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

News and commentary about environmental issues.
June 16 2011 8:29 AM

Monitoring the Monitors

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

Fukushima power plant. Click image to expand.
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant

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.

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TEPCO's history of duplicity, its record of putting profit over safety, and its poor management of the disaster put it in the same league as BP, another energy giant that got too cozy with regulators, who in turn failed to regulate. From the beginning, TEPCO has provided misleading assessments and withheld information. The company acknowledged meltdowns in three reactors only in mid-May, long after they occurred.  And TEPCO has been slow to disclose the full amount and type of radiation being released from Fukushima. (The only outside organization to inspect the crippled reactors has been the International Atomic Energy Agency, which hasn't yet issued its full report or radiation measurements.)

Greenpeace occupies the other end of the spectrum.  The environmental activist organization has been measuring radiation levels in Japan's air, soil, food, and seas, and they have posted their findings. "Our measurements are not very different from what the government finds," says Ike Teuling, a radiation specialist who works for the organization, "but our interpretation is very different." And understandably—the group fights "vigorously against nuclear power," giving it some incentive to overstate its findings.

Nevertheless, Greenpeace raised flags about legitimate radiation dangers long before the government or TEPCO acknowledged them. Greenpeace, for instance, pressured the government to evacuate the village of Iitate in late March, when the group's instruments detected harmful levels of contamination. It took weeks for the government to act on the findings. Greenpeace also found higher-than-acceptable radiation in vegetable gardens in nearby villages, which people were eating from because no one had warned them not to.

Teuling recently spent five weeks testing marine life aboard Greenpeace's research vessel, the Rainbow Warrior. When she found radiation levels in seaweed and fish well above the legal limit (and as far as 40 miles from the plant) she urged the government to step up its ocean monitoring program, which has been surprisingly haphazard. The day after Greenpeace announced these alarming findings, the science ministry issued a statement with a similar warning.

It's much easier to find reliable, unbiased radiation data for regions outside Japan. It's getting tougher, though, for a reassuring reason. For several months, Austria's Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics, orZAMG, had been the go-to source for data on the global trajectories of the plumes of radiation the Fukushima disaster released. The institute specializes in long-range measurements—from 30 miles from the reactors to the other side of the globe—which they were providing free access to in the form of a simulation map. But two weeks ago, after observing dramatic declines in radiation levels since April, ZAMG decided to discontinue its simulations.

ZAMG had adhered to a relatively open data-sharing policy, says Gerhard Wotawa, who ran ZAMG's Fukushima radiation monitoring program. People tend to assume the worst, he says, if they sense something is being withheld. On the other hand, openness can breed understanding and trust.

When the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, or NILU, shut down its forecasts in mid-May, the vaguely worded explanation on its website was just cryptic enough for suspicious minds to wonder if NILU was hiding something. But Andreas Stohl, a senior scientist at NILU says that the steep decline in radiation levels simply made it too difficult to get reliable readings from the global monitoring networks run by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization.

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