaoka could be suspended.”

    Unheeded Warnings

    In 1976, a resource-poor Japan still reeling from the shocks of the oil crisis was committed fully to nuclear power to achieve greater energy independence, a path from which it never strayed despite growing doubts in the United States and Europe.

    That year, as Hamaoka’s No. 1 reactor started operating and No. 2 was under construction, Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismologist and now professor emeritus at Kobe University, publicized research showing that the plant lay directly above an active earthquake zone where two tectonic plates met. Over the years, further research would back up Mr. Ishibashi’s assessment, culminating in a prediction last year by the government’s own experts that there was a nearly 90 percent chance that a magnitude 8.0 quake would hit this area within the next 30 years.

    After the 1995 Kobe earthquake, residents in this area began organizing protests against Chubu Electric. They eventually sued the utility in 2003 to stop the plant’s reactors, which had increased to four by then, arguing that the facility’s quake-resistance standards were simply inadequate in light of the new seismic predictions.

    In 2007, a district court ruled against the plaintiffs, finding no problems with the safety assessments and measures at Hamaoka. The court appeared to rely greatly on the testimony of Haruki Madarame, a University of Tokyo professor and promoter of nuclear energy, who since April 2010 has been the chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan, one of the nation’s two main nuclear regulators.

    Testifying for Chubu Electric, Mr. Madarame brushed away the possibility that two backup generators would fail simultaneously. He said that worrying about such possibilities would “make it impossible to ever build anything.” After the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, Mr. Madarame apologized for this earlier comment under questioning in Parliament. “As someone who promoted nuclear power, I am willing to apologize personally,” he said.

    In the early days of nuclear power generation in Japan, the government and nuclear plant operators assured the public of the safety of plants by promising that they would not be located on top of active fault lines, Mr. Ishibashi, the seismologist, said in an interview.

    But he said that advances in seismology have led to the gradual discovery of active fault lines under or near plants, creating an inherent problem for the operators and the government and leading to an inevitable conclusion for critics of nuclear power.

    “The Japanese archipelago is a place where you shouldn’t build nuclear plants,” Mr. Ishibashi said.

    Advances in seismology also led to lawsuits elsewhere. Only two courts have issued rulings in favor of plaintiffs, but those were later overturned by higher courts. Since the late 1970s, 14 major lawsuits have been filed against the government or plant operators in Japan, which until March 11 had 54 reactors at 18 plants..

    In one of the two cases, residents near the Shika nuclear plant in Ishikawa, a prefecture facing the Sea of Japan, sued to shut down a new reactor there in 1999. They argued that the reactor, built near a fault line, had been designed according to outdated quake-resistance standards.

    A district court ordered the shutdown of the plant in 2006, ruling that the operator, Hokuriku Electric Power Company, had not proved that its new reactor met adequate quake-resistance standards, given new knowledge about the area’s earthquake activity.

    Kenichi Ido, the chief judge at the district court who is now a lawyer in private practice, said that, in general, it was difficult for plaintiffs to prove that a plant was dangerous. What is more, because of the technical complexities surrounding nuclear plants, judges effectively tended to side with a national strategy of promoting nuclear power, he said.

    “I think it can’t be denied that a psychology favoring the safer path comes into play,” Mr. Ido said. “Judges are less likely to invite criticism by siding and erring with the government than by sympathizing and erring with a small group of experts.”

    That appears to have happened when a higher court reversed the decision in 2009 and allowed Hokuriku Electric to keep operating the reactor. In that decision, the court ruled that the plant was safe because it met new standards for Japan’s nuclear plants issued in 2006.

    Critics say that this exposed the main weakness in Japan’s nuclear power industry: weak oversight.

    The 2006 guidelines had been set by a government panel composed of many experts with ties to nuclear operators. Instead of setting stringent industrywide standards, the guidelines effectively left it to operators to check whether their plants met new standards.

    In 2008, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, Japan’s main nuclear regulator, said that all the country’s reactors met the new quake standards and did not order any upgrades.

    Concealing Facts

    Other lawsuits reveal how operators have dealt with the discovery of active fault lines by underestimating their importance or concealing them outright, even as nuclear regulators remained passive.

    For 12 years, Yasue Ashihara has led a group of local residents in a long and lonely court battle to halt operations of the Shimane nuclear plant, which sits less than five miles from Matsue, a city of 200,000 people in western Japan.

    Ms. Ashihara’s fight against the plant’s operator, Chugoku Electric Power, revolves around not only the discovery of a previously unknown active fault line, but an odd tug of war between her group and the company about the fault’s length, and thus the strength of the earthquakes it is capable of producing.

    The utility has slowly accepted the contention of Ms. Ashihara’s group by repeatedly increasing its estimate of the size of the fault. Yet a district court last year ruled in favor of Chugoku Electric Power, accepting its argument that its estimates were based on the better scientific analysis.

    “We jokingly refer to it as the ever-growing fault line,” said Ms. Ashihara, 58, who works as a caregiver for the elderly. “But what it really means is that Chugoku Electric does not know how strong an earthquake could strike here.”

