September 18, 2013

Recently, massive Typhoon May-Yi tore through the mid-section of Japan’s main island, Honshu. Nearly 300,000 people evacuated low-lying areas to escape the storm’s flooding – killing four and injuring hundreds. By the time the tempest crossed Honshu and hit Fukushima Daiichi, it was still rated as a tropical storm with wind gusts as high as 85 mph and rainfall estimated in inches per hour. The downpour soon began filling the 15-inch-high concrete coffer dams surrounding the 18 groups of wastewater tanks at the nuke station. Seven of the dam’s accumulated waters registered below the national standard for release of 30 Bq/liter, so plant staff opened the drains and allowed the waters to flow out. Tepco dutifully reported it to the Press and the innocuous release made headlines across the country.

Most of the reports made it seem that Tepco dumped it all directly into the Pacific Ocean. Some illustrative examples are – “Tepco said it dumped about 1,1130 tons of tainted rainwater Monday into the Pacific Ocean” (Japan Times) – “Tepco said it decided to pump [the] water into the ocean” – (Mainichi Shimbun) – “[The] drained water will reach the sea” – (Japan Real Time) –  ”[Tepco] dumped more than 1,000 tons of polluted water into the sea” (Japan Today). But the reality was very different. The waters were not dumped into the station’s drainage ditches (e.g. NHK World; Asahi Shimbun) but were rather spread over the large ground area outside the dams with most sinking into the soil. One persistent puddle was found and tested at 9 Bq/liter of total radioactivity. But, Tepco staff could not give absolute assurance that any of the actual rainwater from under the tanks did not flow into either of the two nearby drainage ditches that outlet into the sea – thus Japan Today’s statement of uncertainty (above). Further, none of the waters pumped out of the dams was discharged to the sea. It was all pumped into empty wastewater tanks at the station – not at all what the Mainichi Shimbun said (above).

However, a few news outlets such as NHK World and the historically-antinuclear Asahi Shimbun practiced restraint in their reporting, and got it as correct as can be reasonably expected. While most of the Press used the term “tainted” as a descriptor for the released waters (Webster’s definition of “tainted” – to make something dangerous by adding something harmful), NHK and Asahi (as well as Kyodo News) refrained from the moniker. They used phrases like “mildly radioactive” and “mildly contaminated” as descriptors. The nation’s #1 newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, didn’t report on the event at all!

I may be jumping to a conclusion here, but I’m beginning to believe that a few of Japan’s leading news outlets are starting to back off the “detectible is dangerous” bandwagon relative to radiation. I hope this trend continues. The Japanese Press, across the board, has been promoting the no-safe-level-of-radiation assumption since the Fukushima accident in April of 2011. No matter how much Tepco and the Tokyo government have tried to temper this journalistic bias, the news media persisted in their no-safe-level propagation. Suddenly, there seems to be some rational light at the end of the tunnel. What could have caused it?

In my opinion, the recent arrival of American nuclear accident clean-up expert Lake Barrett cannot be discounted. He has told the Press that Tepco’s efforts at wastewater containment, to date, have been inadequate. He has also said that Tepco and the government need to do a better job of informing the public of the real risks associated with the events at F. Daiichi. In both cases, just what the Press wanted to hear.

But…Barrett subsequently said that eventually Tepco must release the currently-stored wastewater to the sea after the contained levels of contamination are dropped below Japan’s national limits for release. As we have report previously, Japan’s limits are generally 10 times lower than the recommended standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Barrett also said that a de-contaminated release of mildly radioactive wastewater will place no one at risk. While this is what Tepco and Tokyo have been saying for quite some time, the Press’ distrust of anything promulgated by Tepco and its avowed skepticism toward the government have kept the news media from treating the “official” statements as worthy. Hearing these calming statements from an internationally-recognized expert on reactor accident recovery seems to have struck home with a few of the news sources in Japan.

Are some of Japan’s news outlets starting to get it right?