Monday, 11 April 2011

The frog in boiling water

Returning to the nuclear threat from Fukushima Dai-ichi*

What have they done to this beautiful country? Waking to a different world

It is now four weeks since the man-made Fukushima Daichi nuclear disaster, born of greed and arrogance, began. I haven't posted recently because I am too sad and angry, and I didn't know what to say. We left Fukushima-ken four days later after two explosions and a lack of credible information. We have returned to our home 133 km (83 miles) west of the plant after three weeks of keeping our son safe in Hiroshima (of all places) and Kyushu, where we visited, you guessed it, Nagasaki.

It tells you everything you need to know about this beautiful place that we have come back at all, to at least try living with these horribly new circumstances, in what for so many in Japan is an utterly changed world. This community has been so good for our son, and we feel a strong bond even after just two years. There is more information now, and it seems that Oku-Aizu may, so far, be the least affected area of Fukushima-ken. And yet the picture is far from complete. 

We have daily local air readings for microsieverts per hour, but only outside the council offices, not across the area. The one-off reading by our son's school 400m away was double this, albeit still low.  We have no local details breaking this down into amounts of iodine 131, or caesium 137 if any, and no soil testing yet. It isn't clear what effect the remaining snow or the structure of the mountains will have. Are they protective in some way, or could they lead to pockets of concentration? Should the snow be cleared off allotments and rice fields, or left to melt?

Information is inconsistent and contradictory. There appears to be no internationally uniform way of describing risk or radioactivity in a way intelligible to most people. Different figures are given using different measures over different time scales. Relating them to each other is near impossible for the non-specialist. There is particular confusion around short term versus long term risk, with dubious comparisons to things like medical x-rays and international flights being offered. The results of exposure to very high levels seem reasonably well understood, but long term chronic exposure to small amounts over years much less so. I have yet to find anyone among my friends and acquaintances who feels that they understand it, and it thus comes down to who do you trust? The answer, for many Japanese, is nobody any more.

There is also a gap between information and risk assessments in Japan and abroad. Foreign governments, scientists and engineers and the media often have a different or more pessimistic view and there has been much criticism of TEPCO.

The more you read about radiation risks, the wider the disagreements appear to be - across media pundits (independent or otherwise), governments, and most worryingly even the scientific community. The latter are quite poor at making themselves intelligible to the general public. Behind the scenes connections with industry, government, ownership and funding are not made clear, making it difficult to know to what extent the information is being distorted, selected or withheld for financial, strategic, or political reasons. No subject is completely free of this. No doubt behind the scenes the cost-benefit relationship, between how risk is presented and future compensation claims, and the future of the nuclear industry is being calculated. That is just what very big organisations often do.

We are trying to persuade the council to buy testing equipment for the air, soil, water and food, as we all urgently need reassurance that we are not putting our children at risk - with a big, comfortable margin of error, not a 'probably' or 'maybe'. For example the wild vegetable (sansai) picking season is nearly upon us and people are going to start feeding them to their children. There is currently no way of getting them tested. 

Tourism and the sale of produce is also dead in the water without transparent and credible local testing of exactly the thing that people are using or eating.  But local government has the reputation for being change averse and very slow, and because its workers have secure jobs they are less likely to see the urgency of taking pre-emptive steps to preserve the many small producers, accommodation and onsen businesses that will go under. The way that Japanese education stamps out individual flexible thinking will also be an obstacle in responding quickly and effectively to this crisis. As I put it in a previous post

The ability to respond creatively to change is the best insurance in an uncertain world. Fixed curricula with little chance to discuss, ask challenging questions, or freely explore each others minds, do not provide this.

Change is inevitable, and attempting to predict it is risky. Training children to accept and follow rigid patterns based on an assumed future, rather than to innovate solutions for any situation, risks condemning them to struggle and redundancy. 

Institutions, like some individuals, are still in denial about just how changed things will be and are trying to cling on to their routines.

We had a magnitude 7 earthquake this week which caused worrying problems at Onagawa nuclear power station, as if we don't have enough already. There was another 7 magnitude quake today, and the constant aftershocks are really fraying everyone's nerves, and frightening the children. I ran downstairs during today's quake to check on the my son and his two friends. There was no sign of them in the front room, until I realised they had all managed to squeeze underneath the small, low, heated table (kotatsu). Apparently they threw their PSPs and Nintendo DSs in there first - imagine that on the Titanic. You can tell they were scared, because he claims they didn't continue playing them under there.

In the first four days of the crisis the image that haunted me was that of people watching the tsunami approach before they had reached safety - people were screaming 'Run! Run!' But they were mesmerised by its power like rabbits in a car's headlights. We moved because we needed to break that spell. We were, I think, right to do so. 

Some friends say we should stay away, others that it is important to keep it in proportion and listen to credible reassurances. We moved back because our life is here. The radiation test numbers seemed better,  school was starting, and there was a job interview. The disciplined Japanese 'group mind,' in its warmer aspects and remarkable community solidarity is a wonderful thing,  as you will have seen from responses to the tsunami, and draws you in.

The image that is haunting me now, though, is the hopefully apocryphal 'frog in boiling water' experiment. They say that if you put a frog in boiling water it will jump out. But if you put it in cool water, then slowly heat it up, it will stay in there until it cooks. I hope it isn't talking about us.

Update: since writing a Nature magazine editorial reinforces my points regarding information and makes me feel better about my confusion!  

*Please note, the above is a description of my current thinking as an individual assessing risk for my family and is based on web reading. I am not a specialist.


  1. Geoff - thanks for email. I know we spoke on Sunday - but to reiterate my point, i would recommend a return to the UK in the very near future. The uncertainty surrounding the science of measuring radioactive fallout in different mediums such as air, water, soil, vegetables etc. just adds weight to the anxiety and terror that you must all be feeling. A public apology from Japanese gov in thirty years time isn't going to be of any solace. I know the ties that bind are strong but leaving a place doesn't need to mean forever. We are all thinking of you in the UK and hope that fortune and good news are not too far away, for yourselves and for all people of Japan.
    matt & Co. x

  2. Geoff

    I am in Osaka, we don't have a connection to speak of other than being Brits in living in the same country who both enjoy running and have occasionally posted on the fellrunner forum. That said my empathy for your situation runs deep. Kobe in '95 seems a bit tame in comparison, and while there are common threads to these things, Fukushima does really make this one different. Given your obvious attachment to the country I can imagine Matt's advice not being your first port of call. There is some wait and see in all of this, and I am sure that your decision is about where to do that. Whatever your decision maybe there is some solace in knowing that you probably have more choices than most.

    Steve L.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts and concern as always, Matt. We are thinking. Hard.
    Steve, thanks for getting in touch - how comforting the innocence(!) of the FRA scene seems now. You are right, we are very lucky in having options, and we are preparing them in case of further worsening at the plant. Many local people feel bound by work, continuity for children, and group loyalty, and don't want to, or can't think otherwise. I understand it - moving is not an easy option by any means. For example evacuees from near the plant have begun protesting outside the TEPCO offices in Tokyo because they are now unemployed and haven't received any emergency compensation yet. Shameful.