Japanese officials are ignoring some hard lessons of history – particularly those from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster – so now, as the old saying goes, they appear doomed to repeat them. The Japanese government and TEPCO, the owner-operator of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, have behaved in a manner similar to the Soviet handling of the catastrophic Chernobyl accident. The common tactics include: withholding information, delaying action (or simply embracing inaction) and downplaying risks.
The cost of employing those tactics – as we’ve witnessed in the past – is paid in human suffering and irreparable damage to the environment. And that isn’t melodrama or sensationalism. It’s a fact.
The New York Times, and other U.S. outlets, are reporting that government officials in Japan withheld critical information about where airborne radioactive emissions would settle – and did so for all the wrong reasons. From the Aug. 8 NYT report:
In interviews and public statements, some current and former government officials have admitted that Japanese authorities engaged in a pattern of withholding damaging information and denying facts of the nuclear disaster – in order, some of them said, to limit the size of costly and disruptive evacuations in land-scarce Japan and to avoid public questioning of the politically powerful nuclear industry. As the nuclear plant continues to release radiation, some of which has slipped into the nation’s food supply, public anger is growing at what many here see as an official campaign to play down the scope of the accident and the potential health risks.
The words “official campaign” take us back to the days when the Soviet military implemented a campaign of concealment and misinformation surrounding the Chernobyl crisis. The lack of transparency and leadership no doubt contributed to the number of people exposed to the radioactive fallout. Consider this from an Associated Press report (see link to full article below):
The Kremlin didn’t publicly admit the [Chernobyl] accident until two days after the April 26, 1986, explosion and then only in vague terms and after officials in Sweden, some 700 miles away, raised worldwide alarm about sharply increased levels of radiation apparently coming from the Soviet Union.
Now we’re seeing that “policy of secrecy” revealed in Japan. The NYT article focuses on the plight of the people from Namie, one of the towns that neighbors the still-reeling Fukushima plant:
Given no guidance from Tokyo, town officials led the residents north, believing that winter winds would be blowing south and carrying away any radioactive emissions. For three nights, while hydrogen explosions at four of the reactors spewed radiation into the air, they stayed in a district called Tsushima where the children played outside and some parents used water from a mountain stream to prepare rice.
Tragically, according to the Times, winds were blowing the contaminated air directly to Tsushima, and local officials did not find out until it was too late. The government knew all along, through computer documentation, that this particular location had the potential to be a hotbed of radioactivity.
The catastrophic ramifications of the government’s secrecy are ongoing – and heart-wrenching. More from the NYT:
About 45 percent of 1,080 children in three Fukushima communities surveyed in late March tested positive for thyroid exposure to radiation, according to a recent announcement by the government, which added that the levels were too low to warrant further examination. Many experts both in and outside Japan are questioning the government’s assessment, pointing out that in Chernobyl, most of those who went on to suffer from thyroid cancer were children living near that plant at the time of the accident.
To make matters worse, according to breaking news from NHK World (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), the government is now trying to cover its tracks:
Japan’s nuclear watchdog has been found to have erased from its website, data on the results of thyroid checkups for children in Fukushima Prefecture.
The Nuclear Safety Commission had uploaded the test results carried out by the government in March. More than 1,000 children aged 15 or younger were checked to see whether radioactive substances are accumulating in their thyroid.
The results included information that showed a 4-year-old infant in Iwaki City was exposed to 35 millisieverts of radiation. This amount is not considered a health threat.
But the commission removed all the data earlier this month. It cited the possibility that individual children could be identified because detailed information such as the 4-year-old’s address was included.
The deletion is drawing criticism as no other similar data is available on children’s health. Children have greater risks of developing thyroid cancer.
As was the case in the aftermath of Chernobyl, Japan’s concealment of critical information will make it impossible for the public or the medical community to prepare for the true extent of the health impacts. We can also expect to see wildly differing assessments of the ultimate damage and loss of life caused by the Fukushima disaster, as we did with Chernobyl. From Wikipedia’s “Chernobyl disaster” entry:
Estimates of the number of deaths potentially resulting from the accident vary enormously: Thirty one deaths are directly attributed to the accident, all among the reactor staff and emergency workers. A UNSCEAR [United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation] report places the total confirmed deaths from radiation at 64 as of 2008. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests it could reach 4,000. A 2006 report predicted 30,000 to 60,000 cancer deaths as a result of Chernobyl fallout. A Greenpeace report puts this figure at 200,000 or more. A Russian publication, Chernobyl, concludes that 985,000 excess cancer deaths occurred between 1986 and 2004 as a result of radioactive contamination.
The one big difference between contemporary Japan and the Cold War-era Soviet Union is there are dozens of independent sources on the ground in and around Fukushima, and beyond, monitoring radiation levels. That certainly wasn’t the case in 1986 in the Soviet Union.
So the Japanese government can run, but it can’t hide from the truth about Fukushima, at least not for long. The bad news is that in the meantime, it’s the Japanese people – particularly the children – who will pay the price for their government’s official campaign of secrecy.
Read the NYT article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/09/world/asia/09japan.html?_r=2&hp=&pagewanted=all
Read the NHK World report here: http://www3.nhk.or.jp/daily/english/11_14.html
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