Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Who's still tracking radiation from Fukushima? And who should we trust?

Three months have passed since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant spun out of control and began spewing radiation into the air and sea. Things have settled down a bit since the first jittery days, when the Chinese went on a salt-buying spree believing the iodine in it would protect them, Californians snatched up potassium iodide pills to counteract thyroid-gland poisoning, and Geiger counters flew off the shelves everywhere. Uncertainty fueled much of the hysteria. And the question remains: Who can we trust to monitor fallout from Fukushima?

Within Japan, the major monitors are unfortunately all plagued by conflicts of interest. The two main players—the Japanese government and TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company that operates the site—have so much riding on the outcome of the disaster and such a poor record of handling it thus far that a recent poll found 80 percent of Japanese respondents do not trust what the government says about the crisis and nearly 85 percent think TEPCO is doing a lousy job.

The government defends its initial evasions and obfuscations as necessary to prevent panic. But the Japanese public sees downplaying, foot-dragging, and knee-jerk reluctance to share information. In mid-April, for instance, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology raised the acceptable level of radiation exposure for children in Fukushima by a factor of 20. The move was a blatant midgame rule change, intended to calm an anxious public and free the government from undertaking more thorough monitoring, cleanup, and broader evacuations. The prime minister's nuclear adviser, Toshiso Kosako, furious about the government's flouting of established safety protocol, quit in protest. Parents of Fukushima children rose up in revolt. Finally, in late May, the government restored the acceptable radiation threshold to its former level. (read more)

Reader contributed.