3.11(Fukushima) and Hiroshima

Gray area: Effects of exposure to low-level radiation

Looking back on this series

Five years after the nuclear accident at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant, reporters from the Chugoku Shimbun made many visits to Fukushima Prefecture to interview people facing the “gray area” of effects from their exposure to low-level radiation. In the United States, which opened the nuclear age, these reporters interviewed some of the many radiation sufferers produced in that country. They also gathered information on the current circumstances and challenges involving research into the effects of radiation exposure. The three reporters who took part in this series now reflect on their efforts.

Discussions must involve more than science

by Jumpei Fujimura, Staff Writer

How should we interpret and report the effects of exposure to low-level radiation, which science has not yet clarified? I realized that gathering information for this series would not be easy when, around this time last year, I began visiting the areas affected by the accident at the nuclear power plant run by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).

At a study meeting on radiation that was organized by the municipal government of Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, I met a 44-year-old housewife. I can still hear her words: “I loved Fukushima, but now I don’t know if I still like it.” The anxiety of radiation exposure has shaken her love for her hometown. On the other hand, there are many people who object to what they think are overreactions by others. Regardless of the differences in their positions or views, the reality is that they all continue to face this problem of invisible radiation, even five years after the accident.

“They should have given us more explanations on the risks,” said a 42-year-old resident of Kitakyushu, located in the southern prefecture of Fukuoka. He developed leukemia after being exposed to radiation while working at the crippled nuclear power plant. His claim for workers’ compensation was approved in October 2015, the first such case related to the nuclear accident. He was once in critical condition. Though his illness has now gone into remission, he always wears a mask to prevent infection.

He plans to file a lawsuit at the Tokyo District Court against TEPCO, seeking compensation for damages. So far the industrial accident claims of only two people have been approved in connection to the nuclear accident, with the other man, in his fifties, receiving approval this past August. But there are more than 20,000 workers who were exposed to accumulated doses of more than five millisieverts. The standard for approving a link between an industrial accident and leukemia is five millisieverts per year. “I want the public to have a better understanding of workman’s compensation through this legal battle so that more colleagues will have the courage to claim compensation,” said the Kitakyushu man. This is the beginning of another fight for him.

One question posed by a researcher struck me deeply. The researcher, who is trying to unravel the mechanism of low-level radiation exposure, asked me during an interview, “Are the discussions on low-level radiation exposure scientific?” He said that he was criticized when he compared this with the health risks of smoking. With a frustrated look on his face, he said, “Speaking in terms of human health, there’s nothing odd about comparing the two. But that criticism may be because smoking is simply a matter of personal preference, while radiation is a political issue related to the pros and cons of nuclear energy.”

Smoking and radiation exposure can be considered in the same light when considering the health risks scientifically. But personally, I don’t feel that way. Can we consider the issue of radiation exposure from a purely scientific perspective? I’ve come to realize anew that this theme has serious implications.

According to an analysis of data compiled through epidemiological investigations of A-bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is not clear if exposure to radiation of 100 millisieverts or less increases the risk of developing cancer and other diseases. This is known as the “gold standard.” And the area that remains unclear is called the “gray area.” I feel that this constitutes the basis of the problem.

Even though modern science is not yet able to clear up this matter, we must not let this be a mental block. What kind of life do we want to live? What is important to us? We can approach answers by asking such questions. Science is one indicator, but it does not tell us how to live nor does it define our values. It may be we ourselves that make this “gray area” what it is. We need to keep questioning ourselves in order to find answers for our future.

Need to keep asking ethical questions

by Yumi Kanazaki, Staff Writer

The amount of radioactive cesium that was released as a result of the nuclear accident at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant is equivalent to 168 Hiroshima atomic bombs. Since this projection by the central government was released, I have grown more aware that there are some areas that have not been covered even by Hiroshima newspaper reporters who have explored many issues involving radiation.

Filling those gaps, though, is not an easy task. Our efforts to find clear answers have come up short, to our frustration. We can only imagine the torn emotions the people in Fukushima must have, forced to deal with the problem of radiation in their daily lives, whether consciously or unconsciously.

I had to think hard when someone said to me in Fukushima, “Don’t lump all areas of Fukushima together.” It is an earnest hope: “Radiation levels around us are low. Don’t set off unpleasant rumors.” On the other hand, there are parents who are worried about their children’s health and say, “Radiation levels are different from place to place. When we are told that Fukushima is all right, we are only put under pressure to return home.”

I believe both views are relevant. Radioactive contamination is uneven, especially in areas where radiation levels are high.

I measured the radiation level by a prefectural highway in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture. The area is in a designated evacuation zone, but the road was not closed to traffic. When I lowered a dosimeter close to the ground, the reading reached 78 microsieverts. This is more than 300 times greater than 0.23 microsieverts per hour, which is used as a standard when estimating a radiation dose in an accident to be one millisievert per year. I also collected soil samples up to five centimeters below the surface of the ground. The reading showed 23,200,000 becquerels per square meter, which is much higher than 40,000 becquerels, the standard used to designate a radioactive danger zone.