    Her group filed the lawsuit in 1999, a year after the operator suddenly announced that it had detected a five-mile-long fault near the plant, reversing decades of claims that the plant’s vicinity was free of active faults.

    Chugoku Electric said the fault was too small to produce an earthquake strong enough to threaten the plant, but Ms. Ashihara’s suit cited new research showing the fault line could in fact be much longer, and produce a much stronger earthquake. It got a boost in 2006, when a seismologist announced that a test trench that he had dug showed the fault line to be at least 12 miles long, capable of causing an earthquake of magnitude 7.1.

    After initially resisting, the company reversed its position three years ago to accept the finding. But a spokesman for the Chugoku Electric said the plant was strong enough to withstand an earthquake of this size without retrofitting.

    “This plant sits on solid bedrock,” said Hiroyuki Fukada, assistant director of the visitor center for the Shimane plant, adding that it had a 20-foot, ferro-concrete foundation. “It is safe enough for at least a 7.1 earthquake.”

    However, researchers now say the fault line may extend undersea at least 18 miles, long enough to produce a magnitude 7.4 earthquake. This prompted Ms. Ashihara’s group to appeal last year’s ruling.

    Ms. Ashihara said she has waged her long fight because she believes the company is understating the danger to her city. But she says she has at times felt ostracized from this tightly bound community, with relatives frowning upon her drawing attention to herself.

    Still, she said she hoped the shutdown of Hamaoka would help boost her case. She said local residents had already been growing skeptical of the Shimane plant’s safety after revelations last year that the operator falsified inspection records, forcing it to shut down one of the plant’s three reactors.

    In Ms. Ashihara’s case, the nuclear operator acknowledged the existence of the active fault line in court. In the case of Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata, a prefecture facing the Sea of Japan, Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, the utility that also operates Fukushima Daiichi, did not disclose the existence of an active fault line until an earthquake forced it to.

    In 1979, residents sued the government to try overturn its decision granting Tepco a license to build a plant there. They argued that nuclear regulators had not performed proper inspections of the area’s geology — an accusation that the government would acknowledge years later — and that an active fault line nearby made the plant dangerous. In 2005, the Tokyo High Court ruled against the plaintiffs, concluding that no such fault line existed.

    But in 2007, after a 6.8-magnitude earthquake damaged the plant, causing a fire and radiation leaks, Tepco admitted that, in 2003, it had determined the existence of a 12-mile-long active fault line in the sea nearby.

    Weighing the Chances

    The decision to suspend Hamaoka has immediately raised doubts about whether other plants should be allowed to continue operating. The government based its request on the prediction that there is a nearly 90 percent chance that a magnitude 8.0 earthquake will hit this area within the next 30 years. But critics have said that such predictions may even underestimate the case, pointing to the case of Fukushima Daiichi, where the risk of a similar quake occurring had been considered nearly zero.

    “This is ridiculous,” said Hiroaki Koide, an assistant professor at the Research Reactor Institute at Kyoto University. “If anything, Fukushima shows us how unforeseen disasters keep happening. There are still too many things about earthquakes that we don’t understand.”

    Until March 11, Mr. Koide had been relegated to the fringes as someone whose ideas were considered just too out of step with the mainstream. Today, he has become an accepted voice of conscience in a nation re-examining its nuclear program.

    For the ordinary Japanese who waged lonely battles against the nuclear establishment for decades — mostly graying men like Mr. Nagano and Mr. Shiratori — the Hamaoka plant’s suspension has also given them their moment in the sun.

    The two worried, however, that the government will allow Hamaoka to reopen once Chubu Electric has strengthened defenses against tsunamis. Chubu Electric announced that it would erect a 49-foot high seawall in front of the plant, which is protected only by a sand dune.

    “Building a flimsy seawall isn’t enough,” Mr. Shiratori said. “We have to keep going after Chubu Electric in court and shut down the plant permanently.”

    “That’s right,” Mr. Nagano said, the smallness of his bent frame emphasized by the enormous plant behind him. “This is only the beginning.”


  • I don’t think the problem about appreciating the current nuclear situation and future risks has anything to do with a lack of information available, rather a lack of understanding. One result of the “internet age” is the free availability of vast amounts information to people who are unable to understand it fully or are unable to judge its quality. Without basic understanding and knowledge of who can be trusted, readers are unable to critically appraise information or may be misled by misinterpreting subtleties that are only fully appreciated by an expert – this is part of the point of peer review. Unfortunately, the concept of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” has proved true countless times with conspiracy theories, some branches of alternative “medicine”, and numerous ill-informed scares about vaccines or viruses. For reasons that are not clear to me, the general population no longer want to trust people who know what they are talking about, and even the media have fallen into a fallacy that to achieve balance means giving equal time to an expert and to a crazy person, whose only qualifications are to hold an extreme alternative view point and poses a confrontational attitude.

