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Fukushima - Looking Back

3.11: Looking Back

It's been a while since the fateful events of the Fukushima disaster and it has quickly faded from the memory of most people who weren't directly affected, however fear, uncertainty, and doubt lingers on in some people.  The worst thing is that most of the things that people seem uncertain about aren't really uncertain.

1. Many people (especially people overseas and non-Japanese in Japan) seem to think the government has lied to them and there is a huge conspiracy theory going on.  That simply isn't the case.  The government isn't perfect, and that is reflected in their less than perfect handling of the disaster.  Likewise, the Tokyo Electric company was possibly negligent in the upkeep of their plants, and the nuclear power watchdog agency was less than effective than it should have been.  At the end of the day, though, the following two facts are true.
a. There was a huge natural disaster, which was the cause of the nuclear plant problems.  The natural disaster was much larger than anything expected, and affected far, far more lives than the nuclear plant issues have.
b. The reports about radiation, etc. are correct.  The government isn't lying about most of the numbers - not because they don't want to, but because they can't!  Besides the official measurements, there are independant scientists, college scientists, the United Nations, the US military, etc., all very capable and monitoring the situation.  It's doubtful that the Japanese government could silence all of them, especially since news is not censored in Japan.  

So, the government and TEPCO aren't perfect, but we knew that - and we found some areas for improvement.

2. People who know absolutely nothing about radiation are still spouting off about it.  In the same day you can find seemingly conflicting headlines like "Doctor says radiation fears unfounded", followed by "Government knew of sky high radiation from day one".  Which one is correct?  Can they both be correct? 

There are two main problems here:
a. There are some people and organizations who benefit from sensationalist stories. 
b. There is a serious lack of education.  The general population is scared of radiation because they don't understand it.  When you don't understand something, but you want to have accurate information about it in order to make an informed decision, you have basically two options.  Firstly, you can consult an expert - someone who does understand what you are interested in.  Secondly, you can research and study the field in question yourself.  

For example: If you wanted to buy a car, you might follow one of these options.  You could consult consumer reports, etc. and follow their recommendation, or you could research the resale prices and total cost of ownership, repair rates, etc., for different cars and make your own decision.  A blended approach might be best to confirm that you didn't miss anything in your evaluation.  What you wouldn't do is follow the advice of someone who knows nothing about cars.

Just for reinforcement, let's discuss another example: If you are the CEO of a corporation, and you need to pay your corporate taxes soon, you can hire outside tax lawyers, consultants, or rely on your in-house accounting department.  You could involve yourself more, send your  accounting department to tax training, etc.  What you sure as hell wouldn't do is pick up one of those books written by tax protesters and decide we don't have to pay at all.

Yet this is exactly what people do in the case of some issues like radiation.  They don't want to (or can't) take the time and effort to actually learn something themselves from accurate sources, and they don't want to consult experts - so they listen to anyone who will take the soap box.  I can fully understand if people don't trust TEPCO or the GOJ, but you can find hundreds of sources that describe the effects of radiation on people, and offer context.  You can also find confirmed radiation readings in Japan from various organizations.  From this, you have two choices:

1. You can conclude that the radiation readings are being faked by a giant conspiracy consisting of not only the GOJ and  TEPCO, but every college, news agency, independant scientist, foreign governments, and even the United Nations.  I've even heard it suggested that when foreigners came to Japan to measure the radiation, the Japanese government modified their equipments to give the "proper" readings during customs.  You can also conclude that all of the studies on the effects of radiation on humans over the years have all been faked in order to downplay the effects of Fukushima, which they somehow knew what would happen (through the use of a time machine?)  You can decide that it's dangerous to step foot in Japan, or at least Fukushima, or that you should only drink bottled water even if you live in Kansas.  (And could someone please tell me why bottled water would be safe?!  Doesn't it have to come from somewhere before it goes in the bottle?)

2. You can check the current and hostorical levels of radiation at various places in Japan, and compare them against typical exposure benchmarks to give yourself some context, and get an idea of the risk.  Words like "Sky High" or "50 times the natural level" are somewhat meaningless.  50 times Fukushima's natural level, but less than natual levels in Iran (where cancer is uncommon)? what does that mean?  

Ramsar has more than 10 times the recommended safe level, yet people are perfectly healthy.  What does that tell us?  Mainly that our estimates of safety limits are conservative. (as they should be!)

What people really want to know is "Is the amount of radiation at location X dangerous.  If so, how dangerous?"  We all get X-rays taken and fly in planes, and this exposes us to radiation.  Burning coal also actually puts out more radiation on average than operating a nuclear power plant.  On the other hand, we don't get X-Rays every day either, so we can tolerate more radiation there than in the place where we live.  While both science and our knowledge are imperfect, we can actually calculate with reasonable accuracy the percent of increased cancer risk, etc.  (Which for most of Fukushima is very very low!)  

What we don't understand makes us nervous.  While we can't expect everyone to be an expert, I think it is reasonable to say that we either trust the experts, or study the subject on our own.  Just don't believe what fearmongers say without understanding it.  

