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Wall Street Journal: Invisible Menace Murky Science Clouded Japan Nuclear Response

Wall Street Journal: Invisible Menace: Murky Science Clouded Japan Nuclear Response By Yuka Hayashi: IITATE, Japan — After a third explosion rocked Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex on March 15, the weather took a worrisome turn. A wind that had been blowing steadily out to sea shifted to the northwest, carrying plumes of radiation up a river known locally as the “corridor of wind.” That evening, a late-winter snow began falling on this mountain village [called Iitate]. Residents awakened the next day to a blanket of white over their homes, roads, cow pastures and pine forests. They stepped outside and began shoveling.

Back in Tokyo, officials had information suggesting that the snow carried radiation to this community 17 miles from the stricken plant, well outside the government’s evacuation zone. Nevertheless, a week passed before government officials gave residents any clear indication that their town of 6,000 had become a nuclear “hot spot,”and even then they were hesitant to order residents to get out. “We spent a lot of time debating because we knew we were making a very profound decision,” says Toshimitsu Honma, a member of the Nuclear Safety Commission’s emergency committee, and deputy director general at the Nuclear Safety Research Center, a government agency.

Some young people in the village who were tuned in to Internet chatter about contamination grew frustrated. In late March, Kenta Sato, 29 years old, turned to his new Twitter account, sending hundreds of dispatches from his smartphone. He attracted 5,700 followers, including several members of Parliament. “Since the government won’t issue an evacuation order despite constantly high radiation levels, I have to keep working in a place where radiation comes falling down all day long,” he wrote on March 26. “Please help!”

A Wall Street Journal examination of what happened in Iitate shows how challenging it can be to assess the dangers of fallout. Deciding to evacuate towns closer to the plant, where fallout was heavier, was a relative no-brainer. But radiation measurements taken at dozens of locations around Iitate differed widely, and science didn’t offer a clear answer for whether the measured amounts were too much. In the end, it took government officials more than a month to decide that Iitate was too dangerous to inhabit. And by then, many residents, particularly older ones, didn’t take the warnings seriously.

Confusion over what to do about radioactive contamination is playing out in various forms all over Japan. Officials are struggling to figure out where it is safe to live, what is safe to eat and how farmers decontaminate their fields. At present, 116,000 people remain unable to return to their homes due to the radiation threat. Even as the government continues to ask more people to evacuate, it is mulling allowing others to return to towns where contamination is relatively light.

While high levels of radiation are unequivocally dangerous, the science regarding health effects of the kind of lower-level contamination that has spread far from the plant is surprisingly hazy. There is no clear-cut scientific consensus on what level of fallout should trigger mandatory evacuation, or on how long-term exposure to radiation at the levels being measured in places like Iitate affect health. Further muddying the picture, the spread of radiation has been fiendishly unpredictable, skipping some areas and showing up in concentrated hot spots elsewhere.

For the first few days after the March 11 tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi plant, authorities were confronted with a succession of frightening explosions and fires. The government ordered everyone living within 12.4 miles of the plant to evacuate, and those between 12.4 and 18.6 miles to stay indoors. Residents of Iitate and other towns outside these zones had a sliver of good fortune: a steady wind was carrying the radiation out to sea.

The wind shift on the afternoon of March 15 erased that advantage. Back in Tokyo, a government computer system called Speedi was crunching weather data to predict how radioactive emissions would spread. After the wind shift, it forecast that contamination was heading toward Iitate.

By the next day, the ministry of education and science, which oversees nuclear research, had sent a team to Nagadoro, a hamlet in the southern part of Iitate, to monitor radiation. Soon other teams arrived from elsewhere in Japan. They drove specially equipped vans with radiation sensors mounted to the roofs. Before long, they were monitoring the air in 36 separate spots around Iitate.

The government posted radiation data online, but it provided no interpretation. When Mr. Sato heard about contamination from other young residents, he left town to stay with his mother two towns away. But on March 21, his father decided to reopen a small business he owns that cleans metal molds used to make concrete blocks. He asked all six of his employees, including his son, to report back to work. Feeling trapped, Mr. Sato began pressing for the government via Twitter, to evacuate the village.