    To use my own experience as an example: I have worked with radioisotopes for over ten years, and have a strong educational and research background in scientific principles and method. However, it has taken me a vast amount of study over the last few months to educate myself in some basics of nuclear reactors and their operation, as well as the events in Fukushima daiichi. Now, this doesn’t make me even close to an expert – but even I am able to easily call bullshit on most of the scaremongering anti-nuclear codswallop, mostly written by people with vested interests or plain idiots, that has been perpetuated here and elsewhere.

    The problem with hard facts and discussion about these topics is that they require a lot of basic knowledge that lay people or even experts in semi-related fields simply so not have. It is easy to write something like “meltdown!! The sea is poisoned and our food is irradiating us from within” (I paraphrase many commenters), but much harder to research, write, and reference a rebuttal. Incidentally, it is also much harder and more tedious to read such a rebuttal. Continuing with this example, to detail all the data regarding radioisotope levels in the sea and food, present evidence of previous occurrences of release, spread, and accumulation of radioactivity, explain the testing procedures and the findings, discuss Japanese legal levels as compared with alternative levels found in other countries, convert such levels into dosage over time, blah blah blah. is boring and that is before we even consider what the risks are that accompany particular radiation exposures. To write properly qualified statements is time consuming, and is never going to have the impact of easily written misinformed rants.

    I personally find these nonsense throw-away comments floating around to be absolutely disgusting. They are made by people with no expertise or knowledge in nuclear science and are unsourced or sourced on misinterpretations and they do real harm. Harm to the livelihood of people like TYler In Nagano, who rely on visitors and people like the farmers and fishermen of Tohoku, who have already lost so much and don’t need their futures poisoned by the rubbish being circulated; not to mention harm done to the reputation and credibility of Japan.

    @Richardbaroda – the reason that they “have to” make these statements is to counter these toxic people spreading fear with their unscientific nonsense and reassure potential visitors of the realitiy of the situation.

    If any commentators have any evidence regarding current food or water in Japan being hazardous to health, or reasons why the official system of certifying food safety is failing – please tells us and provide a source. If these claims are true, it is very serious and residents of Japan should be told and so be able to mitigate such danger. However, as foreign governments appear to accept the testing procedures and safety levels, I doubt these claims have any factual basis.

  • Nogbad
    Whilst I agreed with many of your comments, I do find the last commendable, yet myopic.

    “..If any commentators have any evidence regarding current food or water in Japan being hazardous to health, or reasons why the official system of certifying food safety is failing – please tells us and provide a source…”

    This is an assumption that such agencies are independent of the GoJ and industry and have no influences other than finding and establishing facts and the truth. Sadly nothing could be further from such…

    The same faith placed in blood transfusions, many died, yet only after mass exposure were “safety” claims exposed as bogus. Same with safety of nuclear planets, but only after attempts to pass newly compulsory government inspections was it revealed that on nearly 200 occasions was safety breached (see Debito’s posts on this from KTO article), then recently to keep the illusion of safety, by raising the safety level of being exposed to radiation for its workers, by more than double…raising the level suddenly makes it “safe”??!!!!…. Yet this being more than 16 times that legally allowed in the EU…and on it goes.

    So, before you decide to place your faith and trust in such institutions, you had better take a long hard look at what is being peddled as “the truth”, and decide whom you think is telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

  • @nogbad, it wasnt he “had to” make a statement, it was they “now have to” attract foreign tourists.

    Maybe faulty translation, but it didnt come across as a warm welcome, more like an economic necessity means we unfortunately now have to accept more foreign tourists, and treating any foreign tourists as a given.

    Come to think of it, his Japanese words werent exactly welcoming either. If the program is repeated, I ll let you know his name (its some asian news program outside Japan).

  • Nogbad,

    A lack of understanding may be a big problem, but a bigger issue may be that lots of folks do not trust the authorities at all. Tokyo Electric and the bureaucracy do what they want, and it is hard to imagine that the public good is even considered.

    By the way, the idea of “lack of understanding” goes both ways. That is, those who have a vested interest in something will have a hard time ever finding information that goes counter to what they want to believe. It’s only human nature. In fact, someone who has knowledge of one subject, such as nuclear engineering, will convince himself that he knows something about energy economics or the health effects of low-level, persistent radiation, when he really doesn’t know much at all.

  • Nogbad, regarding your statement, “..If any commentators have any evidence regarding current food or water in Japan being hazardous to health, or reasons why the official system of certifying food safety is failing – please tells us and provide a source…” please refer to the following article.

    I am not saying that this is hazardous to one’s health or not but the level of radiation in tea leaves grown in Kanagawa prefecture exceeds the Threshold Limit Values (TLV) set by the Japanese government. Nogbad – any comments?

    This leaves the government with an interesting predicament – do you raise the TLV and declare higher thresholds safe, or do you destroy the tea crops? Also these TLV values may be too low (or too high for that matter) as there is not alot of empirical data to base what long term exposure levels are considered safe. I have heard they have destroyed some of the crops in Kanagawa.

