September 9, 2013
Nuclear Spill Upgraded To ‘Hell, I Dunno, What Do You Think?’
With something like a nuclear disaster, especially one such as that at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, which apparently keeps getting worse years after the earthquake that caused it, you expect that someday soon there is going to be an announcement from the government saying, “Look, we’re all absolutely screwed. OK, not only us Japanese, but anyone who intends to eat any fish again ever.”
But instead, confusion and mixed messages seem endlessly to be coming from those in the ‘know’ about the disaster, and not only from the Japanese government. We might expect them to be looking on the more optimistic side of things given the dreadful impact that bad news has on industries such as fishing and farming.
How far radiation can travel, or how far it can travel and still be dangerous to humans, seems to be unclear. I have read that as fish travel they somehow gradually shed the radiation they are carrying (why don’t we do that? If we did, we wouldn’t have to worry about the long term effects) and that therefore fish caught far away from the disaster zone will be OK.
But then this week I read a Vice article that asked whether British Colombia, all the way over in Canada, was safe from the fallout. The overall message was that it is for now, but that B.C. needs to be vigilant for a long time to come. As their source from UBC’s medical school Erika Frank points out, “It’s a problem that lingers for decades and centuries.” It’s the not knowing that kills you.
South Korea isn’t taking any chances. They have recently banned all fish imports from the Fukushima region, citing lack of information from Tokyo about what will happen with regard to leaking contaminated water down the line. The problem for South Korea, like everyone else, is that we don’t know how bad things will get at the plant, as well as not being able to tell how badly what has happened already will affect us.
It seems that the powers that be in Japan aren’t only withholding information for PR reasons; more likely they are bewildered themselves. This was demonstrated a couple of weeks ago when the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) in charge at the plant announced that radiation levels in the leaking water were at 1,800 millisieverts an hour. This was up 18 times on a previous reading of 100, and the explanation is that they previously announced 100 because the measuring equipment they were using could only go up to 100. That’s like medieval statisticians saying, “We believe only seven people have died during the Black Death, but we can only count up to seven.”
Assessing information about the issue is hard enough when you have to deal with terms like millisieverts and becquerels, even if authorities could give us it straight.
But one heart-warming tale from the whole sorry affair is one I heard soon after I came to Japan, when after the initial disaster the Japanese government had declared a lot of agricultural products from the region safe. However, proud and honest farmers weren’t convinced, and despite the obvious risk to their livelihoods they did their own testing on their produce and found it to be unsafe. Maybe they should be in charge.
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