At the Nuclear Safety Commission, the government’s nuclear-policy advisory body in Tokyo, Mr. Honma was monitoring data from Iitate and surrounding communities. The prefecture government had reported high levels of radiation in the air in Iitate as early as March 15. Mr. Honma says he became convinced that the area had received sizable doses of radiation.

But whether those doses were sufficient to warrant evacuation was another matter. Very high radiation doses, such as from an atomic bomb, can burn, poison or kill. But the effects of smaller doses aren’t nearly as clear.

In theory, any exposure to radioactive elements raises the risk of cancer, especially in young children. But the effects of slight increases are difficult to measure, particularly because about 40% of people eventually get some form of cancer under normal circumstances, according to the National Cancer Institute in the U.S.

Human radiation exposure is measured in units called sieverts. A chest x-ray delivers a dose of about 0.04 millisieverts, and traveling from New York to Tokyo by plane, where cosmic rays are higher than on the ground, comes in at 0.07 millisieverts. Such natural and man-made sources add up to around 3 millisieverts per year for the average U.S. resident, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

Many experts contend that a dose of 100 millisieverts raises the risk of cancer by 0.5% — no matter how long the time period over which it is absorbed. The International Commission on Radiological Protection, an independent international body, recommends immediate evacuation of people at that level. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says there is no hard evidence linking health problems to doses below 100 millisieverts. Japanese government guidelines stipulated that residents should be evacuated once doses of accumulated radiation exceed 50 millisieverts. For exposures of 10 to 50 millisieverts, the guidelines said, they should be told to stay indoors.

Radiation levels in Iitate peaked on March 17 and 18, then began falling, Mr. Honma says. But because the radiation wasn’t gone, the overall accumulated dosages continued to climb. At one of the town’s hot spots, the accumulated dose was 28 millisieverts through March 28, according to the Nuclear Safety Commission, which projected that it would eventually reach 35.

By early April, Mr. Honma says, he was in favor of evacuation, but the government guidelines suggested it wasn’t warranted. “The real problem was the 50 millisievert rule,” he says.

Toshiso Kosako, a radiation-safety specialist who was then a special adviser to Prime Minister Naoto Kan — he resigned in late April to protest the government’s handling of the crisis — urged Mr. Kan’s cabinet on March 22 to classify parts of Iitate and surrounding towns as “highly contaminated zones.” In a document submitted to senior government officials, he said that radiation monitoring needed to be beefed up, that childhood thyroid cancer was a risk. In another document two days later, he urged the government to consider expanding the evacuation zone to include those communities.

The government says it did beef up monitoring. Noriyuki Shikata, a government spokesman, said Mr. Kosako was just one adviser, and that others held different views. With no consensus among its experts, the Nuclear Safety Commission didn’t prod the government to expand the zone to include Iitate. “We are aware that there are some areas outside [the evacuation zones] that are contaminated, but it is our judgment that there won’t be health consequences as a result,” Haruki Madarame, the commission’s chairman said.

Many villagers, including town officials, believed they were safe. By March 30, only 259 villagers had taken shelter at an evacuation facility outside of Fukushima prefecture.

Mr. Sato’s own father, Koichi, continued to drink tap water and eat vegetables grown in local gardens. His father’s elderly mother and five dogs stayed put in Iitate, too. One morning, he opened his windows to let in the spring air, triggering a shouting match with his son, who by then was carrying a compact radiation monitoring tool.

“I understand why young people may be worried, but in 20 years or 30 years, I’d be dead anyway, whether I get cancer from radiation or not,” says the elder Mr. Sato, who is 57. He says he can’t leave his company and moving it isn’t an option.

The government sent several radiation experts to Iitate to talk to residents. On March 25, Noboru Takamura, a physican and Nagasaki University professor, told about 600 villagers that they could continue to live safely in Iitate if they took precautions like wearing face masks outdoors and washing hands frequently, according to the village newsletter. Mr. Takamura said recently that radiation readings in the village were below 100 millisieverts — considered the threshold for
health risk.

