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Tag: Skewed Media Coverage

Can the cool heads prevail in the vast sea of Tokyo to help Tohoku

Cool Heads Must Prevail To Help Cool The Rods Updated Response to This Is Not Chernobyl

Note: I decided to revise yesterday’s article, which I wrote in a state of anger.  As the comments rightly guessed, I found it hard to disassociate myself from this situation and write objectively.  The small contingent who haven’t left Tokyo feel the same, I think, and those who are beginning to trickle back from Osaka and other areas have left their fear behind for enthusiasm and a kind of patriotism. For both the Japanese public’s and their sakes, I want to clear a few things up.

Californians buying up iodine. British citizens “starving” in Tokyo. French residents “swamped” by a “toxic cloud of radiation”. Foreigners urged by their embassies to escape.

In reality, everyone in Tokyo is fine. I’ve stopped worrying about filling my bathtub up with water to draw on in case the tap water is contaminated, or wearing a mask for those invisible dregs of iodine and cesium floating through the sky. The level of radiation in the atmosphere today in the capital is 0.15 microsieverts, while normal levels for cities worldwide is 0.2. The only thing I’m worried about getting “exposed” to is the sensationalism in the foreign press that is causing widespread panic.

Radiation On Human Health Source: National Institute of Radiological Sciences

Radiation On Human Health Source: National Institute of Radiological Sciences

There’s a fine line between reassuring our families and friends abroad that we’re all well, and appearing blithely impervious to the suffering 150 miles away. I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds triviality awkward at the moment, or who feels guilty for laughing or enjoying themselves. I do want to stress, however, that life in Tokyo is going on almost as normal. I know from my friends and colleagues battling to convey this to their families that it is difficult to parse this image with the reports on American and European television. The masks are to ward off hayfever, not to protect against radiation. Children are playing in the streets, the shops have re-stocked, and the “ghost town” is a consequence of  the train disruptions introduced to conserve electricity for diversion to the stricken areas.

Looking towards Miyagi, Fukushima, Iwate and Ibaraki prefectures, no one in Tokyo–other than those who have lost relatives and friends–has the right to complain about the inconvenient consequences of the quake, such as blackouts, empty shelves in shops, and disrupted train services. People aren’t exactly having the time of their life in the capital, but they feel extremely lucky to be there rather than in the northeast.

There are two main things I want to make clear. Firstly, while the Fukushima Daiichi (No. 1) plant is still not stable, there are several reasons why there will not be a spread of radioactive material significant enough to have health impacts beyond the 30km radius evacuation zone.

Secondly, people have complained that both the Japanese government and TEPCO have refused to discuss a “worst case scenario,” whereas the American and European press have been all too happy to oblige. The supposed lack of information in Japan (or rather the typically Japanese vague manner of speech and expression) has created a vacuum, into which the dark sludge of paranoia from the foreign press has poured. We need to evaluate the opinions of experts who actually have a grasp on the numbers and understand what different levels of radiation imply for human health, rather than meaningless figures such as “20 times higher than normal.”

The general public, of course, is rarely rational in its response to such intense and hysterical media coverage. For every event, whether it be a natural disaster or a political crisis, and there is always an extreme dislocation between actual events and the “angle” given by journalists weary of the string of disasters they are made to report on.

In this case, the baseless scaremongering of the foreign press about the risk of radiation poisoning has had significant consequences. Firstly, on an emotional level, it detracted attention away from those really suffering, and made this tragedy about the suffering of Americans who are apparently going to get irradiated because of Japanese incompetence. Secondly, on an economic level, it has put both foreign residents in Japan and the Japanese economy out of pocket, thanks to the astronomical airfares they paid to get out, and the struggling unstaffed companies they left in their wake. Thirdly, on a personal level, it has caused a lot of stress and worry to the families of foreign residents in Japan, who beg their loved ones to come home. As previous Tokyo resident Craig Mod tweeted yesterday, “The inability for the foreign media to differentiate between northern Japan and the rest of the country is deeply troubling my mother.”

I know a lot of my friends have to sedate their relatives over Skype every day, brandishing statistics and rational articles, before their fears are freshly inflamed the next morning by the hysterical TV presenters. I even find myself defending the Japanese government, a body I’ve never had much faith in before, partly as a defensive reaction to the battering they are taking from governments and journalists overseas. Despite the multitude of articles claiming that Japanese citizens are becoming increasingly angry at their government, I can sense no more frustration from the Japanese populace than is normal. Most of those getting “angry” are expatriates.

