Japanese caught in a blizzard of conflicting information


Millions of Japanese are struggling to interpret wildly diverging assessments of the radiation threat after the Fukushima disaster

YOSHIO ICHIDA is recalling the worst day of his 53 years: March 11th, when the sea swallowed up his home and killed his friends. The Fukushima fisherman was in the bath when the huge quake hit, and barely made it to the open sea in his boat in the 40 minutes before the 15-metre tsunami that followed. When he got back to port, his neighbourhood and nearly everything else was gone. “Nobody can remember anything like this,” he says.

Now living in a refugee centre in the ruined coastal city of Soma, Ichida mourned the 100 local fishermen killed in the disaster, and is trying to rebuild his life with his colleagues. Every morning they arrive at the ruined fisheries co-operative building in Soma port and prepare for work. Then they stare out at the irradiated sea, and wait. “Some day we know we’ll be allowed to fish again. We all want to believe that.”

This nation has recovered from worse catastrophes, natural and man-made. But it it is the triple meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant 40km down the coast from Soma, and its aftermath, that has shoved Japan into unknown, unknowable terrain. Across the northeast, millions of people are living with the consequences and searching for a consensus on safe radiation levels that does not exist. Experts give bewilderingly different assessments of its dangers.

Some scientists say Fukushima is worse than the 1986 Chernobyl accident, with which it shares a maximum level-7 rating on the world’s sliding scale of nuclear disasters. One of the most prominent is Dr Helen Caldicott, an Australian physician and long-time anti-nuclear activist who warns of “horrors to come” after Fukushima.

Chris Busby, a British professor at the University of Ulster, is known for his alarmist views. He generated controversy during a visit to Japan last month when he said the disaster would result in more than one million deaths. “Fukushima is still boiling its radionuclides all over Japan,” he said. “Chernobyl went up in one go. So Fukushima is worse.” On the other side of the nuclear fence are the industry-friendly scientists who insist the crisis is under control and radiation levels are mostly safe. “I believe the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co [plant operator Tepco] is doing its best,” said Naoto Sekimura, vice-dean of the Graduate School of Engineering at the elite University of Tokyo.

Sekimura initially advised residents near the plant that a radioactive disaster was “unlikely” and that they should stay “calm”, an assessment he has since had to reverse.

Slowly, steadily and often well behind the curve, the government has worsened its prognosis of the disaster. Last Friday, scientists affiliated with the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said the plant had released 15,000 terabecquerels of cancer-causing caesium, equivalent to about 168 times the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the event that ushered in the nuclear age. (Busby says the release is at least “72,000 times worse than Hiroshima”).

Caught in a blizzard of often conflicting information, many Japanese instinctively grope for the beacons they know. Ichida and his colleagues say they no longer trust the nuclear industry or the officials who assured them the Fukushima plant was safe. But they have faith in government radiation testing and believe they will soon be allowed back to sea. “All we can do is wait,” says Shoichi Abe, a manager with the Soma-Futaba Fisheries Co-operative, which represents over 1,000 fishermen living close to the plant.

That’s a mistake, say sceptics, who note a consistent pattern of official lying, foot-dragging and concealment. Last week, officials finally admitted something long argued by its critics: thousands of people whose homes are near the crippled nuclear plant may not be able to return for a generation or more. “We can’t rule out the possibility that there will be some areas where it will be hard for residents to return to their homes for a long time,” said Yukio Edano, the government’s top spokesman. “We are very sorry.”

On Friday, hundreds of former residents from Futaba and Okuma, the towns nearest the plant, were allowed to visit their homes – perhaps for the last time – to pick up belongings. Wearing masks and radiation suits, they drove through the contaminated 20km zone around the plant, where hundreds of animals have died and rotted in the sun, to find kitchens and living rooms partially reclaimed by nature. “It’s hard to believe we ever lived here,” one told state broadcaster NHK.

Several other areas northwest of the plant have become atomic ghost towns after being evacuated. This was too late, say many residents, who believe they absorbed dangerous quantities of radiation in the weeks after the accident. Though outside the exclusion zone, mountainous topography in some areas meant radiation from Fukushima’s crippled reactors lingered after being carried in wind and rain, poisoning crops, water and school playgrounds.

Government data on the radiation diffusion was not released, but suspicions grew nevertheless. The young, the wealthy, mothers and pregnant women left for Tokyo or elsewhere. Most of the remaining 6,000 people have since been evacuated after the government accepted safe radiation limits had been exceeded.

It is the fate of people outside the evacuation zones, however, that causes the most bitter controversy. Parents in Fukushima City, 63km from the plant, have banded together to demand that the government do more to protect about 100,000 children. Most now keep their young indoors during the day. Schools have banned soccer and other outdoor sports. Windows are kept closed. “We’ve just been left to fend for ourselves,” says Machiko Sato, a grandmother who lives in the city. “It makes me so angry.”

Many parents have sent children to live with relatives or friends hundreds of kilometres away. Some want the government to evacuate the entire population of Fukushima Prefecture of two million.

“They’re demanding the right to be able to evacuate,” says anti-nuclear activist Aileen Mioko Smith, who works with the parents. “In other words, if they evacuate, they want the government to support them.” So far at least, the authorities claim this is not necessary. The official line is that the accident at the plant is winding down and radiation levels outside of the exclusion zone and designated “hot spots” are safe. Tepco last week said leaks from the plant’s three crippled reactors had fallen over the last month. A government panel in August debated lifting evacuation orders in some parts of the prefecture.

But many experts warn the crisis is just beginning. Prof Tim Mousseau, a biological scientist who has spent more than a decade researching the genetic impact of radiation inside the 2,850 sq m zone around Chernobyl’s single reactor plant, says he worries many people in Fukushima are “burying their heads in the sand”. His Chernobyl research concluded that biodiversity and the numbers of insects and spiders had shrunk inside the irradiated zone, and the bird population showed evidence of genetic defects, including smaller brain sizes.

“The truth is that we don’t have sufficient data to provide accurate information on the long-term impact. What we can say though is that there are very likely to be very significant long-term health impacts from prolonged exposure.”

In Soma, fisherman Ichida says all the talk about radiation is confusing. “All we want to do is get back to work. There are many different ways to die, and having nothing to do is one of them.”