On March 28, a group of independent experts led by Tetsuji Imanaka, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Research Reactor Institute and an opponent of nuclear power, visited Iitate to test the air and soil.

The group took readings at more than 150 locations. At one spot, radioactivity was high enough that someone who stood there 24 hours a day would be exposed to an accumulated radiation [dose] of 160 millisieverts in a year — well above the 100 millisievert danger level. In other spots, readings were much lower.

“We saw grandpas and grandmas going about their lives in an environment that you’d only see in highly controlled areas at a nuclear power plant,” says Mr. Imanaka, who had spent years studying the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

He says his readings differed from the government’s because his team tested different locations. “Some of those places had higher radiation levels, some as high as 2 1/2 times the government figures,” he says, adding that he doesn’t think the government intentionally selected places with low dosages.

A ministry of education and science official said he hadn’t seen Mr. Imanaka’s data, but “in general, it is natural to get different figures in different places.”

Before leaving Iitate, Mr. Imanaka advised Norio Kanno, the village chief, to evacuate children as soon as possible. Masuro Sugai, an economist in Mr. Imanaka’s group, said the village chief was more interested in learning how to clean up contaminated soil so farmers could plant again. Mr. Kanno and other village officials declined to comment.

On March 30, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said the radiation level of a soil sample from Iitate exceeded what it considered the threshold for evacuation.

Doctors sent in by the government’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency tested thyroid glands of several hundred children in Iitate around the same time. They said everyone cleared the government standard. Critics said the results were skewed because the test was done more than two weeks after the accident, when radiation levels were declining.

As the days wore on, village elders grew resistant to any evacuation. In a letter submitted to the central government on April 9, Mr. Kanno, the village chief, complained that the government had released information about Iitate’s contamination before consulting village officials, inflicting “immeasurable pain and stress” on residents.

“I have tried everything I can to avoid emptying the village completely,” Mr. Kanno said in a recent speech. Some young residents, including the younger Mr. Sato, criticize village officials for not taking the lead in evacuating people. “People in power — the village chief and assembly members — are all in their sixties and seventies and can’t abandon the village,” says Mr. Sato. “Because they are staying, children can’t leave. These adults have become a burden on the young people.”

On April 22, Tokyo finally ordered residents of Iitate and four other municipalities with similar hot spots to evacuate. The government cited a recommendation by the International Commission on Radiological Protection that once the emergency phase of a nuclear accident passes — it didn’t specify when that point arrives — the exposure of local residents should not exceed 20 millisieverts per year.

Some in Iitate were in no hurry to get out. When village schools reopened for a new school year in mid-April in rented space in a neighboring town, roughly 400 children were still living in Iitate and had to be bused to the new locations. The village hall stayed open until June 22. Nine businesses have gotten permission to continue operating and let their workers commute in.

“My reaction was ‘Why now?'” the elder Mr. Sato, who wasn’t allowed to keep his business in Iitate open, said in June. “They had told us time and again levels here were low enough.”

By last week, the only people still living in Iitate were 108 residents of a nursing home — the elderly were not required to evacuate — and 10 others who refused to budge, including Mr. Sato and his mother.

Phred Dvorak contributed to this article.

8/8/2011 NY Times: Japan Held Nuclear Data, Leaving Evacuees in Peril

8/8/2011 NY Times: Japan Held Nuclear Data, Leaving Evacuees in Peril By NORIMITSU ONISHI and MARTIN FACKLER: FUKUSHIMA, Japan — The day after a giant tsunami set off the continuing disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, thousands of residents at the nearby town of Namie gathered to evacuate. 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.

The winds, in fact, had been blowing directly toward Tsushima — and town officials would learn two months later that a government computer system designed to predict the spread of radioactive releases had been showing just that. But the forecasts were left unpublicized by bureaucrats in Tokyo, operating in a culture that sought to avoid responsibility and, above all, criticism. Japan’s political leaders at first did not know about the system and later played down the data, apparently fearful of having to significantly enlarge the evacuation zone — and acknowledge the accident’s severity.