The few of us who refuse to believe the reports are comforted by the assurances of a few experts. Everyone was relieved to read a discussion with the British government’s Chief Scientific Officer Professor John Beddington that was posted on the British Embassy’s website:

“Let me now talk about what would be a reasonable worst case scenario. If the Japanese fail to keep the reactors cool and fail to keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level, you can get this, you know, the dramatic word ‘meltdown’.”

But what does “meltdown” actually mean?

He explained that the worst case scenario was one in which the reactors could not be cooled and pressure in the containment vessel could not be controlled. This is what is referred to as a “meltdown.” If that happened, the reactor core would melt and drop down to the floor of the container. It would then explode, releasing radioactive material that could go up to 500m in the air. But he emphasizes that even this worst case scenario “the problems are within 30km of the reactor.” Even if you had prevailing weather carrying radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo, with rain, there would be “absolutely no issue”.

It should be noted that this man has no connection to either the Japanese government or TEPCO, and likely has the interests of British nationals at heart more than he cares about offending anyone in Japan.

When Chernobyl went into meltdown, material was going up not to 500 meters, but 10 kilometers, and it lasted months. But even then, the exclusion zone was only 30 km, and there is no evidence to suggest that those outside of that zone suffered health problems. The problem was that people continued to drink water and vegetables that had been contaminated through the soil around the site.

In contrast to Chernobyl, where the explosion was nuclear because the fission process ran out of control, the explosions we have seen at Fukushima have been caused by vented hydrogen steam being “sparked” by something. The nuclear fission process was halted as soon as the earthquake hit Fukushima. The problems started with the tsunami, which damaged the power supply that was necessary to cool the fuel rods. Without power, it has been a race to continue cooling the fuel rods and to keep them submerged in water so that they do not heat up and produce too much steam. The first explosion at reactor no.1 happened when both heat and pressure built up inside the primary containment vessel, and TEPCO decided to release some of the steam to avoid damaging the vessel. The hydrogen in the steam escaped into the secondary vessel and was sparked by something, causing a blast.

Once electricity is reestablished and there is a steady supply of water to submerge the cores, we will be out of the danger zone.

(If you want to read a concise explanation of what happened at Fukushima, go here.)

So why has the French and American embassy begun to evacuate their nationals? I would suggest that they are mainly doing it in response to the fears ignited by the media. They want to evade criticism that they are not sufficiently protecting their citizens. France perhaps has reason to feel jumpy, since there were widespread suspicions that increases in thyroid cancer after 1986 were due to radiation from Chernobyl. However, in a 2006 report the French Institute of Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety said that no clear link had been made, and that other kinds of thyroid cancer, unconnected to radiation, had also increased threefold in the same period. This case illustrates the kind of fear and paranoia that surrounds radiation.

Nevertheless, this week the French embassy organized two Air France flights from Narita and one from Kansai airport to fly home any French nationals who wished to leave. The United States’ offer was less generous, seemingly designed to dissuade all but the most desperate, since they would be flown to a “safe haven” in Asia where they would have to organize their own accommodation and also pay for the flight themselves. The embassy have stated that they do not believe that current radiation levels pose a threat to public health, but that they will assist people in leaving if they wish.

The British press also claimed on Thursday that the British Embassy was “urging” its citizens to leave because of concerns about the health risks of increased radiation levels, but their actual statement said nothing of the sort. They said: “Due to the evolving situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility and potential disruptions to the supply of goods, transport, communications, power and other infrastructure, British nationals currently in Tokyo and to the north of Tokyo should consider leaving the area.”

Although they did refer to the “evolving situation,” they stopped short of connecting it to any health risks posed to British citizens. Instead, they seemed mostly concerned with logistical problems, such as the trains cancellations and blackouts.

What has probably caused some of the confusion and fear is that it has been implicitly acknowledged that the radiation levels at the Fukushima plant will have some impact on the health of the workers who have remained working there. Nicknamed the “Fukushima 50,” from the number of workers on a shift at any one time, 200 workers have bravely volunteered to remain in the plant to cool the reactors. Already recognized as heroes, everyone in Japan is incredibly grateful for their sacrifice. Five workers have died since the quake (none of radiation poisoning, however) and 22 more have been injured for various reasons, while two are missing.

