May 15, 2013

This past Monday, Tokyo Electric Company met with the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Association hoping for approval to discharge groundwater from the F. Daiichi power station to the sea. The discharge could reduce the Fukushima Daiichi waste-water build-up by 25%. Testing of the groundwater showed no evidence of Fukushima contamination, but the fisheries withheld their approval, nonetheless. Why? For one thing, much of the union’s membership doesn’t know the difference between groundwater and contaminated water. That’s what federation head Tetsu Nozaki said, “Some members do not understand the difference between groundwater and contaminated water. Many of our members got a wrong idea that contaminated water would be dumped into the sea after being treated.”  (Asahi Shimbun) Added to the naivety issue is the fear that rumors of the discharge being radioactive will further damage the local fishing business. One union member bluntly stated, “Even if it is [only] groundwater, damage to the public perception of fishing will be unavoidable and could hurt our operations.” (Asahi Shimbun)

The issue is the clear result of ignorance and fear. Fishermen in the Tohoku region are typical of a significant fraction of the Japan population. Anything that has to do with radiation and F. Daiichi evokes fear-spawning stories in the Japanese Press; not only radioactive contamination itself, but also the mere possibility of it. Detectible radioactivity of any kind that comes from anywhere near the power station is explicitly and/or implicitly presented by the Press to have come from F. Daiichi. Information concerning the absolute safety of the groundwater is always reported to be coming from Tepco, and the Press plays on the public’s distrust of the company. Fukushima radiation fears fed by the Press have terrorized a nation, including the Fukushima fishermen.

Is the groundwater actually contaminated? Tepco bored twelve “wells” to test the groundwater. Eight of them showed nothing, but four initially revealed a few traces of radioactive isotopes identical to those found in rivers and streams of the region. (The most recent analyses of 5/14 show nothing in all twelve) If the initial trace isotopes in the groundwater were actually due to Fukushima contamination, there would have been evidence of Cesium-137 and Cs-134. Japanese news reports say only Cs-137 was detected. This strongly suggests the source is atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, many decades ago. Another of the trace isotopes was Strontium, which is also a long-lived residual of past nuclear weapons tests. However, none of the Japanese Press reports mentioned the possibility of the Cesium and Strontium coming from weapon’s tests. Not one!

Because the groundwater samples were taken from the earth below F. Daiichi, some fishermen suspect the radioactivity comes from F. Daiichi’s underground waste water reservoirs. It doesn’t matter that only a few liters of leakage got out of the multi-layer sheets that completely line the cisterns. It doesn’t matter that it was entirely absorbed by the material packed around the plastic sheets. It doesn’t matter that none got far enough to contaminate anything in the natural environment. The mere possibility that some of it got in the groundwater is all that matters.

On Tuesday, Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said he will intercede on Tepco’s behalf and seek understanding of the Fukushima fisheries. He stressed the importance of cooperation from the fishermen. Motegi admitted that failure to persuade the fishermen to permit the discharge could greatly delay resolution of the F. Daiichi wastewater problem. But, even if Motegi and Tepco are successful, merely informing the Fukushima fishermen about the difference between groundwater and contaminated water will not resolve the over-riding issue which has simmered since 3/11/11 – mortal fear of radiation experienced by a significant portion of the Japanese public.

The Japanese government and Tepco should do what this writer has advocated since 3/11/11, and educate everyone about the realities of radiation and its natural existence the environment. There are 14 naturally-occurring elements which have radioactive isotopes. These isotopes are not radioactive because of bombs or nuclear plants. They come from the nuclear cores of stars across the universe. The radioactive isotopes of these elements are everywhere…in the air we breathe (such as Radon), the water we drink (such as Tritium) and the food we eat (such as Potassium-40). Construction materials, including granite and adobe brick, contain numerous naturally-occurring isotopes like Uranium, Thorium and Radium. Then there’s Carbon-14, which is found everywhere. We live in a naturally radioactive world. It’s about time the Japanese people were made aware of this… at the very least, the population of the Tohoku region.

One might ask… who will pay for it? Allow me a not-so-modest proposal. The Tokyo government has required Tepco to pay Fukushima evacuees billions of dollars in compensatory living expenses for more than two years. Thousands of the evacuees are either voluntary (not from the exclusion zone) or from communities which have had their restrictions lifted. Many could go home, if they wanted to, but do not because of baseless radiation fears. Some of the evacuees who can go home have admitted they have no intention of returning because they will lose their compensatory checks, which can be $1,500/month or more. Tepco gives millions of dollars each month to people who can safely go home, but are afraid of trivial amounts of radiation exposure they might receive.

Japan should stop hand-outs to evacuees who ought to go home, and use the money to set up a radiation education program for the residents of the Tohoku region…if not the whole country. Oh, the Press and antinuclear Tokyo politicians will call it mistreatment of Fukushima refugees, but it would make a lot more sense than doling out big bucks to people who are afraid of what they don’t understand. Spend the money on public understanding instead of fear-appeasement.

There is an old adage which purports that ignorance is bliss. Ignorance about radiation is anything but blissful, especially when combined with mortal fear. It makes rumors seem real and the unreasonable appear reasonable.