    Also the location of the high radiation levels is very noteworthy due to the fact that this is in KANAGAWA prefecture – geographically far from the reactors. I think this warrants investigation as to what the root cause of the high radiation levels are (I would guess rain, but that is just a guess).

    That coupled with the recent revelations of core meltdowns in 3 of the reactors is noteworthy.

    Kurofune, I am quite knowledgeable about reactor cooling and the design of nuclear power plants as well as energy economics but I am not an expert on low level persistent exposure to radiation, so I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this article if you have some. Also it would be interesting to find out on what basis the threshold values were established.

    My feeling is that Japan is in a position where they cannot survive economically without nuclear power and needs to find a way to safely operate the existing facilities as there is no near term silver bullet to satisfy the energy needs of Japan.

    Please excuse my “scare mongering”


    Ministries divided over radioactive tea
    The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Local farmers have been thrown into confusion after the health and farm ministries expressed differing views over shipments of tea harvested in Kanagawa Prefecture after fresh leaves were found to have exceeded government limits for radioactive cesium.

    The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has been trying to restrict shipments of tea leaves from the prefecture about 300 kilometers from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant due to health concerns. The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, however, has claimed that despite the high levels of radioactive material, drinking tea made from the leaves would be safe because the radioactive material would be diluted.

    One tea farmer in the prefecture grumbled, “I have no idea what’s going to happen. I want them to clear things up.”

    The radiation safety limit for tea leaves is 500 becquerels per kilogram, the same as for vegetables, while the limit for tea drinks is 200 becquerels per kilogram, the same as for drinking water.

    There have been no reports of drinks exceeding the 200-becquerel limit made from radiation-contaminated tea leaves. But fresh tea leaves harvested May 9-12 in six municipalities in the prefecture were found to have been contaminated with more than 500 becquerels of radioactive material.

    Radiation levels for dried tea leaves that have been minimally processed (ara cha) are said to be five times higher than in just-harvested leaves. Dried tea leaves originally harvested in Minami-Ashigara, Kanagawa Prefecture, were found to contain 3,000 becquerels of radioactive cesium.

    Shipments of tea leaves from the prefecture are currently under voluntarily suspension. But making the suspension legally binding is up to the government’s nuclear crisis headquarters led by Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

    The health ministry has asked 14 prefectures, including Shizuoka and others in the southern Tohoku and Kanto-Koshinetsu regions, to inspect farm produce, as radioactive material has spread over a wide area. On Monday, the ministry ordered additional tests on dried tea leaves.

    “Even though [radioactive materials] are diluted when the tea is consumed, would consumers feel safe with tea leaves containing several thousand becquerels of radiation on the market? We need to restrict shipments of tea leaves,” an official of the health ministry’s Inspection and Safety Division said.

    But an official of the farm ministry’s Agricultural Production and Marketing Promotion Division said: “Tea leaves are basically raw materials. It’s not reasonable to impose restrictions when they’re at the leaf stage.”

    According to the division, radioactive materials are diluted to from one-30th to one-45th when tea is made from minimally processed leaves. Radiation is reduced by one-sixth to one-ninth in tea made from fresh leaves.

    Therefore, if tea is made from fresh tea leaves containing 1,000 becquerels of radiation, the radiation levels would drop to around 100 becquerels, a level below the government’s safety limits.

    “The 500-becquerel limit is too strict. Even though tea leaves aren’t supposed to be eaten raw, they’re subject to the same limit as vegetables,” the farm ministry official said. “We don’t have rules on what stage of processing should be restricted. So restricting shipments under these circumstances would only create confusion.”

    According to international standards, the annual acceptable dose of cesium from food is five millisieverts. If a person were to consume one liter of tea containing 200 becquerels of cesium every day for a year, he or she would consume about one millisievert of radiation.

    Tea farmers have been frustrated with the government’s indecisiveness on the matter.

    Hisao Nakamura, a 74-year-old tea farmer from Minami-Ashigara, said: “We’ve thrown away all the ichibancha top-quality tea leaves picked so far. That cost us more than 1 million yen.”

    “The harvest of second-tier nibancha tea is scheduled to start next month, but we need to start preparing now,” Nakamura said. “We want them to quickly decide on safety limits for radiation and whether we’ll be compensated if we’re not allowed to ship our leaves.”

    (May. 18, 2011)

  • Regarding my previous post – Sorry part of my post somehow got cut off (probably my fault). The part that was cut off is shown in CAPS below.

    “I am not saying that this is hazardous to one’s health or not but the level of radiation in tea leaves grown in Kanagawa prefecture exceeds the Threshold Limit Values (TLV) set by the Japanese government FOR THE RAW TEA LEAVES BUT NOT FOR THE BREWED PRODUCT. THERE SEEMS TO BE AN INCONSISTENCY IN THESE RELATIVE VALUES, MOST LIKELY DUE TO THE DILUTION PROCESS. ALSO WOULD THIS MEAN THAT SIMILAR CONTAMINATION WOULD BE FOUND ON VEGETABLES GROWN IN THE SAME VICINITY? Nogbad – any comments?”


