When the Fukushima-1 reactor complex in Japan went into radioactive apoplexy on March 11, 2011, the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Co. — like the Russians at Chernobyl before them — began minimizing the risks of radiation and the known and potential effects of radiological disasters.
The principle mouthpiece for this well-rehearsed minstrel show was Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano who told the world that evening, “Let me repeat that there is no radiation leak, nor will there be a leak.”* Edano is now the Trade and Industry Minister and oversees federal cleanup and recovery efforts.
Independent observers like Dr. Chris Busby, scientific secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk and a founder of the Low-Level Radiation Campaign in England, warned four days into the disaster: “Reassurances about radiation exposures issued by the Japanese government cannot be believed.” Likewise, physicist Nils Bøhmer, with the Oslo-based environmental foundation Bellona, insists that throughout the crisis Japan has been withholding information about radiation dangers.
Even the New York Times reported Nov. 30 on “The gap between the initial assurances given by company and government officials, and the ultimate scale of the nuclear disaster…”
Deception confirmed by UN
Now 20 months later, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health has issued a draft report charging that Japan “has adopted overly optimistic views of radiation risks and has conducted only limited health checks” among contaminated populations, the AP and CBC reported. According to Anand Grover, the UN investigator, “Japan hasn’t done enough to protect the health of residents and workers affected.”+
Previous investigations found that monitoring data from the federal system that tracks plumes of radiation during disasters — called “Speedi,” for System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information — was kept secret when it was needed most. News reports in August 2011 said that the system forecast that Karino Elementary School in the town of Namie would be directly in the path of the radiation plume spewing from the smashed reactors. Yet the warning never reached decision-makers and neither the school nor the town was evacuated. Instead, they became evacuation centers where families even cooked and ate meals outdoors.
Bellona reports that documents obtained by the AP and the New York Times, its own interviews with key officials, and a review of other newly released data and parliamentary transcripts show that “…Japan’s system to forecast radiation threats was working from the moment its nuclear crisis began on March 11, after an earthquake and tsunami pummeled the Fukushima” reactor site.
The UN’s Grover severely criticized the government’s commitment to health care for exposed workers and people in contaminated areas, and complained that its ongoing health checks are “too narrow in scope because they are only intended to cover Fukushima’s two million people.” Surveys of health effects should extend to “all radiation-affected zones” Grover said, a vast area including much of the north-eastern half of Honshu, Japan’s main island.
But so far, only one-fourth of Fukushima’s population has been surveyed. Grover thinks it’s unwise to check only children for thyroid damage. Indeed, Dr. Helen Caldicott told Business Insider last summer that even when lesions are found on a child’s thyroid, they aren’t being biopsied. The lesions “should all be biopsied,” Caldicott warned.
Further minimizing the actual numbers of affected persons, thousands of reactor site workers with short-term contracts “have no access to permanent health checks,” Grover said, and Fukushima residents complain that they have not been allowed access to their own health-check results.
Last March, Human Rights Watch leveled the same charge.^ “We are really not seeing basic health services being offered in an accessible way and we are not seeing accurate, consistent, non-contradictory information being disclosed to people on a regular basis” Jane Cohen, a researcher at the New York-based rights group, told Reuters. Of the 24,228 workers who risk radiation exposure at the reactor complex, only a mere 904 are eligible for free cancer screenings being provided by the government and Tepco, the daily Asahi Shimbun reported Nov. 22. The authorities have limited the scope the $600 checkups to workers who were exposed to over 50 millisieverts between March 11 and mid-December 2011, but thousands of workers are demanding that the time limit be abolished.
Disinformation and denials confounded by science
Official lullabies, denials and attempted cover-ups are desperate shields against the enormous economic and legal liability that would follow any acknowledgment of the depth and breadth of radiation’s likely effects. Tepco said Nov. 6 that it may need 11 trillion yen, or $137 billion, to cover its damages. Tokyo already set aside ¥9 trillion in July as part of the federal bailout and takeover of the utility. Minister Edano hinted last May that the government may cover some of the costs of decontaminating certain limited areas. Comprehensive decontamination is not even being considered because, as the science ministry reported in Nov. 2011, radioactive fallout from the triple meltdowns was found in every one of its 57 prefectures.#
The journal Science reported this fall that 40% of the fish caught off the coast of NE Japan are contaminated with radioactive cesium at levels well above what the government allows.** Author Ken Buesseler of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution concluded that there is either a source of cesium on the seafloor, or it is still being dumped into the ocean by Tepco.
Referring to the millions of gallons of cooling water still being poured into the three destroyed reactors and their waste fuel pools, Buesseler told Radio Australia Nov. 20, “Some of that water is getting back into the ocean, either actively being pumped out after some decontamination or through leaks in the building, so [Tepco’s] not able to contain all of the water that they use to cool.”
The government and Tepco moved quickly to deny Science. The federal fisheries ministry claimed that cesium from Fukushima’s wrecked cooling systems — about 16,000-trillion becquerels, what Science called “by far the largest discharge of radioactivity into the ocean ever seen”— is “sinking into the seabed” and no longer entering the food chain. (A becquerel is one subatomic disintegration per second) Tepco representatives just said contaminated water was not leaking from any of its wreckage.
Oceanographer Kanda at Tokyo University told the journal Nature that his analysis indicates the site itself is leaking about 300 billion becquerels into the sea every month.
John LaForge is on the staff of Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog and environmental justice group in Wisc., and edits its Quarterly.
* Evan Osnos, “The Fallout: Seven months later: Japan’s nuclear predicament,” The New Yorker, Oct. 17, 2011
+ AP, “UN says Fukushima nuclear risks underestimated in Japan,” Nov. 26, 2012
# Hiroshi Ishizuka, “Cesium from Fukushima plant fell all over Japan,” Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 26, 2011
^ Reuters, “Japan too slow in Fukushima health checks-rights group,” Mar. 6, 2012
** “Fishing for Answers off Fukushima,” Science, Oct. 26