I drove my car for 15 minutes to an area where an evacuation order was not made. There I saw elementary school children playing soccer in a cloud of dust. I was filled with feelings that are indescribable.

But most people continue to live where they are, of their own volition or out of necessity. They have no choice but to search for safety and reassurance on their own. The government, for its part, should give its utmost support to these people, regardless of what they choose to do, rather than asking them to return to live where they once resided.

As a newspaper reporter from Hiroshima, I looked at exposure to low-level radiation through another aspect of the atom.

When speaking about health risks, often compared, along with tobacco, are radioactive materials released from nuclear tests conducted across the world during the Cold War. I was told that the amount of such radioactive substances is much larger than that from the Fukushima nuclear accident. I also heard that the soil of Hiroshima has more traces of substances from nuclear tests than from the atomic bomb. But is this comparison appropriate? People did not accept the risks from the nuclear accidents or nuclear tests of their free will. It is never acceptable to force people to suffer from such risks. This is what struck me again while traveling in the United States and listening directly to the victims of nuclear tests.

It is important to discuss whether or not there are health hazards from an ethical, as well as a scientific, viewpoint. I was told several times that getting cancer as a result of radiation exposure is as probable as winning the lottery. Even though the probability of getting cancer is very low for an individual, there certainly are victims within a large number of people. What’s worse, if the probability is one in a thousand, this is much higher than the odds of winning the lottery. And for the person who actually gets cancer, the probability equals 100 percent.

In the first place, if you stomp on someone’s foot, you have no right to say, “I didn’t stomp on your foot that hard, so it’s okay.” We must always remember this fundamental rule.

Listen, give consideration to the voices of Fukushima

by Yota Baba, Staff Writer

One man that I met while gathering information in Fukushima told me, “As my child is ready to enter school, I think it’s a good opportunity to move out of the prefecture.” Though there are news reports about the reconstruction of the devastated areas or the easing of evacuation zones, the issue of exposure to low-level radiation continues to confuse the people of Fukushima.

Scientists have been trying to ease people’s concerns, saying that there are areas in India or Brazil where natural radiation is higher than that of Fukushima. However, those who wonder whether they should go back to their hometowns or those who are moving out of the affected areas do not seem satisfied with what these scientists call “reassurance.”

What is at the root of their feelings of discomfort? I see a clue in a book that I read long ago. After the death of Galileo Galilei, philosopher Edmund Husserl asserted that the Earth no longer moved. Though he did not deny the science of this, his point was that human beings have a certain rationality that is not the same as the scientific perspective. This is certainly true. A haiku poem by the Japanese poet Yosa Buson reads: “Flowers of rape, the moon in the east, the sun in the west.” This poem is based on geocentric theory and thus “unscientific.” But this poem suits our human sensibility.

It seems we hold only a scientific viewpoint when we discuss the issue of exposure to low-level radiation. In science, the risks of natural radiation and those of radiation from the nuclear accident are dealt with on the same basis, using the same units of measurement. Scientists therefore say, “There is no need to worry about this level of radiation,” and encourage people to accept the risk.

But the radiation from the nuclear accident is radiation that they have been exposed to unintentionally, thus making its nature different on an emotional level. When people have such feelings, it is not as simple as merely saying that this many millisieverts are acceptable. At an academic conference held in Hiroshima in late October, one doctor from Fukushima said, “When people don’t express their concerns and say that they can’t live their lives if they’re always worried about radiation, they’re bottling up their emotions.” I think this is true.

There is another thing we need to be careful about when it comes to scientific discussions. One example is the argument that the risk of smoking or lack of physical exercise is higher than that of exposure to low-level radiation. This sounds scientific, but there may be a hidden political motive to make the radiation risk look smaller.

Of course, it is worth clarifying the health risks of radiation in order to identify responsibility for the nuclear accident. In this sense, we place great expectations on science. But the issue of exposure to low-level radiation is not a matter that should be entrusted entirely to researchers of science.

The same can be said about the role of the A-bombed cities. Providing figures related to health risks based only on follow-up surveys of A-bomb survivors will not reach the hearts of Fukushima people. They have distinctive emotional wounds, since they were forced to leave their hometowns, or their family or community has broken apart because of the nuclear accident. Through my reporting, I got the sense that what we are expected to do is listen to them and put our heads together about what should be done to overcome the discrimination that has arisen from this radiation exposure.

However, we must be cautious about deciding prematurely that the health risks in Fukushima are high. Some people do not want to be treated as “those exposed to radiation.” I would like to share a remark, which did not appear in this series, made by Shuji Shimizu, a specially-appointed professor at Fukushima University and a specialist in finance: “If your argument is based on the idea that the more serious the Fukushima damage is the better it is for opposing the use of nuclear energy, the people of Fukushima will not feel comfortable with this approach.” It is easy to imagine how they would feel, if we put it this way: “If no trees or grass had grown for 70 years after the atomic bombing, it would have been better for the cause of abolishing nuclear weapons.”

While we have expectations of science, we must also be careful of its pitfalls and remain sensitive to people’s feelings. This is what I have taken to heart as a reporter from the A-bombed city, a place that became a hell on earth when science spun out of control.

(Originally published on November 7, 2016)