On Fukushima Dai’ichi, radiation, and trust in data

Yesterday a friend on Facebook tagged me into a post linking to an article claiming that the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power plant continues unabated. My friend tagged me in because he knew I did research around Fukushima, and though I might be able to comment accordingly. The article in question is quite clear that the recent observations of high radiation, the ones which have garnered media attention, are due to extension of observation to previously un-accessed areas rather than a sudden spike in on-site radiation. In other words, the reason we are getting these readings now is because no readings have previously been taken at those locations.

As a social scientist, I believe it is important to show respect for – and take seriously – different conceptions of what constitutes an acceptable level of risk or uncertainty. The author of the linked article offers one such interpretation, which they are well within their rights to do. However, in response to some of the points in the article about ‘contaminated’ land, ‘radioactive’ produce and effects on the sea, in the interests of balance I offered links to some scientific actions being undertaken in Fukushima and beyond to assess radioactivity levels. What is crucial, I think, are actions coming from inside Fukushima Prefecture by people who themselves bear the ‘risks’ of radiation and do not stand to make significant financial or political gain from decisions taken on the basis of the monitoring data they collect. I spent the best part of an hour typing my response, so in the interests of sharing more widely have pasted below.

The first thing to be absolutely clear about is that the situation at the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power plant is going to be of concern for some time. There is still a lot of work to do to decommission the site completely and a number of issues which need to be resolved long-term around storage and disposal of waste. It would be disingenuous to say there is no radiation or that it is not a concern.

However, I think it is too much of an overstatement to say there has been a ‘cover up’ in Japan. There is a lot of citizen science monitoring being undertaken by people living in and around Fukushima Prefecture to assess radiation levels. For instance, UmiLabo catch fish from the sea and screen for radiation, publishing their results online (http://www.umilabo.jp/ – in Japanese), and Safecast are helping the proliferation of DIY Geiger counters (http://blog.safecast.org/). Plus there is a peer-reviewed paper that Prof Ryugo Hayano (Tokyo Uni and CERN) wrote with a group of high school students to assess external exposure in Fukushima Prefecture – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/articles/26613195/ If you’re interested to know more about what daily living is like in Fukushima Prefecture (which is half the size of Belgium), look at the #life_in_fukushima hashtag on Twitter which is being run and populated by citizens.

The linked article also talks about contamination of the sea outside of Japan. This is precisely what University of Victoria (fukushimainform.ca) and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (http://www.whoi.edu/CMER) have been measuring in the Pacific – again with support of citizen scientists as well as academics and public health officials. They are quite open about the fact that Fukushima radionuclides have been detected on the Western seaboard, but at levels they believe are *far* too low to pose health risks.

For a slightly less taxing take on the situation at Fukushima Dai’ichi itself, there is a manga which was written by a former worker at the plant which has just been translated into English (full version out soon). The writer, who goes by the pseudonym Kazuto Tatsuta, is very balanced in his assessment of the situation at the plant – see https://www.facebook.com/ichiefu/

So in sum, whilst it is true that Fukushima Dai’ichi itself has a long way to go, there is a broad range of monitoring, screening and observation that is assessing living, health and produce in Fukushima Prefecture and beyond. The key thing, in my view, is to keep in mind what the values, objectives and motivations of the people making the different claims are (which is where social scientists like me come in!), and to look at the evidence base they use to make these claims.

As a footnote, I’d like to point out that although I am not an environmental scientist, I have published peer-reviewed work on the social dimensions of risk communication in Fukushima. Please do get in touch via email – l.j.mabon@rgu.ac.uk – if you would like access to any of my papers. 


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