  • It probably also depends on the method of brewing. If it is matcha, then I would think the drinker would be much more at risk of consuming cesium, since the entire leaf is powdered and included in the product. That’s just a guess though. It may be just as likely that steeping the leaves would release the cellular contents (read: cesium) as well.

    Maybe tea (Camellia sinensis) would be a good organism to use for phytoremediation of the soil? Much “greener”, much less mess than the topsoil stripping that they’re doing now. At Chernobyl, they use sunflowers to remove uranium from the soil.

  • @Doug, to answer your question

    My expertise is in molecular biology and biochemistry, and I do know a little about persistent low-level exposure to radiation.

    Some types of radiation are easily “stopped” by the skin, meaning they don’t penetrate any farther into the body. This is not true in the case of a meltdown, and exposure of nuclear fuel to the air…therefore workers around the plant would be subject to neutron activation. (I.e. neutrons whizzing through their body–oops, there I go scaremongering again). The free neutrons must join with protons, and it “activates” atoms inside the body, making them radioactive. This is only a concern at and around the plant itself. To put it quite simply, the worker can become radioactive. It won’t kill them right away, and it may not kill them at all, but I sure hope TEPCO has some awesome cancer screening requirements in their health benefits for the workers.

    The cesium isotopes released by nuclear fission are beta-emitters, meaning that as they decay, they forcefully eject (or “blast”–oops, scaremongering) a beta particle, which we can safely assume is an electron. What would be the effect of this on the body? The free beta particles have a negative charge, and thus they “want” to bind with something. With a broad scatter of beta particles either penetrating the skin (about 1cm deep) or ingested cesium allowing beta particles to penetrate various tissues in the body, there is a risk of DNA damage.

    DNA is a precious substance to the body, therefore it is highly protected. If radiation causes a mutation in the base pair sequence, there is a repair mechanism. DNA repair is a complex process that would take me an entire lecture to fully explain, but let’s think of it as a multi-protein “spell checker”. It reads the sequence, and if it finds a mistake, it fixes it. So how does radiation cause permanent mutation? To keep it simple, it’s because the repair machinery isn’t perfect. If it was entirely perfect, then we would never age, and never get cancer.

    Chronic, low-level radiation, if it’s low enough, can actually enhance the functioning of DNA repair. It’s also true that it’s very very difficult to determine what this threshold level of exposure is, when it goes from relatively harmless to dangerous. Unfortunately, if the DNA damage and/or mutation occurs in a vital sequence, it can result in damaging the repair mechanisms themselves, or activating oncogenes (“cancer genes”) or deactivating protective genes. Cancer can be caused by some things being turned “on”, other things being turned “off”, and a host of other possible mechanisms. I think of it as “no two cancers are exactly alike”, because there are multiple causes of cancer.

    If these mutations occur in say, a surface layer skin cell, it’s no big deal…that skin cell is lost with the millions of skin cells you lose every day. If it’s in the stem cells that are responsible for replenishing skin (i.e. cells about the depth that beta particles can penetrate) then one could potentially get skin cancer. If it occurs in internal cells (from ingesting the radioactive source)that will continue to divide and give rise to new cells, it can cause all sorts of cancers.

    It’s highly unlikely, but if it somehow penetrated all the way to the germ cells (sperm and egg) then it could potentially cause a mutation that would result in birth defects or damage to the next generation. Again, this is less likely, since a female produces all her eggs while still a fetus herself. Sperm are produced continually, but again, the odds are pretty minimal.

    In my humble opinon, the risk from drinking this tea (particularly if they drink a lot of it for a long time) may result in a small percentage of the customers having a higher risk of cancer. This probably would take about 5-35 years to manifest itself as a problem.

  • Dr. H

    Thanks for answering the question

    Nogbad, I would also like to hear your opinion. I am not asking you in a confrontational manner, but I am curious what your opinion is based on your professional experience.

    Also if this radioactivity is on tea leaves it would seem logical it has also deposited on other vegetables grown in the same area. Would mere washing dilute the radiation levels? Finally the fact that these high levels are at such a distance from the plants is interesting.

    It also appears that higher levels are in fish/seafood caught up to 20KM off of Fukushima. It appears that proper steps are being taken to prevent this seafood from getting to market, but fish are a mobile species and I am wondering if this risk can be contained.

    I guess the big question is – since there is empirical evidence of food products having contamination levels above the established thresholds, what is the next step for the Japanese government? Increased surveillance of food products? Or, raise threshold levels? Whoever has to make these decisions is in a very difficult predicament.

    Once again, I do not see this as “scare mongering” rather debating an issue that has arisen and is backed up by empirical test data provided by both the Japanese Government and third parties. I do not think the right answer is saying “everything is OK”. If something is above an established legal limit then some action is required.

