Radiation and Reason: A Visit to Tokyo and Fukushima

By Akira Tokuhiro and Skye Anderson

I, Akira Tokuhiro, recently traveled to Japan to meet Wade Allison (professor emeritus of physics, Oxford University, UK) and David Wagner (Tokyo-based risk communication expert and consultant). A number of concerned scientists had expressed interest regarding the Fukushima accident. Specifically, there was concern regarding the significance and impact in the nuclear world and also the plight of the victims, especially the evacuees and the workers at the plant.

We wanted to get a message out regarding radiation exposure and health effects and saw a need for a public forum. The unequal standards for radiation exposure and fear, as discussed in Wade Allison’s book, Radiation and Reason, were something we felt needed to be put out into the public domain. At a minimum, we wanted to stir up some discussion, maybe a heated debate.

We hoped to initiate a discussion within the media and public and to elicit feedback regarding our message that prescriptive radiation levels (e.g., the International System of Radiological Protection’s, the Japanese government’s) are overly cautious and not scientifically based at lower levels.

(from left) Two Minami-Soma Hospital hosts, along with Wade Allison and Akira Tokuhiro. View toward plant from coastal road bridge near Namie village. The bridge is located 3-4km from Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Upon arriving in Japan, Allison and I went straight to Fukushima. Through contacts that Allison had made through an exchange program, we were able to connect with high school teachers and a student from Fukushima City and Soma High Schools.

A hospital in Minami-Soma arranged for us to take a tour of some of the damaged sites and we were able to get within 3 km of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant itself, much closer than we had anticipated.

Tokuhiro and Allison, at Minami-Soma Hospital, during discussions with two senior doctors who monitored radiation exposure of evacuees.The hospital is located 25km north of the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Through David Wagner, who sometimes writes for the Huffington Post, we were able to speak at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan (Japan Times report), as well as at the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (slides).

The ACCJ invited several foreign Chambers of Commerce, including the British and the Canadian Chambers. The ACCJ forum can be found on YouTube (ACCJ-Food Safety: October 3, 2011). In addition, we were interviewed by reporters from the Wall Street Journal/Dow Jones, Financial Times, Nikkei Business Page, and a video-based blog in Japan.

View taken from a coastal road bridge near Namie village. The bridge is located 3-4km from nuclear power plant.

The public had a spectrum of views based on various news releases; some saying that our viewpoints were completely wrong. But certainly radiation, whether it’s from a medical isotope or a damaged reactor in this case, does not choose “customers.”

At the very least, we put the discussion out there. Those who read between the lines may be alarmed by our assertion that the ICRP standards for exposure should be reviewed. Nonetheless, some skeptics have now reconsidered. This is good for us. Others were downright against the idea of reconsidering exposure levels. These varying reactions are to be expected. It’s always good to have the debate and to express points of view and exchange information.

Three dosimeter readings at a coastal road bridge near Namie village. Readings show 0.58, 0.40 and 0.529 µ Sv/hr. The bridge located 3-4km from Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Allison and I had a different sense and understanding of the situation. For me (Tokyo-born, U.S. educated), it was sad to see convenience stores abandoned and parking lots that were empty. Convenience stores are really the livelihood of the community in Japan. This is something that will stay with me for a long time.

One of the days as it rained, I wondered about exposure from fallout. My thoughts were not of concern for personal safety, but as I walked through the streets of Tokyo, I noticed all of the surfaces where fallout could be settled.

I really got a sense of the enormity of what happened in Fukushima, and to the nearby regional mountains, rivers, and forests. We visited Fukushima City, Iitate Village, Minami-Soma, all places with partial to full evacuation. We also visited Fukushima High School, where fallout has been measured by the students. Overall, I am still digesting this experience.

Our only expectation for this trip was to have these public forums and to get the message out that the prescriptive exposure rates are overly conservative. We tried to put things in perspective. There is a large psychological element, a great fear of radiation. Allison’s book is appropriately titled Radiation and Reason. We don’t often discuss radiation exposure and reason in the same sentence. We got the message out. In this regard, we accomplished our objective.

Tokuhiro, Allison, a hospital host, and a Soma High School science teacher host. Picture was taken in front of Minami-Soma Hospital, located 25km N of the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Many people supported us. David Wagner, the risk-communication expert, was instrumental. James Hollow, a former student of Allison who works in Tokyo, collaborated with us. Mami Mita, an independent consultant, was instrumental in getting Allison’s book published in Japanese.

This is a good start. These people on their own time believed in the three of us and helped us to have a successful first trip to Japan. You have to understand that Allison, Wagner, and I had never met prior to this trip; we got acquainted through a social network and blogs.

The Fukushima accident was a global event of Internet proportions. There is something to be said about social networks bringing people together with a shared concern for what has happened to the people of Japan.

We are digesting our experiences and looking at the responses we have received. We will certainly look at the response in the media. We hope to return and reemphasize our message in March 2012, during the first anniversary of the tragic events.