“From the 12th to the 15th we were in a location with one of the highest levels of radiation,” said Tamotsu Baba, the mayor of Namie, which is about five miles from the nuclear plant. He and thousands from Namie now live in temporary housing in another town, Nihonmatsu. “We are extremely worried about internal exposure to radiation.” The withholding of information, he said, was akin to “murder.”

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.

Seiki Soramoto, a lawmaker and former nuclear engineer to whom Prime Minister Naoto Kan turned for advice during the crisis, blamed the government for withholding forecasts from the computer system, known as the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information, or Speedi.

“In the end, it was the prime minister’s office that hid the Speedi data,” he said. “Because they didn’t have the knowledge to know what the data meant, and thus they did not know what to say to the public, they thought only of their own safety, and decided it was easier just not to announce it.”

In an interview, Goshi Hosono, the minister in charge of the nuclear crisis, dismissed accusations that political considerations had delayed the release of the early Speedi data. He said that they were not disclosed because they were incomplete and inaccurate, and that he was presented with the data for the first time only on March 23.

“And on that day, we made them public,” said Mr. Hosono, who was one of the prime minister’s closest advisers in the early days of the crisis before being named nuclear disaster minister. “As for before that, I myself am not sure. In the days before that, which were a matter of life and death for Japan as a nation, I wasn’t taking part in what was happening with Speedi.”

The computer forecasts were among many pieces of information the authorities initially withheld from the public. Meltdowns at three of Fukushima Daiichi’s six reactors went officially unacknowledged for months. In one of the most damning admissions, nuclear regulators said in early June that inspectors had found tellurium 132, which experts call telltale evidence of reactor meltdowns, a day after the tsunami — but did not tell the public for nearly three months. For months after the disaster, the government flip-flopped on the level of radiation permissible on school grounds, causing continuing confusion and anguish about the safety of schoolchildren here in Fukushima.

Too Late: The timing of many admissions — coming around late May and early June, when inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency visited Japan and before Japan was scheduled to deliver a report on the accident at an I.A.E.A. conference — suggested to critics that Japan’s nuclear establishment was coming clean only because it could no longer hide the scope of the accident. On July 4, the Atomic Energy Society of Japan, a group of nuclear scholars and industry executives, said, “It is extremely regrettable that this sort of important information was not released to the public until three months after the fact, and only then in materials for a conference overseas.”

The group added that the authorities had yet to disclose information like the water level and temperature inside reactor pressure vessels that would yield a fuller picture of the damage. Other experts have said the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company, known as Tepco, have yet to reveal plant data that could shed light on whether the reactors’ cooling systems were actually knocked out solely by the 45-foot-tall tsunami, as officials have maintained, or whether damage from the earthquake also played a role, a finding that could raise doubts about the safety of other nuclear plants in a nation as seismically active as Japan.

Government officials insist that they did not knowingly imperil the public. “As a principle, the government has never acted in such a way as to sacrifice the public’s health or safety,” said Mr. Hosono, the nuclear disaster minister.

Here in the prefecture’s capital and elsewhere, workers are removing the surface soil from schoolyards contaminated with radioactive particles from the nuclear plant. Tens of thousands of children are being kept inside school buildings this hot summer, where some wear masks even though the windows are kept shut. Many will soon be wearing individual dosimeters to track their exposure to radiation.

At Elementary School No. 4 here, sixth graders were recently playing shogi and go, traditional board games, inside. Nao Miyabashi, 11, whose family fled here from Namie, said she was afraid of radiation. She tried not to get caught in the rain. She gargled and washed her hands as soon as she got home. “I want to play outside,” she said.

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.

Critics inside and outside the Kan administration argue that some of the exposure could have been prevented if officials had released the data sooner.

On the evening of March 15, Mr. Kan called Mr. Soramoto, who used to design nuclear plants for Toshiba, to ask for his help in managing the escalating crisis. Mr. Soramoto formed an impromptu advisory group, which included his former professor at the University of Tokyo, Toshiso Kosako, a top Japanese expert on radiation measurement.

