“No one dead.37 with physical injuries.2 workers with radiation burns.” – 2nd June, IAEA.

Nuclear radiation As soon as the ongoing tragedy at Fukushima started, so started the coverage, unlike Chernobyl, where for days no one knew what happened. The advancement in technology ensured that every nano-second of the unfolding disaster was captured via all means. You name it, print, electronic, Twitter, Facebook, smart phone apps. There was news and data everywhere. So were numbers. Numbers are a hot favourite when disasters of such dimensions happen. The human need to quantify and therefore comprehend a disaster is conveniently addressed by numbers.

This tragedy can be seen as a palimpsest and each layer; economic cost, safety, death toll, compensation, liability environmental, radiation related, all have numbers. So, INES level 7 defines the level of the accident and bestows the right to call it an accident (and not incident), TEPCO announcing a loss of $7.4bn as net loss for its first quarter defines the financial repercussions of the accident. JP Morgan estimating TEPCO could face 2 trillion yen ($25 billion) in compensation defines the legal liability of the firm and so on.

But, beneath these numbers are people who are not defined by these numbers, who do not come in any subset created by these layers. Probably because they are not dead, or have not lost family and home or have not experienced “deterministic effects of radiation” or are not in 20 kms evacuation zone (another number). Human experiences and agony gets muted in these numbers or at best it becomes part of another set of numbers -16,000 dead because of the Tsunami.

A Greenpeace radiation expert checks radiation levels at the Minami Fukushima kindergarten.

A Greenpeace radiation expert checks radiation levels at the Minami Fukushima kindergarten. © Greenpeace/Noriko Hayashi

I was with a Greenpeace team of radiation experts, which was in Japan in August. The aim was to monitor radiation in surrounding prefectures. On landing at Tokyo, the airhostess made the usual announcements on weather and humidity and added that the Michelin Guide has awarded Tokyo by far the most Michelin stars of any city in the world and that by extension; life has resumed and is to be savoured.

Welcome to Tokyo! Needless to say, Tokyo is a big city. It also has the right numbers on its side. One of the 3 “command centres” of the world economy, the largest city economy, according to a PWC study and more importantly has an average background radiation of 0.1microSievert per hour.

Let’s dwell a bit on that last number and what it connotes. There are several types of radiation such as heat, light, microwave and nuclear (alpha, beta and gamma). Nuclear radiation can occur in different forms. The common characteristic of all types of nuclear radiation is that it is so energetic that it can destroy molecules. Heat and sunlight do much less damage. Radiation (from here, we will use the word ‘radiation’, to mean nuclear radiation) can destroy molecules, including the molecules in our bodies. When DNA-molecules in our cells are destroyed, this creates a risk of developing cancer (or other diseases). Radiation is therefore called carcinogenic: it causes cancer.

The problem with radiation is that there is no 'safe dose' below which there is no effect. There is no safe dose of radiation. Next to the need for keeping the radiation dose as low as possible, internationally government limits are set for members of the public for radiation doses in addition to natural background radiation, set at 1 milliSievert per year. For nuclear workers this is 20 milliSievert per year. To compare, the global average for natural radiation doses is 2.4 milliSievert per year. Natural background radiation varies for different regions, in Japan the yearly natural background is about 1 milliSievert , in India it is 2.29 milliSievert.

As we left Tokyo and moved to Ibaraki prefecture, we found much higher radiation dose rates. At some points 20 to 40 times higher than the background, highest being 4 micro sievert per hour which translates to 20 milliSievert per year and is officially a limit set only for Fukushima prefecture and not for other prefectures.

What left an indelible impression on me from our day in the field is a particular incident. Some colleagues had measured radiation dose rates of 4 micro Sievert per hour at a spot near the riverside and just few metres away a little girl was playing with sand. It was a Saturday and people had come to river side to enjoy and relax and not to unknowingly get exposed to radiation. Trying to put myself in their shoes angered me so much, because that could have been avoided and the authorities were not doing enough to make sure that it is avoided. Yet, that is just a speck of the whole gigantic unfortunate issue.

A Greenpeace team,undertook radiation contamination monitoring tests and placed marker notification boards bearing the radiation readings in Shichishanomiya public park in Fukushima City.

A Greenpeace team undertook radiation contamination monitoring tests and placed marker notification boards bearing the radiation readings in Shichishanomiya public park in Fukushima City. © Greenpeace/Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

Let me throw some more numbers. There are 385,940 people in Fukushima prefecture who are below 20 years of age. Without any logical justification the government has fixed a dose of 20 millis Sievert per year for these young people as well. The detailed monitoring done by Greenpeace team on August 17, 18 and 19, surveying a high school, preschool, and childcare centre, as well as several public areas in Fukushima City. The team found dose rates of up to 1.5 micro Sievert per hour at 1metre from the ground at one school despite having been decontaminated by the authorities, and up to 2 micro Sievert per hour at 1metre at a park in the city centre showing that official clean-up efforts are not sufficient to protect children’s health.

Children and pregnant women are more vulnerable to radiation and therefore need to be protected. With 20% population of Fukushima below 20 years of age the vulnerability and the urgency of change in status quo needs to happen now. However shockingly what is happening is that government is dragging its feet on the issue.

A group of organizations have submitted a paper to the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), pointing out the violation of Human Rights of Children of Fukushima prefecture and their right to relocate. While going through the text of the submission made to OHCHR a comment by Dr. Shunichi Yamashita, appointed Chair of the Review Committee for the Fukushima Prefecture “Prefectural People’s Health Management Survey” , caught my eye. It is so preposterous that it needs to be reproduced verbatim:

“…now is our biggest opportunity ever. Fukushima has claimed fame without so much as moving a finger. There’s no way we can let this opportunity pass by… The effects of radiation do not come to people who are happy and laughing; they come to people who are being weak-spirited. This has been clearly proven through animal experiments. … laughing will remove your phobic fear of radiation.” 

This statement is so bizarre and so farther away from truth, that I don’t even know where to start. All I can say is radiation is pretty neutral in its approach, it does not pick people because of their moods or colour or religion. It simply picks people who are in its range! The rant further continues:

“Scientifically speaking, concerning concentration of environmental pollution in terms of microsieverts, there is no risk of health impact unless figures rise beyond 100 microsieverts per hour. So it is clear whether it is safe to go outside when the level is at 5, 10, or 20. I said this only yesterday at Iwaki. ‘Is it safe to play outside in Iwaki?’ My reply is, ‘Go right ahead and play as much as you want.’ The same applies for Fukushima City. There is nothing to worry about.”

If this is the approach the authorities are going to take then, “No one dead. 37 with physical injuries. 2 workers with radiation burns”, seems to neatly and holistically sum up the turmoil and the agony people have and are suffering in Japan.