You don't trust GOJ and TEPCO? Fine.  You think the Japanese media is controlled somehow? Fine.  
There are plenty of reputible academic and NGO sources outside the country.  

How about MIT? Are you going to trust a tabloid writer more than one of the most respected academic resources in the world?
How about the International Atomic Energy Association?  Part of their agenda may be to promote atomic energy, but they also need to show that it is safe in order to do that.  If it was operated unsafely in Japan, then they need to point that out as well in order to show that the implementation, not the technology was at fault.

You can also check RSNA.org and many other places.

Even if you don't want to digest too much science and math, take a look at this chart:

This guy did take the time to put together lots of benchmarks and put them in an easy to understand context.
For example, "Extra dose to Tokyo in weeks following the Fukushima accident" is 40 mSv, which is much higher than a dental Xray or domestic airplane flight.  It's also *less* than the additional dose you will receive from living in a concrete or stone building for a year, far less than the normal yearly background radiation dose everyone gets, and less than a CT scan or mammogram.  Most importantly, it is far, far less than the US EPA radiation limit for the normal population.  (And using the US limit is a good guide if you are worried about the Japanese Government raising their own limit to make things seem safer).

You can also see from the chart that typical areas inside the exclusion zone received the US EPA yearly radiation exposure limit in just two weeks.  While that's not very high on the scale of short term danger, it means that it would be safer not to live in those areas, so the exclusion zone was warranted.  

Even so, the lowest one year dose clearly linked to [any] increased cancer risk is 100 times greater than the yearly US EPA limit.  To reach that level would have taken staying in the exclusion zone for more than year - which means that even people who lived in the zone probably don't have to worry about any cancer risk.  (Of course, there are other factors to condsider - radiation varied within the exclusion zone, and if people ingested radioactive things, it could increase their exposure).  

For people outside of the immediate area of the troubled reactor, what these numbers mean is that the radiation reaching Tokyo from the incident was over 200x less than the yearly US EPA exposure limit, and something like 20,000 times less than what would be required for any noticable increased risk of cancer.

If you look at the facts, radiation is just not a significant factor for most of the people in Fukushima, much less Tokyo.  It is a factor of course, in that some areas have levels that are too high for long term continuous exposure.  These levels have dropped considerably since the accident, and many areas that were said to be "uninhabitable for generations" will probably be cleared for people to return to soon.  Contamination patterns aren't always even, and some areas may take much longer.

Here is another link to information written by a knowledgable person:

I hate to keep bringing up radiation fears, because I feel like I am legitimizing them by even discussing it, and we should all just ignore misinformation until the fearmongers get bored and leave the party.  The problem is, some people have nothing better to do, and some (other) people don't realize they are being victimized by those who want to spread fear.

Long story short, unless you live in Fukushima or are working on cleaning up the reactor, you have nothing to worry about.  People who do live in Fukushima should look into more details about their situation.

Either way, a lot of people died or were injured as a result of the tsunami following the earthquake, and a lot of property was destroyed.  People near the reactor who were asked to leave the area had it easy compared to those who's house was suddenly crushed in a giant wave of water, or carried out to see.  People are allowed to go back into the exclusion zone to collect belongings, while anything that was destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami are long gone.  More importantly, of course, there were heavy casualties resulting from the tsunami.  (For all the fear mongering around the nuclear plant ordeal, nobody has even come down with radiation poisoning, much less died from nuclear radiation related to the plant.  It's very unlikely there will be any detectable increase in cancer incidence either).

A lot of people who were scared during the incident now admit that they were being silly, while some people who left Japan are still afraid to return.  More natural gas is being burned than ever to generate electricity, which of course causes pollution.  (Natural gas is also imported, which makes it more expensive).  

Japan was all about "eco" (Green power, etc.) to begin with, and the disaster has only accelerated this.  

Things may be back to normal for most people, but we have to wonder - when will the next disaster strike?

Hopefully, even as things return to normal, we can also have some improvements.  Rather than the regulatory regime returning to the status quo, they should get better at regulating what they are supposed to.  The Government of Japan can examine their failures of communication and come up with an action plan.  Clearly TEPCO needs the most change.  The public should take the time to learn more about tsunamis, earthquakes, and radiation, so that they can discuss them intelligently should the need arise.  

Long term, properly run nuclear power is probably the best (cleanest) option for Japan, but clearly safety policies need to be re-examined.  If a tsunami much larger than we prepared for came along, then clearly we didn't anticipate properly.  If radioactive material was allowed to leak out of the plant, then clearly the containment procedures weren't stringent enough.  Older plants should be upgraded to newer designs, and plants in dangerous locations should be relocated.  

Nuclear power or not, earthquakes are a fact of life in Japan.  Worse yet, while we can prepare for earthquakes by building earthquake resistant buildings, etc. - It's very difficult to counter tsunamis.  There are really only two options:  Build giant walls, or re-consider where you live and work.