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Tokyo: a long way from Chernobyl

Sophie Knight reports from Tokyo on how the foreign press seems more interested in scare stories than reporting reality.

Sophie Knight

Topics Science & Tech

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Californians buying up iodine. British citizens ‘starving’ in Tokyo. French residents ‘swamped’ by a ‘toxic cloud of radiation’. Foreigners urged by their embassies to escape.

In reality, everyone in Tokyo is fine. I’ve stopped worrying about filling my bathtub up with water to draw on in case the tap water is contaminated, or wearing a mask for those invisible dregs of iodine and caesium floating through the sky. The level of radiation in the atmosphere today in the capital is 0.15 microsieverts, while normal levels for cities worldwide is 0.2 microsieverts. The only thing I’m worried about getting ‘exposed’ to is the sensationalism in the foreign press that is causing widespread panic.

There’s a fine line between reassuring our families and friends abroad that we’re all well, and appearing blithely impervious to the suffering 150 miles away. I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds triviality awkward at the moment, or who feels guilty for laughing or enjoying themselves. I do want to stress, however, that life in Tokyo is going on almost as normal. I know from my friends and colleagues battling to convey this to their families that it is difficult to parse this image with the reports on American and European television. The masks seen in press photographs are to ward off hay fever, not to protect against radiation. Children are playing in the streets, the shops have re-stocked, and the ‘ghost town’ is a consequence of the train disruptions introduced to conserve electricity for diversion to the stricken areas.

Looking towards Miyagi, Fukushima, Iwate and Ibaraki prefectures, no one in Tokyo – other than those who have lost relatives and friends – has the right to complain about the inconvenient consequences of the quake, such as blackouts, empty shelves in shops, and disrupted train services. People aren’t exactly having the time of their lives in the capital, but they feel extremely lucky to be there rather than in the northeast.

There are two main things I want to make clear. Firstly, while the Fukushima Daiichi plant is still not stable, there are several reasons why there will not be a spread of radioactive material significant enough to have health impacts beyond the 30-kilometre evacuation zone.

Secondly, people have complained that both the Japanese government and the plant’s operators, TEPCO, have refused to discuss a ‘worst case scenario’, whereas the American and European press have been all too happy to oblige. The supposed lack of information in Japan (or rather the typically Japanese vague manner of speech and expression) has created a vacuum, into which the dark sludge of paranoia from the foreign press has poured. We need to evaluate the opinions of experts who actually have a grasp on the numbers and understand what different levels of radiation imply for human health, rather than meaningless figures such as ’20 times higher than normal’.

The general public, of course, is rarely rational in its response to such intense and hysterical media coverage. For every event, whether it is a natural disaster or a political crisis, there is always an extreme dislocation between actual events and the ‘angle’ given by journalists weary of the string of disasters they are made to report on.

In this case, the baseless scaremongering of the foreign press about the risk of radiation poisoning has had significant consequences. Firstly, on an emotional level, it detracted attention away from those really suffering, and made this tragedy about the suffering of Americans who are apparently going to get irradiated because of Japanese incompetence. Secondly, on an economic level, it has put both foreign residents in Japan and the Japanese economy out of pocket, thanks to the astronomical airfares they paid to get out, and the struggling unstaffed companies they left in their wake. Thirdly, on a personal level, it has caused a lot of stress and worry to the families of foreign residents in Japan, who beg their loved ones to come home. As previous Tokyo resident Craig Mod tweeted, ‘The inability for the foreign media to differentiate between northern Japan and the rest of the country is deeply troubling my mother.’

I know a lot of my friends have to sedate their relatives over Skype every day, brandishing statistics and rational articles, before their fears are freshly inflamed the next morning by the hysterical TV presenters. I even find myself defending the Japanese government, a body I’ve never had much faith in before, partly as a defensive reaction to the battering they are taking from governments and journalists overseas. Despite the multitude of articles claiming that Japanese citizens are becoming increasingly angry at their government, I can sense no more frustration from the Japanese populace than is normal. Most of those getting ‘angry’ are expatriates.

The few of us who refuse to believe the reports are comforted by the assurances of a few experts. Everyone was relieved to read a discussion with the British government’s chief scientific officer, Professor Sir John Beddington, that was posted on the British Embassy’s website, in which he said: ‘Let me now talk about what would be a reasonable worst-case scenario. If the Japanese fail to keep the reactors cool and fail to keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level, you can get this, you know, the dramatic word “meltdown”.’

But what does ‘meltdown’ actually mean? Beddington explained that the worst-case scenario was one in which the reactors could not be cooled and pressure in the containment vessel could not be controlled. If that happened, the reactor core would melt and drop down to the floor of the container. It would then explode, releasing radioactive material that could go up to 500 metres in the air. But he emphasised that even with this worst-case scenario, ‘the problems are within 30 kilometres of the reactor’. Even if you had prevailing weather carrying radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo, with rain, there would be ‘absolutely no issue’. An important difference is that at Fukushima, the nuclear reaction was moderated by water; at Chernobyl, the moderator was graphite which, when exposed to the air, caught fire and helped to blast the radioactive material 10 kilometres into the air, enabling it to spread much further afield than could happen at Fukushima.