  • Ok, firstly, thank you to all those who have posted since my last comment. I don’t really want to nit-pick on details where someone or myself is generalizing for simplicity or slightly missing the point. Nor do I intend to defend the evil powers in charge that apparently knowingly want to put not just their own population at risk, but have also convinced other officials abroad to accept their dangerous goods to harm their population. As I have been directly asked for my opinion, I’ll take that as an invitation to waffle on a bit, to avoid going round in circles, I’ll make his my last post about radiation. I’m just interested in helping people to whom this issue matters greatly to stay informed. Obviously if there were a real risk to my family or myself, I would be taking steps to abrogate the risk or remove ourselves from any danger zone, so it is very important to me to stay abreast of the situation. Conversely, if the additional risk approaches zero or “they” take steps to mitigate any potential problems, then it’s equally as important to me that industries are allowed recover in Japan and tourists return (and people stop worrying about me and asking me to come “home”). Currently, I think the biggest risk to my future well-being and comfort comes from people avoiding doing business with or visiting Japan rather than leaked radioisotopes.

    Just to set my stall out – I’m not a nuclear engineer, other than basic physics principles, my only knowledge about nuclear reactors comes from recent research untaken in an attempt to mollify my family back “home”. However, I do work with radiation and, as well as giving me a good grounding in the science, most importantly my very real fear of radioactivity comes from knowledge about its risks and not just being unnaturally scared of a word I don’t really understand. I have no vested interest in nuclear power and, whilst I’m certainly not in the anti-nuclear energy group, I have no strong pro-tendencies other than currently it seems good solution, although historical error shine out and urge sensible caution (shutting Hamaoka or rather never have built it the first place).

    Much of the criticism levied here and elsewhere now relates to trust of sources – suggestions that the authorities deliberately suppressing the truth and putting us at risk or that are they unknowingly incompetent. I’m not convinced by the this: actual data and methodology is being released and stands up to independent criticism, as well as independent bodies that do some of the measurements and tests themselves. Indeed, my own readings confirmed the official airborne figures for my area, although I grant you that not many people have easy access to do this themselves. Moreover, the authorities have convinced numerous other countries to accept products from Japan, who either have been persuaded to have confidence in the rigor of Japan’s testing methods or who employ their own checking. Cynically, I’m wondering if they have managed to off-load produce that breach the limits in Japan to countries that have higher limits.

    Not entirely off topic – we do need to be careful in trusting sources, not just faceless individuals, like me or random bloggers, but official sources too. Japan seems just as bad at over-exaggerating a crisis that affect other countries, as the foreign media has been about 11th March. For example, during the H1N1 influenza outbreak, there was an interview shown NHK with a virologist, whom I happen to know so sat down to watch his 5 minutes of fame. The audio was the original English with Japanese subtitles and there was a major disconnect between his words and the translations, in some cases they were entirely opposite and transmuted correct science into something that supported the Japanese policy. He was not a happy bunny about this, but as the interview wasn’t originally with NHK, they ignored his protests. So be careful relying on translations of experts – here you need to not only trust the expert, but the translator’s accuracy and the media editors integrity at representing the whole message. Personally, my work involves assessing data and multiple sources to determine where our current understanding lies; it seems that many internet posters lack such skills and are ready to trust random sources and even ignore basic errors that discredit the source’s reliability.

    The more cogent issue about the radiation levels actually regards the risk imposed by radioactivity and safety levels. I think the major point here is we don’t know. Examples or this are areas where people have lived for thousands or years with natural background radiation exceeding levels that if detected near a nuclear power plant would invoke immediate shutdown. We also don’t really understand accumulated doses over long time periods – so the government panels on the advice of experts and lobbied by food standards agencies and pro-nuclear groups make a choice that is most likely extremely conservative. It’s worth noting that, despite all the safely breaches, on paper, Japanese radiation protection laws are extremely tight including the food limits; unlike the rest of health and safety regulations that I’ve come across here, which in the most part are rather scary.

    To deal with a few specific points – worker dose levels: the new limit in Japan is greater than European rates (although some countries seem to have different limits and this doesn’t take into account emergency situations), but USA has the same limit for emergency situations as the new limit in Japan. Tepco has a lower self-imposed limit, but several workers have exceeded this (but still below 250mSv) and indeed these workers will have an increased risk of cancers over their lifetime (no where near as much as smokers) – but it is precisely because of these risks that pay in higher in dangerous jobs. I do wonder what the long term screening process will be like for these heroic workers, although as they are mostly contractors, I have doubts how carefully they will be looked after. Interestingly, the post-Chernobyl screening has been so vigorous many early cancers have been detected that most likely had nothing to do with the plant accident were detected and mostly wouldn’t not have developed into pathology. Thus, skewing the cancer figures in the irradiated population – I wonder how many lives could be saved if such a cancer screening programme could be extended to everyone?