The government also rushed through a quick change to the regulations, which now allows workers to be exposed to 250 millisieverts from 100 millisieverts per year. The highest level measured so far was 400 millisieverts per hour on Tuesday morning, which can produce symptoms of radiation sickness in a few hours. But levels at the gate dropped later that day to between 0.6 to 11.9 millisieverts per hour, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and down to 0.2794 on Friday March 18, after the Self Defense Forces cooled reactors by spraying water from a truck.

Radiation Exposure Levels

Radiation Exposure Levels

Radiation is cumulative, meaning that a level of 400 millisieverts per hour would give you a dose of 800 over two hours. People who lived near Chernobyl when it went into meltdown got a dose of 450 millisieverts over several days. To have a 50% likelihood of death within a month, however, you need a dose of 5,000 millisieverts.

The panic in Tokyo was caused by the announcement on Tuesday that radiation levels were 20 times higher than usual. But not only was it still a miniscule amount- 0.000809 millisieverts per hour, or the equivalent of smoking one cigarette an hour- it went down by a factor of 8 to reach 0.000151 one hour later. Since Thursday, radiation levels in Tokyo have remained at normal levels, giving the equivalent of 0.2 millisieverts per year. A single x-ray would deliver a dose of 0.2 millisieverts at once.

Radiation levels at the gate of the plant were just 0.271 millisieverts on Friday morning at 8am per hour, which is very good news for the Fukushima 50 and everyone in the vicinity. Ironically, those who “escaped” Tokyo to go to New York received almost the same- an average of 0.2 millisieverts- just passing through airport security and traveling on a plane.

It may be basic science, but people seem to forget that radioactive material decays and becomes inactive. The two radioactive chemicals that have been detected in Fukushima are iodine and cesium. The amount of time it takes for half of the chemicals to decay is known as a “half-life”. Iodine has a half life of just eight days, while cesium has a half-life of 30 years. Iodine has been associated with thyroid cancer, and cesium has been linked to cancer of the liver, kidneys and the pancreas.

However, the impact of radiation on health, or the correlation with cancer rates, depends entirely on dosage. We are all exposed to a certain amount of background radiation from various sources, including outer space, cigarettes, and even bananas. Like any substance, including salt, vitamin C or even water, it is only in excess that it is dangerous. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, everyone in the United States is exposed to very small amounts of cesium in soil and water because of atmospheric fallout from the nuclear detonations of the cold war. It is odd to see smokers getting panicked about ”carcinogenic” radiation from Fukushima as they puff away on little sticks that are far more likely to give them cancer.

Both iodine and cesium are heavier than air, so even with strong winds blowing from Fukushima towards Tokyo, they will not adversely affect Tokyo, as Geiger counters in the capital have shown in the past few days. It should be pointed out that Three Mile Island, an incident that is being compared to Fukushima, was located just 100 miles from New York, where no health problems were reported. Tokyo, the city from which several countries are moving heaven and earth to “rescue” their citizens from, is over 150 miles from Fukushima.

I have explained why I think the fear of radiation poisoning is irrational and baseless. It is understandable that one feels scared when even embassies begin evacuations, and allows one’s self-preservation instinct to kick in. But where we must turn our attentions is to those who are actually dying at the moment. Four people froze to death in a gymnasium in Miyagi on Thursday night, because they had neither kerosene heaters nor blankets and it was snowing outside. Rescue crews have given up, since they say there’s little chance of finding someone alive in the ice. There are reports of five people sharing a fist-sized rice ball because supplies are not getting through. They now expect the death toll to rise to above 20,000, maybe even more, as the bodies float in on the tide. The shock and suffering is multi-dimensional, and enormous: they’re grieving, starving, and freezing.

I may not be Japanese, but I feel fiercely protective and proud of my adopted country right now. I wish that the countries spending huge amounts of time, money and energy evacuating their citizens from Tokyo would spend the same on helping people in a very dire situation in Northern Japan.

 

About the Author

Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.

Copyright

Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you wish to use reproduce any of this context in a commercial context, explicit permission is required. Please contact me directly.

