The word “irradiated” has such visceral power. We imagine our guts made luminous by Ibaraki spinach, our cells scarred by Futaba beef, our hair and teeth breaking free of their moorings due to the fallout.
The invisibility of radiation polarizes reactions to it: people are either indifferent, or terrified. The former, noticing no changes in the environment around them, pay it no heed, apart from perhaps increased conscientiousness when grocery shopping.
To them, the latter look like OCD freaks: swaddled in masks, gargling, washing their hands incessantly, keeping their children away from trees, drinking only bottled water (all this is pretty standard Japanese behaviour, though, even before Fukushima, to avoid getting sick). I read an article today about families—or more specifically, mothers—moving away from the Tokyo/Kanagawa area to western Japan or further afield because they are worried about the potential health effects of radiation on their children’s health.
Just over a year ago I wrote this piece as a counter to the hysteria in the foreign press about the Fukushima nuclear crisis, explaining why there was no need to leave Tokyo.
As the truth about TEPCO and the plant seeped out, people asked me if I wasn’t embarrassed to have been so wrong. I began to wonder if I had been irresponsible to echo John Beddington, the British government’s Chief Scientific Officer, in saying that the problems were strictly within 30 km of the plant.
It is true that the problems went far beyond that radius. Iitate-mura, a village 40km from the plant, has been evacuated. Fukushima city–63 km away–has higher atmospheric levels of radiation than Minami Soma, a town sliced in half by the exclusion zone boundary. Tea leaves grown in Shizuoka, over 200 km away, were found to contain radiation levels that exceeded government safety standards. We don’t yet know the full effects contamination in the Pacific Ocean will have on seafood; several ports in Fukushima are closed, which makes little sense when you realise that fish can, er, swim. In short, the consequences have gone well beyond the 30 km radius because of the effects on the food chain.
So was I wrong? Others crowed with glee when it was revealed that the reactors had gone into meltdown, feeling vindicated for having left. The same knowing cackle goes up every time a new tidbit of information is uncovered–like cesium in fish 600km away, or TEPCO wanting to abandon the plant–but to me nothing changes the fact that atmospheric levels in Tokyo have remained steadily low since the crisis, despite a momentary blip on March 15th when they soared to 0.8 microsieverts an hour. Those who left by plane were exposed to more radiation just going through airport security. Don’t even mention those who smoked their way through a pack of Marlboro’s as they stressed out about invisible cesium.
I acknowledge that we do not know how things will develop in twenty or thirty years. We don’t know how the radiation will accumulate in the food chain, or in the forests. We don’t know if that iodine silting up the thyroid glands of Fukushima children will develop into cancer. We don’t even know if the workers at the plant– exposed up to 18 or 19 millisieverts a day in the autumn, according to those I spoke to in February–will suffer any ill effects. I also acknowledge that the government’s mishandling of the crisis and failure to release pertinent and timely information completely dissolved the public’s trust in official safety standards and advice. That beef and other products contaminated beyond “safe” levels made its way onto consumers’ plates was, for many, the final straw.
But the more I read about radiation, the less I worry about the health impact of Fukushima, and the more I am saddened by the societal consequences. I haven’t been up to Fukushima anywhere near as much as many other journalists and volunteers, but in my recent trips there, it seemed to be going the same way as Chernobyl: shuttered shops, soaring unemployment, families torn apart, an increase in drinking, smoking, gambling, ill health. The social impact is likely to far outweigh the health consequences.
I do not judge those who have left. I also don’t have children, so can afford to be less concerned. If you apply a game theory “payoff table”, you can see that the only way to have absolute certainty that you won’t die from radiation is to leave:
However, I don’t find this convincing. When making life decisions–such as whether to move elsewhere–there are numerous complicating factors. Sure, health is important. So is having one’s family and friends around, having a job and an income, living in a comfortable environment, having a social life, feeling fulfilled. A slightly increased chance of getting cancer– 0.5% if you are exposed to 100 millisieverts of radiation a year according to the International Commission for Radiological Protection (ICRP), although no one apart from the workers is currently being exposed to that much external radiation–is but one factor in making such a decision. If you truly want to protect yourself and your children from cancer, then you would make your husband quit smoking, only buy organic food, never buy food packaged in materials containing BPA, move out of the polluted city into the country… and probably wear a tinfoil hat, if we’re going to the logical extreme.
I am not advocating being completely laissez-faire. Choosing food not grown in Fukushima, for example, is the best way to ensure that you are not ingesting large amounts of radiation, according to a similar payoff table as the one above. That is not to say, however, that eating food from Fukushima is dangerous, contains a high concentration of radioactive particles, or that it will kill you. But grocery shopping is an uncomplicated and relatively cheap decision. Uprooting your family and your life is not.
Another thing that has augmented fear and paranoia of radiation is distrust of the government. Lack of faith in the “nuclear village”, however, should not blind one to scientists advice, particularly when they are from disinterested parties (if such a thing exists in radiation research). Robert Gale, for example, contends that low-level radiaiton poses little danger to health.
In a country where 50% of people get cancer and 1/3 die of it, the only reason people are disproportionately worried about the health consequences of radiation, rather than any other carcinogens, is because it is a public, industrial accident. If you die of lung cancer from too many Lucky Strikes, or diabetes from too many of those goddamn Krispy Kremes, then it’s fine; we had our fun, and we paid our price. But if you die of cancer because of corporate malfeasance and no fault of your own, it’s a tragedy.