    @Kurofune – I agree that people do tend to look for information to support their beliefs. I feel I take a neutral view and my only real interest in this matter is the safety of my family and me so I’m erring on the side of caution. I have no knowledge of energy economics, but in my simplistic view energy security seems to justify the subsidies for nuclear power that governments of oil-poor countries have gone for. Reckoning in the cost of this disaster, may well change that balance, but there are other advantages to being a nuclear nation. I would be interested to be educated about economics of alternatives to nuclear power. Also, the oil industry didn’t fare too well in the aftermath of ‘quake – I’ve not seen anything reported about the danger of toxic spills from these plants or deaths from the resulting fires.
    I do have good grasp of the current understanding of health risks of persistent radiation exposure though – my brother-in law is a molecular geneticist who studies DNA damage, interestingly the levels we are seeing even in the voluntary evacuation zone may in fact increase DNA repair and so reduce cancer rates. I will get onto the long term dose effects shortly.

    @Doug regarding my quote “..If any commentators have any evidence regarding current food or water in Japan being hazardous to health, or reasons why the official system of certifying food safety is failing – please tells us and provide a source…” Thank you for pointing out my overly aggressive and incorrect request. What I was question whether food in the supply chain that was contaminated had reached consumers – I would think that some organizations are independently checking. The article you cite reassures me – even in areas far from the site of the leak, serious testing is being undertaken of items for human consumption. As the article says the tea shipments are currently suspended. There have of course been other documented contaminated food produce, as well as drinking water, that exceeded limits e.g. most leafy plants from Fukushima Prefecture, water out of one Tokyo processing plant and out of several further north, and of all the fish tested only one species, Konago, have breached the limit. In all these cases supply was restricted either voluntarily or by law, or precautionary measures were taken. I apologize for the tone of my question – I hoping to discover if anyone had come across evidence that dangerous products had made it through the checking system.

    So now the limits in food and drink – these are set by each country and there is no internationally agreed standard as far as I know. Japan’s limits are strict, but simple – until recently there was not limit imposed for meat or fish, but it as now been set at the vegetable level 500Bq/kg, drinking water is set at 200Bq/kg for adults and half for infants. I’ve seen these limits referred to as interim limits, so I guess they are currently working to come up with new standards. Other countries have more detail limits for different types of food product – for example in Europe the figures range between 600-12,500 Bq/kg and in USA the figures are more complicated, but they are currently (or just have) increasing them. As far I can gather, the numbers come from working out the total annual dose based on a particular level of consumption, with the aim the radiation intake should be no more that 5mSv per year, but considering vegetables, fish, and meat all have one limit not sure how that is really calculated. In terms of the dose levels, over around 100mSv until you reach acute doses that cause immediate damage, there is a direct correlation between dose and in increase in cancer risk. Under this level, the relationship is less clear; with many researchers now indicating this is a threshold level below which risk drops off rapidly. Oh, and before I’m criticized for simplifying again – there are different limits for particular radioisotopes in place, mostly the limits which matter to us now relate to caesium. A 5mSv annual dose was previously calculated based on a linear risk model at all doses and many countries based their limits on this. Other people still say that any dose is dangerous as it yields DNA damage, but the effect will depend on how much this damage will stimulate repair mechanisms – so the importance of instant level over annual dose or lifetime dose can be argued. Basically, the limit is pretty arbitrary and conservative – 1 liter of 199Bq/kg water is not going to do anything different than 201Bq/kg and even the stuff which the government has ordered to be destroyed would do no immediate harm – it’s based on risk increase over long term consumption. Similarly the expanded evacuation zone are based on annual exposure from the current background radiation – not sure what value they have calculated this from, or why some foreign governments have place their advisory zones at 60 or 80km. Regarding your question about the now expanded area that seems to have contaminated crops – yes this is worrying. In terms of other types of crops, I don’t know. Different crops will absorb particles differently and also have different rates of retention; mostly likely other crops in these areas (and even further away) will breach current limits. With this widespread contamination, I’m sure that the 5mSv annual dose will be exceeded for many people despite eating produce that is below the limits and pronounced safe. With the tea in question, a lot will depend on how you brew it and how much you drink over a year, and if it were allowed to be sold then consumers will suffer an increase in radiation dose over time. This is where it gets tricky – when the government ban trade in a product, the door is opened to compensation demands from Tepco (which is going to struggle to meet these demands, so I guess one way or another we Taxpayers will cover the costs), even with compensation, it likely that due to the economics of farming a lot of farmers aren’t going to able to recover from this problem, which will worse Japan’s balance of food import/homegrown even further. On the other hand, it’s going to be hard for Japan to change the limits as this will be reported internationally and Japan will look bad (even if the new limits are in line with other countries) and, at home, the government is going to have a tough time convincing people these levels are safe, without undermining the residents of Japan’s faith in the testing system further. Fundamentally, the limits in Japan are outdated and not based on modern accepted scientific models, however, it doesn’t seem like they had any reason to quietly adjust them in the past and any adjustment now is going to cause a problem. To reassure you, nothing has been measured in food that would be considered unsafe in Europe, but you are right that limits weren’t set with the idea that everything you consume is increased in radiation and that the idea of an annual dose and the level it is set at isn’t proven – maybe a monthly dose or a five yearly dose makes more sense? 5mSv/year is less than the extra long-haul aircrews get and a little bit more than the average European currently gets from Chernobyl (there is an increase in pathology in aircrews over time, but whether this is from cosmic radiation or dysregulation of circadian rhythms or other effects is still debatable). Personally I wouldn’t like to be in the shoes of the person who has to decide about safety limits. I mean, was it responsible to announce that the water in Tokyo was unsafe for children – the government had to start issuing free bottled water, much panic ensued and stockpiling – I’m sure they knew that the effect would be temporary and wasn’t really a risk, but with the independent scrutiny they had to act to been seen to be in control and not covering things up. Science and politics are uncomfortable bedfellows; look at the recent drugs committee debacle in the UK – sometimes scientific advice goes against what people innately believe and it’s a difficult balance to give the uninformed public what they want versus what they need. In summary, 1) I don’t think the tea poses much of a risk – but this will all depend on what else is low-level contaminated and how long this continues for (if it stays in the soil, it could be many years) 2) there is going to be a lot of discussion somewhere about what annual dose is safe and how that translates realistically to individual products – and then how to convince people that any increase in the limits is safe 3) I reckon there is going to be a lot of politicians or celebrities on TV eating food that exceeds the current (“interim”) limits but meets “new” EU/USA level limits.

