March 14, 2013

At the same time as the second anniversary of the Fukushima accident, it seems the Tokyo government is finally coming to its senses. The former government’s desire to soothe public radiation fears by establishing ridiculously-low radiation exposure standards is now being formally reconsidered. Popular PM Shinzo Abe says the new guidelines will be completed by the end of the year. At this point, what the future radiation exposure limits will be is a matter of speculation, but at least they are trying to do the right thing and stop needlessly scaring the millions of Japanese who deeply fear nature’s most natural and ubiquitous phenomena…radiation.

There are generally two categories of radiological exposure limits being reconsidered. The first deals with external, whole body doses and the level which will exclude people from a location. The second deals with radioactivity levels in foodstuffs.

The international radiation standard for evacuation is 20 mSv per year. However, the former regime in Tokyo kept lowering the criteria until they were down to Japan’s alleged natural background level of 1 mSv. This was a de-facto standard – arbitrarily official but not necessarily legitimate, moral, or rightful. As the standard kept getting lower and lower, more and more people were told to leave their Fukushima homes and the exclusion zone expanded so much that some 70,000 people were affected. In addition, about 90,000 outside the zone voluntarily evacuated for fear of the possibility of low level radiation exposure. 20 mSv has never harmed anyone. In fact, millions of people in the world lead healthy lives in higher natural background levels. In addition, Japan’s leading experts on the biological effects of radiation exposure point out that the threshold of harm is 100 mSv per year…five times greater than the international standard. The scientific evidence is overwhelming and Tokyo’s new regime is doing something about it. Will they raise the limit to 20 mSv and allow tens of thousands of Fukushima refuges to go home before the end of the year? Probably not. However, the numbers being mentioned in the Press are between 5 and 10 mSv per year, either of which would allow thousands to return to their still-intact residences. Since a typical medical checkup with a full battery of tests safely exposes a person to about 7 mSv, I think the 5 mSv level is the most likely to become the new guideline, below the international standard but easier to convince the public with than 20 mSv.

The international restriction on foodstuffs is 1,000 Becquerels per kilogram. The former Tokyo government kept lowering the Japanese limits until they became one-tenth of the international standard; 100 Bq/yr. This was beyond ridiculous. It was un-natural. If this limit was applied to some imported foodstuffs like Brazil nuts (~450 Bq/kg) and Bananas (130 Bq/kg), they would have to be banned. In other words, the 100 Bq/kg food limit was set below levels commonly found in nature! That makes it un-natural. Numerous foods in Japan have been restricted because of radioactivity below these naturally-occurring levels, but a bit higher than 100Bq/kg. Once again, the new regime in Tokyo is taking the reasonable path and re-considering the de-facto radiological limit imposed by the former regime. What will the new food standard be? I’m guessing 500 Bq/kg.

I just can’t see Japan reverting all the way back to international standards. The public has been conditioned to unrealistic, un-natural limits for more than a year. The new government says they are committed to Japan having the lowest radiological standards in the world, so raising them to the international levels would contradict that policy. It should be noted that while the Shinzo Abe government is routinely identified as pronuclear by the Japanese Press, they should be more-correctly viewed as nuclear-neutral. They are proceeding with caution. They will scrap those nukes considered too dangerous or too old by the new government watchdog (NRA). It only follows that they will set radiation standards below the rest of the international community…but not ridiculously, un-naturally below them. If the new regime was really as pronuclear as the Press makes it out to be, new nuke restarts would happen as soon as the new NRA regulations are handed down in July…and that just isn’t going to happen. Abe’s government is neither pro- nor antinuclear. They are in between, and that’s what I think their radiation standards decision will be…in between the old, ridiculously restrictive limits and the international guidelines.

Making the national standards more realistic, based on real-world evidence, will unquestionably produce a major uproar from the multitude of Japanese who believe there is absolutely no safe level of radiation exposure. There is no doubt that these nay-saying voices will be given full coverage by the largely antinuclear Japanese Press. Regardless, the former government’s politically-expedient-feeding of radiation fears was unrealistic, unethical and psychologically damaging. Japan’s wide-spread phantom fear of low-level radiation exposure should be replaced by understanding, if the future changes go hand-in hand with public education. Not a “what-if” education, but one steeped in “what-is”. Let the Press howl. Let the international bastions of antinuclearism issue their rhetorical condemnations. Japan’s new government should do the correct thing and raise their limits by at least a factor of five, educate the public on the correctness inherent to the change and let the interim public relations’ chips fall where they may. If they do, their public will be as safe as they are now and the second anniversary of 3/11/11 will witness a triumph of reason over irresponsibility.