The explosions we have seen at Fukushima have not been nuclear, but are caused by vented hydrogen gas being ignited. The nuclear-fission process was halted as soon as the earthquake hit Fukushima. The problems started with the tsunami, which damaged the power supply that was necessary to cool the fuel rods. Without power, it has been a race to continue cooling the fuel rods and to keep them submerged in water so that they do not heat up and produce too much steam. The first explosion at reactor no.1 happened when both heat and pressure built up inside the primary containment vessel, and TEPCO decided to release some of the steam to avoid damaging the vessel. The hydrogen in the steam escaped into the secondary vessel and was sparked by something, causing a blast.

Once the supply of electricity is fully re-established and the pumps are able to be restarted, there will be a steady supply of water to cool the reactors and the ponds where the spare fuel is stored, and we will be out of the danger zone.

So why have the French and American embassies begun to evacuate their nationals? I would suggest that they are mainly doing it in response to the fears ignited by the media. They want to evade criticism that they are not sufficiently protecting their citizens. France perhaps has reason to feel jumpy, since there were widespread suspicions that increases in thyroid cancer after 1986 were due to radiation from Chernobyl. However, in a 2006 report, the French Institute of Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety said that no clear link had been made, and that other kinds of thyroid cancer, unconnected to radiation, had also increased threefold in the same period. This case illustrates the kind of fear and paranoia that surrounds radiation.

Nevertheless, this week the French Embassy organised two Air France flights from Narita and one from Kansai airport to fly home any French nationals who wished to leave. The United States’ offer was less generous, seemingly designed to dissuade all but the most desperate, since they would be flown to a ‘safe haven’ in Asia where they would have to organise their own accommodation and also pay for the flight themselves. The US Embassy has stated that it does not believe that current radiation levels pose a threat to public health, but that they will assist people in leaving if they wish.

What has probably caused some of the confusion and fear is that it has been implicitly acknowledged that the radiation levels at the Fukushima plant will have some impact on the health of the workers who have remained working there. Nicknamed the ‘Fukushima 50’, from the number of workers on a shift at any one time, 200 workers have bravely volunteered to remain in the plant to cool the reactors. Already recognised as heroes, everyone in Japan is incredibly grateful for their sacrifice. Five workers have died since the quake (though none of radiation poisoning) and 22 more have been injured for various reasons, while two are missing.

Fears for these workers were only exacerbated when the government rushed through a quick change to the safety regulations, which now allow workers to be exposed to 250 millisieverts per year, up from 100 millisieverts per year. The highest level measured at the plant so far was 400 millisieverts per hour last Tuesday morning, which could produce symptoms of radiation sickness in a few hours. But levels at the gate dropped later that day to between 0.6 to 11.9 millisieverts per hour, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and down to 0.2794 millisieverts per hour on Friday March 18, after the Self Defense Forces cooled the fuel ponds by spraying water from a truck.

These radiation levels need to be put into perspective. People who lived near Chernobyl when it went into meltdown got a dose of 450 millisieverts over the course of several days. To have a 50 per cent likelihood of death within a month, however, you would need a dose of 5,000 millisieverts.

The panic in Tokyo was caused by the announcement last Tuesday that radiation levels were 20 times higher than usual. But not only was that still a minuscule amount – about the same cancer risk as smoking one cigarette per hour – it went down by a factor of eight later. Since Thursday, radiation levels in Tokyo have remained at normal levels, giving the equivalent of 0.2 millisieverts per year. A single x-ray would deliver a dose of 0.2 millisieverts at once. Ironically, those who ‘escaped’ Tokyo to go to New York received almost the same – an average of 0.2 millisieverts – just passing through airport security and travelling on a plane.

The impact of radiation on health, or the correlation with cancer rates, depends entirely on dosage. We are all exposed to a certain amount of background radiation from various sources, including outer space, cigarettes and even bananas. Like any substance, including salt, vitamin C or even water, it is only in excess that it is dangerous. The two main radioactive substances causing concern – iodine and caesium – are heavier than air, so even with strong winds blowing from Fukushima towards Tokyo, they will not adversely affect Tokyo, as Geiger counters in the capital have shown in the past few days.

I think the fear of radiation poisoning is irrational and baseless. We must turn our attentions to those who are actually dying at the moment. Four people froze to death in a gymnasium in Miyagi last Thursday night because they had neither kerosene heaters nor blankets and it was snowing outside. Rescue crews have given up, since they say there’s little chance of finding someone alive in the ice. There are reports of five people sharing a fist-sized rice ball because supplies are not getting through. The authorities now expect the death toll to rise to above 20,000, maybe even more, as the bodies float in on the tide. The shock and suffering is multi-dimensional and enormous: they’re grieving, starving and freezing.

I may not be Japanese, but I feel fiercely protective and proud of my adopted country right now. I wish that the countries spending huge amounts of time, money and energy evacuating their citizens from Tokyo would spend the same on helping people in a very dire situation in northern Japan.

Sophie Knight is a writer and translator living in Tokyo. An earlier version of this article was published by HESO.

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Topics Science & Tech

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