On the Web:

A March 26 guest essay at the BBC by Allison, just two weeks after the Fukushima earthquake:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-12860842

Videos of presentations to ACCJ on October 3, 2011.

_____________

Tokuhiro

Akira Tokuhiro is a professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering at the University of Idaho. Skye Anderson oversees special projects for the nuclear engineering and industrial technology programs at the University of Idaho.

7 Responses to Radiation and Reason: A Visit to Tokyo and Fukushima

  1. James Greenidge

    Excellent article!

    Regrettably, what is pitted against nuclear energy acceptance is over fifty-years of bad sci-fi movies, the perception that nuclear energy made its debut to the world as an horrific explosion in a desert and as a “war baby” upon a Japanese city instead of a quiet reactor under a Chicago stadium, and plain gross ignorance on the subject. If I posted that coastal road bridge photo with its caption on any other site, I guarantee 95% of viewers would assume the nuclear plants caused that damage rather than the tsunami. It behooves not just electric companies but nuclear research institutions as a whole to aggressively launch public education programs to dispel the wildly exaggerated fears and myths and bogeymen surrounding nuclear power. (You know nuclear hysteria is really bad when there are qualms and protests of even having nuclear powered space probes and nuclear space propulsion drives which could’ve accomplished three month round trips to Mars _over thirty years ago_!)

    I find it particularly dismaying that most people on-line are perfectly alright with several hundred thousand cases of lung-related illnesses being annually caused by the _regular routine_ emissions of coal and oil plant generation than “risk” the extremely rare nuclear reactor accident which in its whole worldwide history has killed less people than a single plane crash, and between TMI and Fukushima, Zero. Yet how quickly people and media dismiss and forget 11 perishing on a BP oil rig.

    Hammering such industrial mortality/property damage comparisons is the soul of nuclear education (especially since fossil fuel industry ads are making hay on nuclear’s plight and silence) and seeing you and your crew out there fact-finding and enlightening the people involved and doing the nuclear education the nuclear industry and unions won’t do is a welcome sight.

    Good luck to your endeavors.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  2. The author never mentioned “educate” or “education,” except for his own. Akira gets it. We must communicate with the public, answer their questions, respond to their fears, and make information widely available. Our industry has been saying “we need to educate the public” for 30 years, and it’s never accomplished our goals. As an educator I know it never will.

  3. @Denis – we agree. You probably reach a far larger group when you share your love of nuclear energy and automobile racing with other people who love motor sports than anyone does by setting out to “educate the public.”

    Though the term makes many of my nuclear colleagues nervous, what the industry really needs to do is to market itself. We need to use repetition, celebrities, and other advertising techniques to get people interested and excited about the benefits that our products bring them every day.

    It is really too bad that the wrong member of the Sundance and the Kid pair (Paul Newman) died too early to do much to help us aggressively market the benefits of nuclear energy. I know he was leaning in that direction along with his racing business partner, Eddie Wachs.

  4. The need to educate the public more proactively is mentioned in the responses above. However, the nuclear industry would run into a conflict of interest of sorts in this regard. Most power companies that own nuclear plants also own fossil plants burning coal, oil or gas. There seems to be an inherent conflict in the nuclear division of the company claiming that it is much cleaner environmentally than the fossil side of the business. Then, the question of making fossil generation cleaner with expensive scrubbers, etc would arise. At the same time, in the US at any rate a long term solution to the problem of nuclear spent fuel disposal has run into a political road block. On the other hand, countries such as France have managed to forge ahead with nuclear energy with little controversy or fanfare. As long as the US continues to have access to relatively cheap fossil fuel, the current ambiguity about nuclear energy will prevail.

  5. Since radiation seems to be such a good thing. I suggest you download, from my website http://www.beautifulkids.com.au , the most comprehensive study of the effects of Chernobyl on the European popultions – by Yablokov et al.

    If after reading this book – which is full of references and scientific studies unpublished in the West – you remain sanguine, I wish you good luck.

  6. Jerry Cuttler

    The video of my colloquium, Nuclear Energy and Health, at the University of California Berkeley on Oct 17 is available on the Department of Nuclear Engineering website.
    http://www.nuc.berkeley.edu/Colloquia-Fall-11
    It goes for 73 minutes (with short ads) and addressed the issues rasied here.
    The talk was very popular. The University of Tokyo participated via Skype.
    Jerry

  7. Yes, education, not by the industry which is seen by the sceptical to be biassed, but by the rest of us. I have no links to the industry and my visit to Japan was not finaanced by any government or other interest. I am recently retired so free to say what needs to be said. In Japan there was widespread fear and ignorance. I give public lectures, 1 or 2 a week; people listen, question and discuss with interest. The anti-s either do not show or listen quietly, even changing their minds! Listen to the recording of the session at the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. Everybody please tell people the truth and be optimistic about successfully winning the argument. For the sake of our children and grandchildren push at the door, it’s not bolted.