Renewed concern over nuclear response

As Japan last weekend marked the 66th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, concern continues to mount about new revelations of elevated radiation readings following the March 11 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
Evidence of unsafe levels of radiation within the food supply chain continues to emerge, with Japanese media reporting on Wednesday that a Greenpeace study has found radioactivity exceeding government-mandated levels in four out of eight fish samples taken from the Fukushima Prefecture.

The news comes as media reports of recent weeks have highlighted spikes in radiation readings at the crippled plant. On August 3, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) reported potentially deadly levels of radiation in the damaged reactors, including one reading of 10 sieverts per hour. Such levels are enough to kill a person “within a few weeks”, according to the World Nuclear Association, and are 250 times the readings recorded immediately after the disaster.

The radiation findings have further called into question the response of government and industry to the crisis, with renewed allegations of incompetence and dishonesty being levelled against Japanese authorities over the transparency of information released in the months following the disaster. TEPCO only conceded that “partial meltdowns” had occurred in up to three of the Fukushima site’s reactors last month.

In testimony to Japanese parliament in late July, Professor Tatsuhiko Kodama, head of the Radioisotope Centre at the University of Tokyo, condemned the government’s response to the catastrophe. His criticism centered on inadequate radiation measurement methods and the failure to properly protect communities potentially affected by radioactivity from the stricken plant, citing the example of school bus routes passing through areas, such as Iitate-Mura, with unsafe levels of radiation.

Kodama says the “uranium equivalent” of the radiation from Fukushima amounts to “20 Hiroshima bombs”, while the natural decrease in radioactivity caused by the disaster is far slower than that caused by an atomic bomb: one-tenth against one-thousandth of original levels after a year. “We should recognize from the start that just like Chernobyl, Fukushima I Nuclear Plant has released radioactive materials equivalent in the amount to tens of nuclear bombs,” he said during his parliamentary testimony. “The resulting contamination is far worse than the contamination by a nuclear bomb.”
Further criticism was levelled against authorities this week when The New York Times revealed that shortly after the initial disaster Tokyo bureaucrats had failed to warn evacuees in the Tsushima district that wind patterns were blowing radiation spewing from the Fukushima site towards them.

Despite the recent revelations, the ongoing fallout from the catastrophe has largely slipped from the mainstream international news agenda. Australian online publication Crikey! last week denounced the poor airing of contamination and accountability issues in the Japanese press, claiming it has been left to bloggers and social media to accurately portray the still-unfolding crisis.

It is in this context that unofficial citizen groups have begun conducting their own measurements of radiation levels at various sites around Japan. Yesterday, Al-Jazeera reported on one such group, called Safecast, whose US and Japanese investigators have discovered disturbing readings not identified by official government agencies. For instance, on August 7 the group uncovered ground readings of 20,000 counts per minute 28 kilometres from the stricken plant, well outside the government’s 20-kilometre mandatory evacuation zone.

“Getting into this has showed us there is a lack of data everywhere,” says Sean Bonner, the group’s director.
The Al-Jazeera report also quotes Jyunichi Tokuyama, a specialist with the Iwate Prefecture Agricultural and Fisheries Department, who said he was shocked to find radioactive hotspots up to 300 kilometres from Fukushima.

“The biggest cause of this contamination is the rice straw being fed to the cows, which was highly radioactive,” Tokuyama told Al Jazeera, reflecting fears about the effects of the disaster in terms of contaminated food supplies.
In the wake of the ongoing crisis, the Japanese government has pledged to reduce the country’s reliance on nuclear power, reflecting widespread public concern.

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