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This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

This is not Chernobyl – Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

***I wrote this in haste because I was incensed about the coverage in the foreign media. However, I realize now that this was a highly emotionally charged response. Read the rewrite here which is more objective, detailed, and to be honest, convincing. ***

This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

Well-Stocked Supermarket Shelves in Tokyo © Sophie Knight

I think it’s time I checked in with another update from Tokyo to set the record straight. If you’ve been reading the foreign press about the “toxic cloud” hanging over Tokyo, you should know that I’m fine. Everyone in Tokyo is fine. The mask and the bathtub? I’m not so worried about those any more. The only exposure we’re worried about is exposure to sensationalist bullshit printed in the foreign press that is worrying our families and causing panic.

This is not Chernobyl – Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

This morning the British press was alive with the news that the Foreign Embassy in Tokyo were “urging their citizens to get out of the capital.” This is terrible journalism. The profession may be all about making the implicit explicit, but this stretches the truth of the statement too far. The statement reiterated the Japanese government’s assertion that the 30 kilometre radius around the Fukushimi I plant is the only area in which radiation levels might POTENTIALLY damage health. They then said:

“Due to the evolving situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility and potential disruptions to the supply of goods, transport, communications, power and other infrastructure, British nationals currently in Tokyo and to the north of Tokyo should consider leaving the area.”

In other words, they are mostly concerned about logistical problems, NOT radiation. They do not state that heightened radiation levels are behind their suggestion to Britons to “consider” leaving. Even the Guardian, a paper I usually trust, totally misreported this with: “Britain, France and other countries advised their citizens to ‘consider’ leaving Tokyo because of heightened radiation levels.”

I understand that anxiety is rising because the Fukushima plant is not stabilizing and is still dangerously overheated. But we need to look at the facts in a balanced and measured way rather than causing wide spread panic. Most journalists seem to have taken “the evolving situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility” to mean “ALL BRITS ARE GOING TO FRY IN RADIOACTIVE SOUP AND MUST FLEE AT ONCE.” I exaggerate, but that’s the gist. In fact, the wording of the statement is very careful and emphasizes that the only health risks are within the plant itself and the 30 kilometre radius around it. They seem to be more concerned about logistics and inconveniences such as transport and power cuts.

France’s response has been more explicit, and they have organized two planes to pick up their citizens from Narita. I think one left this morning. The only thing the British Embassy had done by the evening of the 16th was to organize a bus (!) from Sendai to Tokyo. Today they said that they would arrange for flights to Hong Kong for those who wished to leave voluntarily.

This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

Radiation On Human Health Source: National Institute of Radiological Sciences

I’ll take a moment to remind you that background radiation levels in Tokyo have returned to “normal” today, at 0.14 microsieverts. Normal background radiation for cities is actually higher, at 0.2. It’s clear that there is absolutely no threat whatsoever in Tokyo as the situation stands, since it has levels lower than, say, New York and even Cornwall. You are exposed to more radiation flying in a plane.

My expatriate friends that have stayed have created a hardcore and stubborn contingent, refusing to be put off by the paranoia overseas and the frustrating chickenheartedness in the media. Click To Tweet

Let’s talk about some facts to straighten this out. I think The Economist did the best job of describing the nuclear power plant and the processes go on there, so if you have the time, I urge you to read it.

It is simply too difficult to go into everything that has happened as the situation continues to move too quickly to get a complete grasp of, but here is an excerpt from the very relieving discussion posted on the British Embassy’s website last night:

“Let me now talk about what would be a reasonable worst case scenario. If the Japanese fail to keep the reactors cool and fail to keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level, you can get this, you know, the dramatic word “meltdown”.

But what does that actually mean?

What a meltdown involves is the basic reactor core melts, and as it melts, nuclear material will fall through to the floor of the container. There it will react with concrete and other materials … that is likely… remember this is the reasonable worst case, we don’t think anything worse is going to happen. In this reasonable worst case you get an explosion. You get some radioactive material going up to about 500 metres up into the air. Now, that’s really serious, but it’s serious again for the local area, not, I repeat, not serious for anywhere else. Even if you get a combination of explosions it would only have nuclear material going in to the air up to about 500 metres. If you then couple that with the worst possible weather situation i.e. prevailing wind taking radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo and you added some rainfall to bring the radioactive material down to ground level, do we have a problem?

The answer is unequivocally no.

