Unthinkable nuclear woes may yet become normal in Japan

Sat, Jun 11, 2011, 01:00

Not much is worse than children having radiation metres strapped to their chests, writes DAVID McNEILLin Tokyo

FROM THE countryside of post-disaster Japan come two starling stories: 8,000 schoolchildren in Date City, 60km from the ruined Fukushima nuclear power plant, are to be given dosimeters to measure radiation. Thousands more children in day-care centres, kindergartens and primary schools in towns and villages around the area are likely to follow suit.

Meanwhile, hundreds of kilometres southwest, officials in Shizuoka Prefecture, home to the nation’s tea-growing industry, have reportedly asked Tokyo retailers to refrain from informing consumers that above-normal levels of radiation have been detected on tea leaves. The prefecture felt that issuing the warning could “fan public anxiety”, said Kyodo News.

It’s hard to imagine something much more frightening than five-year-olds marching off to irradiated school playgrounds in the morning with Geiger counters strapped to their chests.

Yet otherwise, the story, exactly three months since Japan’s worst ever seismic event on March 11th, is a very predictable tug of war between those who want business as usual, and those who say nothing will ever be the same.

With memorable exceptions, including the elite professor who burst into tears on national TV because he couldn’t toe the government line on radiation, officialdom and business have united in assuring Japan that nuclear power is safe. Industry minister Banri Kaieda said yesterday that without the nation’s 54 reactors, 30 of which are off-line, the economy would be effectively crippled.

The government says it is screening food and water, monitoring the fallout from the Fukushima plant, and evacuating those in real danger. Dissenters will be out in force across the country today, protesting this line and demanding the permanent shutdown of the reactors. Most people will sit at home, frustrated and anxious at the lingering atomic crisis on their doorstep.

In carefully modulated dispatches, Fukushima plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co has made it clear the crisis is not over. Frantic efforts to cool the complex after the world’s first triple meltdown have left a staggering 100,000 tons of highly radioactive water on site, which could leak. The threat of more explosions has not been ruled out.

Observers in the press lament the once unthinkable: a new generation of hibakusha – the name given to survivors of the twin nuclear blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. About 80,000 nuclear refugees have officially left the 30km zone around the plant. Thousands more are unofficially scattered around the country, fleeing radiation.

The nuclear pall and the threat – real or imagined – of tens of thousands of extra cancer victims in the decades ahead has overshadowed the continuing plight of tsunami and earthquake victims in the northeast. Twenty-three thousand are dead or missing. Nearly 100,000 people are still homeless, living behind cardboard partitions and eating donated food in shelters.

Shigeko Oikawa, who shares a single tiny room with her husband and three young children in the coastal city of Ofunato, says many are struggling to rebuild. Next week she will move to temporary housing while the family home is being reconstructed, uphill from where her house was swallowed by the tsunami. Her family, she says, is one of the lucky ones. “We own our land. Others will have to rebuild from scratch.”

Many victims here snort with derision at the political drama being played out in Tokyo, hundreds of kilometres away. Prime minister Naoto Kan is a lame duck, living on borrowed time after bickering lawmakers from his party sided with the opposition to force him out.

Japan will over the summer elect its sixth prime minister in five years, probably to head a ragbag coalition government of conservatives and liberals.

Katsubobu Sakurai, major of the stricken city of Minamisoma, which lost over 400 people in the disaster, says Kan is paying the price for a lack of leadership. “The prime minister could have avoided the no-confidence motion had he said ‘I will do everything in my power to help’, and then moved mountains to do so. But he didn’t. The people entrusted their lives to the politicians – they should have led.”

In the absence of that direction, local people and governments have taken the initiative. It was the protests of parents in Date City that forced mayor Shoji Nishida to announce its plan. Fitting children with dosimeters will cost $300,000, which is the price of protecting the under-15s from annual radiation estimated in three so-called hot spots at more than 20 millisieverts. This is 20 times the non-crisis level recommended by international experts.

Like many stories over the last three months, it is just one more example of how a national crisis can normalise the once unthinkable.