Monday, March 20, 2017

After Fukushima: Monitoring Radioactive Contamination

Months after the earthquake and tsunami that wrecked the Daiichi nuclear plant at Fukushima, local Japanese people living in the area took to monitoring radioactivity levels themselves.

Lack of faith in the Japanese government and its assurances that radioactivity around Fukushima remained low meant that locals sought independent information about contamination.

The New York Times (NYT) reported in August 2011, that many Japanese residents in the stricken areas doubted that the government’s standards were rigorous enough and that state bureacrats were testing for contamination thoroughly.

The Japanese are not used to taking such matters into their own hands. In normal times, government officials would be expected to handle civic matters such as health and safety. After the tsunami and earthquake though, faith in politicians and government fell. One radiation expert who worked for the Japanese Health Ministry quit his job when he realised the state was responding inadequately to the danger posed by radioactivity after the nuclear disaster. Shinzo Kimura began instead to help local officials in Fukushima to carry out their own monitoring procedures.

Confidence in government was not helped when a senior government adviser resigned in tears after a news conference on safe radiation levels for children. He quit, saying he couldn’t accept that children should be exposed to such levels of radiation. Fears about contamination were further increased when it was found that radioactive beef from cattle raised near Fukushima was on sale in food stores.

One local woman who began using a dosimeter was Kiyoko Okoshi. Living within 20 miles of the Daiichi nuclear plant, she stayed in her home after the disaster. Her daughter left, however, taking her young sons with her. Although the family quickly wished to reunite in Mrs Okoshi’s home, the two women were not reassured by official statements that contamination around Fukushima was below dangerous levels. Mrs. Okoshi bought a dosimeter and began using it to check cesium levels on forest roads and in rice paddies around her home. The dosimeter detected up to 67 microsieverts of radioactivity per hour – a level potentially harmful to health.

Kazuyoshi Sato is a councillor in the Fukushima region. He was concerned by the cesium levels detected by Mrs Okoshi and sent Shinzo Kimura to investigate further. Sato knew that dosimeter measurements have limited validity. (The machines only measure one kind of radiation emission.) Sato had seen a map of airborne and soil contamination which was produced by the United States Department of Energy. It revealed dangerous levels of radioactive isotopes cesium 134 and cesium 137 around Mrs Okoshi’s home. Shinzo Kimura subsequently verified that those readings were accurate. Worse, he found that soil samples from one area near Fukushima revealed levels of radioactive contamination equal to those found in the evacuation zone around the Chernobyl nuclear accident site in Ukraine.

The Japanese government was undoubtedly overwhelmed by the scale of the twin catastrophe in March 2011 and by the nuclear disaster unleashed by the earthquake and tsunami. The authorities need to get to grips, however, with the ongoing dangers posed by radiation levels in air, soil, water and food if they are to offer protection to the Japanese people currently at risk. For those in the worst affected areas, near Fukushima, the fear must be that a realistic response – if and when it comes – may be too little, too late.


Labels: After Fukushima: Monitoring Radioactive Contamination

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...