Coping with Japan's nuclear disaster
Living with radiation
A spreading cloud of economic and human costs
Giving the brassicas a once-over
A PEN-LIKE dosimeter hangs around the neck of Katsunobu Sakurai, the tireless mayor of Minamisoma, measuring the accumulated radiation to which he has been exposed during the past two weeks of a four-week nuclear nightmare. The reading of 43 microsieverts is about the dosage he would get from a single chest x-ray. No cause for alarm, then. Yet he believes the radioactive particles from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear-power plant, 25km from his office, have led this once-prosperous city of 70,000 into a fight for its life.
About 50,000 inhabitants who lived closest to the plant have been evacuated or have fled since radiation levels started to rise after the March 11th tsunami—which also left at least 1,400 of the town’s residents dead or missing. Even though external radiation has since returned to near-harmless levels, Mr Sakurai fears many of Minamisoma’s evacuees may never come back.
Three worries predominate. One, the information passed out by the government and Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), which owns the Dai-ichi plant, may be unreliable. Two, the plant is still unstable, at risk of suddenly emitting vastly greater amounts of radioactive particles. Three, the longer it takes to stabilise, the more lasting damage wind- and waterborne radiation may do to the livelihoods of the farmers and fishermen who are the economic lifeblood of the community. If they go, so does the town.
These worries resurfaced on April 7th when TEPCO started to inject nitrogen into one of the plant’s six stricken reactors. That was to prevent a repeat of the hydrogen explosions that blew radiation out of the plant soon after cooling systems failed in the wake of the tsunami.
Even before that news, Mr Sakurai was saying that he was fearful of another explosion. It was why he continued to discourage hope that the town could get back to normal. “The lack of information is making people deeply stressed and frustrated,” he said.
The prompt dissemination of accurate information is not happening, though. By April 6th TEPCO had managed to staunch the leakage of highly contaminated water from one of the damaged reactors that had produced levels of radioactive iodine 7.5m times the legal limit in one sample of seawater. But that was not before fishermen about 70km south of the plant had caught tiny sand-eels, known as konago, with larger than normal traces of radioactive iodine and caesium. The unwelcome discovery prompted Naoto Kan, the prime minister, to issue a new safety standard for levels of radioactivity in marine products. Knowing the public’s fears of unsafe food (and no doubt encouraged by the promise of compensation), the local konago fishermen had already pulled in their nets for the season.
The fear of contamination is spreading internationally, too, and the government is learning that it is not enough just to present scientific evidence about radiation levels. On April 6th India suspended all Japanese food imports. Neighbouring South Korea expressed concern that it was not warned about TEPCO’s decision to dump low-level radioactive waste into the sea to make room to store more toxic stuff on land. South Korea does not share a sea with Fukushima. But South Korea, like Japan, has a vibrant seafood culture. Rational or not, perceptions matter.
With more emotion than sense, electronic components, machine parts and even towels made far from Fukushima have required radiation checks or been turned back by Italy and China, among others. The Japanese authorities have not helped by falling back on technocracy rather than a more sympathetic response. Shippers have urged the government to issue certificates that would assure foreign ports that goods are radiation-free. Instead, Japan expends its energies mainly attempting to convince shippers about the safely low levels of radiation in the country at large. “The question is how to reduce anxiety, not present science,” says Katsunori Nemoto of Keidanren, Japan’s business lobby.
At a time when the Japanese economy needs help, to date around 50 countries have imposed restrictions on Japanese imports. America, which buys one-sixth of Japanese farm exports, has put products from Fukushima and three other prefectures on a watch list. The European Union has named a dozen prefectures that need radiation tests, yet traders in these places report a lack of testing equipment. In one case, says an executive at a Japanese trading house, tuna that arrived in America was set aside by customs, rotting before it was inspected. A sake brewer on a sales trip to Las Vegas noticed that Japanese food was off the menu at hotels.
So far the direct economic impact of radiation fears on exports is slight. Fishing and farming account for a very small part of Japan’s total exports, even if a disproportionate share in Japan’s stricken north-east. Even so, the reputation for high quality enjoyed by Japanese-sourced food will probably suffer.
At home, the impact on domestic demand may be much bigger. Economists say fears of radiation dampen consumer confidence and extend as far south as Tokyo, which is 250km from the Fukushima plant. Some pundits want the government to launch a publicity blitz to urge ordinary Japanese to spend more. It may do little good, especially coming from a government that does not inspire confidence. Many ordinary Japanese unaffected by the tsunami and nuclear mess either feel a sympathy for the victims or are ashamed to be seen enjoying themselves. The Japanese tendency towards self-restraint, or jishuku, is back in force. People are cutting back on everything from shopping trips to hanami parties to view the spring cherry blossom.
As for Minamisoma, its residents are fed up with paying the price for a nuclear accident at a plant that brought them little benefit—after all, it sent nearly all its electricity to Tokyo. Takashi Shibaguchi, a 41-year-old acupuncturist who lived on the outskirts of the town, says he will never return home, even though he has no money and is sleeping on the floor of an evacuation shelter with his wife and four-year-old daughter. He is rational about the radiation risks to himself, but fears his daughter growing up in such a potentially poisonous environment. “I’m done with it,” he says.