    @Dr H – thanks for your excellent and simple summary of some of the science. I don’t think it is scaremongering, I’m just a bit sensitive to the sensationalist and emotionally-coloured terms that have been bandied about that make relatively ordinary things sound quite scary. Regarding your opinion on cancer caused by tea-drinking, I think even with massive consumption, it will still be an insignificant dose over time. Even with a 100mSv dose (which you’ll agree tea-drinking will get you nowhere near) cancer risk is only marginally increased in the timeframe you discuss.

    I hope that answers any questions, but I don’t claim to be all-knowing in this field. For better practical information, the UK chief scientific advisor, Professor Sir John Beddington, who has been issuing excellent (and conservative) advice via the UK embassy is coming to Japan and after a series of meetings over the next few days will be giving a seminar entitled “Science Advice in a Crisis: Fukushima and its Aftermath”. It will be hosted by Akira Ikegami and it will be available bilingually as a live stream in Japanese or English on 30th May at 2.30 pm. Details and links to the web streams here:
    Apparently you can ask questions live via Twitter (whatever Twitter is)

  • @Doug,

    It sounds like you’re thinking that the radioactive particles are sitting on the surface of the leafy vegetables. While that is a problem, it may be more significant that the particles are in the soil, and then the plants take them up in their roots. From there, the plant can transport it into the shoots, and it will get stored inside the cells of the plant. If that’s the case, then it can’t be washed off of the produce. That’s the idea of phytoremediation, where scientists use plants to draw up contaminants from the soil so that it can be removed. Oftentimes they can harvest the plants, incinerate them, and thus concentrate the ash and pollution into a container rather than having to deal with removing tons and tons of topsoil. Certain plants can be used to remove all sorts of contaminants, from oil spills to arsenic to mercury to radioactive materials. It will be interesting to see if any university groups try to get funding to use cesium accumulator plants to clean up the areas around Fukushima.

    When I said “small percentage” of people drinking the tea, that would mean the percentage of the population that is genetically predisposed to having low cancer-protection anyway. Therefore only a small amount of carcinogenic exposure could lead to cancer. I do agree that a 100mSv dose is highly unlikely. Again, better safe than sorry, so I wouldn’t advise using this tea in matcha form, where the entire leaf is pulverized and included in the product.

    Perhaps we should consider a larger view here though. Sure, these people might be drinking the tea, but they are also eating the produce, drinking the water, walking outside, etc etc etc… Any one of these exposures is minimal, but collectively it can have the potential to be problematic.

    I understand your concern to reassure your family, I had to do the same thing with mine when I traveled to Tokyo. They were convinced I’d come back and not be able to have children. *eyeroll* At the same time, it doesn’t do to be flippant about a potentially serious problem. These people live with the very real specter of the bomb in the past, and the very real risk from despots such as Kim Jong-Il. Maybe this should serve as a good wake-up call to the government to have contingency plans in place, for future disasters and for potential terrorism. Seismologists are fairly convinced that another quake could occur just south of the Tohoku quake. They can’t predict a time scale (tomorrow? a century?) but they have measured the stress on the plates and can pinpoint the location. Unfortunately, it’s a feature of the country itself to be at risk of quake and tsunami.

  • Nogbad and Dr. H

    Wow good stuff. Thanks for all of the information. We never mixed much with the health physics guys at the nuclear plants I worked at – our interactions were minimal with the exception of safety training and monitoring.

    From a nuclear engineering perspective this is a very severe and major accident (any Loss of Cooling Accident is), however I agree the higher level risks will remain localized. So yes I still call this a catastrophe, but this is from an engineering perspective. I agree lots of folks overreacted however on the other hand the majority of the Japanese public does not trust the information they are getting from TEPCO or the Japanese government and I think there is some validity to this.

    Nogbad I do not think your quote was incorrect at all. It is a valid question and it actually led to this very good exchange of information.

    Thanks to both of you the further explanations.


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