Except for unnecessary fear-mongering, there is absolutely no issue where I am. The real problems are within 30 kilometres of the reactor. And to give you a flavour for that, when Chernobyl had a massive fire at the graphite core, material was going up not just 500 metres, but to 30,000 feet. It lasted not for the odd hour or so but months, and that was putting nuclear radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere for a very long period of time. But even in the case of Chernobyl, the exclusion zone that they had was also about 30 kilometres. And outside of that exclusion zone there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate people had direct problems from the radiation. The problems with Chernobyl were people continuing to eat and drink contaminated water and vegetables. That will not be the case here. The real issue, should any news agency choose to report it, is the area itself, the immediate vicinity, and the brave people still working there.

There is no “mass exodus” from Tokyo just yet. The bullet trains are not packed to the brim with terrified Tokyoites. It is true that many expatriates have left the country or gone west or south, farther away from Fukushima. While some Japanese have gone to stay with their families the large majority have stayed. My expatriate friends that have stayed have created a hardcore and stubborn contingent, refusing to be put off by the paranoia overseas and the frustrating chickenheartedness in the media.

Tokyo is not “gripped by panic”. It is quiet and calm. Children still play outside. People go about their daily lives, shopping and going out drinking with friends. People—including me—still go to work. The masks they wear are for hay fever, not to protect themselves from radiation. True, the streets are very empty compared to normal. Though this is largely due to the fact that train services have been canceled or reduced, not due to fears of radiation in the air.

The trains are heavily disrupted due to the rolling blackouts that are necessary to divert power up to the area affected by the quake and tsunami. But this isn’t anything to do with radiation. It’s to do with the fact that the earthquake destroyed power stations and also wiped out any power infrastructure in the north (Miyagi, Fukushima, Iwate and Ibaraki prefecture are all entirely or partly without electricity, gas or running water.) As of now, the train service is approaching—but still not quite as bad as—that of London and even upset as it is, it still bests most of the world’s.

This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

Bags of Rice for sale in Tokyo © Sophie Knight

True, since the quake happened the shops have been amazingly bare, and some things—bread, rice, dry goods, milk, eggs, toilet paper—sell out very quickly. Today, shops seemed back to normal, all well supplied. Even when things were at their worst—which was never particularly bad—the shops were never entirely empty. Tokyoites never went hungry, and any accounts by idiotic Brits in the Sun that you read to the contrary are merely sensationalist fictions. Also, when food was short, there were no battles, no raised voices, no evident strife in the supermarkets. I don’t dare to think what would happen in England if the equivalent situation occurred. Probably a few broken noses.

Moreover, if I have to go without eggs for a few weeks, or if it got really bad and I had to live off rice, I could do it. I cannot believe that some people are not prepared to put up with that minute and trivial inconvenience and look further north, where there are reports of five people sharing a single rice ball (the size of a fist) and walking through the snow in the only set of clothes they’re left with.

The real tragedy in all of this is that hissy fits in Europe and America about radiation spreading there is detracting from the very real and catastrophic situation in Miyagi, Fukushima, and Iwate prefectures.

This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

Radiation Exposure Levels

The number of dead might rise above 10,000, but they have only the time to count the bodies and line them up. They are running short of body bags. They have no time or space to identify them. There isn’t enough food or water getting through, and now temperatures have sunk below freezing and it’s snowing.

Reports are saying that aid isn’t getting through. They say that up to 500,000 people might have lost their homes. And not only are they in shock, grieving, hungry and freezing, but they have nothing but the clothes on their backs. No nappies, no toilet roll, no blankets, no coats. If you’re in Japan, please go Second Harvest and make up a box of items for donation. This charity has already gained permission from the government (which is now necessary) to deliver the aid, and will continue to make trips up to Sendai from now on.

I didn’t expect to, but this tragedy has made me fiercely protective and proud of my adopted country, and disgusted at how the rest of the world is presenting it.

Just remember that no matter how hot these fuel rods get, there will be no Chernobyl. There might be more hydrogen-sparked explosions that spread radiation, yes, but they will not affect an area larger the 30 kilometre radius already determined. It’s being likened to the Three Mile Island incident, which happened 100 miles from New York. Tokyo is over 150 miles from Fukushima.

As a closing thought, I wish that the countries spending huge amounts of time, money and energy evacuating their citizens from Tokyo would spend the same on helping people in a very dire situation in Northern Japan.

About the Author

Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.

Copyright

Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you wish to use reproduce any of this context in a commercial context, explicit permission is required. Please contact me directly.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

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