The ongoing radiation catastrophe stemming from three out-of-control nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan has taken a back seat to far graver news events of late: Michael Jackson’s doctor, fund-raising by presidential hopefuls, the World Series, and Netflix stock.
Meanwhile, reporting about the on-going disaster relentlessly repeats the minimization and trivialization of radiation risk that began March 11, with the largest earthquake in Japanese history and the unprecedented tsunami that left over 26,000 people dead or missing and 80,000 still living in shelters.
Radioactive contamination of soil, tap water, rain water, groundwater, beef, fish, vegetables, animal feed and incinerator ash are almost always said to be of little or “no immediate” danger, which helps explain why Fukushima has faded from public consciousness.
“An exposure of 100 millisieverts per year is considered the lowest level at which any increase in cancer risk is evident,” the French Press Agency reported Oct. 6. But the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s official published position on radiation risk is that, “any amount of radiation may pose some risk for causing cancer and hereditary effect, [and] … any increase in dose, no matter how small, results in an incremental increase in risk.”
Contaminated spinach and milk “do not pose an immediate health threat,” reported Giles Snyder of NPR’s Weekend Edition, April 19. Yet the National Council on Radiation Protection declares that “every increment of radiation exposure produces an incremental increase in the risk of cancer.”
“The nuclear crisis caused the worst radiation leak since Chernobyl,” the AP said Oct. 7, as if the accident were over. The same news agency said Sept. 22 that “radiation leaks continue.”
An April 11 Forbes news report grossly misstated the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) official public warning about radiation. Noting that a Phoenix, Arizona drinking water sample contained 3.2 pico-curies-per-liter of radioactive iodine-131 from Fukushima, and that the EPA’s maximum contaminant level is 3.0, the writer concluded: “EPA does not consider these levels to pose a health threat.” In fact, the EPA officially warns that “there is no level below which we can say an exposure poses no risk.”
In spite of evidence of far flung and ominous levels of contamination, the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, had the nerve to tell Japan to be less conservative in its cleanup program planning. The removal of layers of topsoil is being considered by the government, but an IAEA team this month said that would be impractical. About 29 million cubic meters of surface soil, an area the size of Luxemburg, may need to be removed but, “We want the Japanese government to avoid becoming too conservative” in its cleanup plans,” IAEA inspectors said. The IAEA is chartered to work worldwide “to promote nuclear technologies,” while finding a disposal location for its mountains of radioactive waste Japan’s problem. The government recently approved “temporary” storage of millions of tons of contaminated soil and rice straw in state-owned forests.
Japan’s health minister declared Sept. 20 that the beef supply was safe and claimed that the government had improved its testing of food for radioactive contamination. In August the minister, Yoko Komiyama, lifted a ban on shipments of beef contaminated with radioactive cesium.
“The government was saying everything sold in the market was safe before the beef incident, then it turned out to be untrue,” Mariko Sano, secretary of the Tokyo-based consumer group Shufuren told the Wall St. Journal. “It’s hard to believe that now.”
John LaForge is on the Nukewatch staff and edits its Quarterly newsletter.