Mr. Kosako, who studied the Soviet response to the Chernobyl crisis, said he was stunned at how little the leaders in the prime minister’s office knew about the resources available to them. He quickly advised the chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, to use Speedi, which used measurements of radioactive releases, as well as weather and topographical data, to predict where radioactive materials could travel after being released into the atmosphere.

Speedi had been designed in the 1980s to make forecasts of radiation dispersal that, according to the prime minister’s office’s own nuclear disaster manuals, were supposed to be made available at least to local officials and rescue workers in order to guide evacuees away from radioactive plumes.

And indeed, Speedi had been churning out maps and other data hourly since the first hours after the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami. But the Education Ministry had not provided the data to the prime minister’s office because, it said, the information was incomplete. The tsunami had knocked out sensors at the plant: without measurements of how much radiation was actually being released by the plant, they said, it was impossible to measure how far the radioactive plume was stretching.

“Without knowing the strength of the releases, there was no way we could take responsibility if evacuations were ordered,” said Keiji Miyamoto of the Education Ministry’s nuclear safety division, which administers Speedi.

The government had initially resorted to drawing rings around the plant, evacuating everyone within a radius of first 1.9 miles, then 6.2 miles and then 12.4 miles, widening the rings as the scale of the disaster became clearer.

But even with incomplete data, Mr. Kosako said he urged the government to use Speedi by making educated guesses as to the levels of radiation release, which would have still yielded usable maps to guide evacuation plans. In fact, the ministry had done precisely that, running simulations on Speedi’s computers of radiation releases. Some of the maps clearly showed a plume of nuclear contamination extending to the northwest of the plant, beyond the areas that were initially evacuated.

However, Mr. Kosako said, the prime minister’s office refused to release the results even after it was made aware of Speedi, because officials there did not want to take responsibility for costly evacuations if their estimates were later called into question.

A wider evacuation zone would have meant uprooting hundreds of thousands of people and finding places for them to live in an already crowded country. Particularly in the early days after the earthquake, roads were blocked and trains were not running. These considerations made the government desperate to limit evacuations beyond the 80,000 people already moved from areas around the plant, as well as to avoid compensation payments to still more evacuees, according to current and former officials interviewed.

Mr. Kosako said the top advisers to the prime minister repeatedly ignored his frantic requests to make the Speedi maps public, and he resigned in April over fears that children were being exposed to dangerous radiation levels.

Some advisers to the prime minister argue that the system was not that useful in predicting the radiation plume’s direction. Shunsuke Kondo, who heads the Atomic Energy Commission, an advisory body in the Cabinet Office, said that the maps Speedi produced in the first days were inconsistent, and changed several times a day depending on wind direction.

“Why release something if it was not useful?” said Mr. Kondo, also a retired professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Tokyo. “Someone on the ground in Fukushima, looking at which way the wind was blowing, would have known just as much.”

Mr. Kosako and others, however, say the Speedi maps would have been extremely useful in the hands of someone who knew how to sort through the system’s reams of data. He said the Speedi readings were so complex, and some of the predictions of the spread of radiation contamination so alarming, that three separate government agencies — the Education Ministry and the two nuclear regulators, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and Nuclear Safety Commission — passed the data to one another like a hot potato, with none of them wanting to accept responsibility for its results.

In interviews, officials at the ministry and the agency each pointed fingers, saying that the other agency was responsible for Speedi. The head of the commission declined to be interviewed.

Mr. Baba, the mayor of Namie, said that if the Speedi data had been made available sooner, townspeople would have naturally chosen to flee to safer areas. “But we didn’t have the information,” he said. “That’s frustrating.”

Evacuees now staying in temporary prefabricated homes in Nihonmatsu said that, believing they were safe in Tsushima, they took few precautions. Yoko Nozawa, 70, said that because of the lack of toilets, they resorted to pits in the ground, where doses of radiation were most likely higher.

“We were in the worst place, but didn’t know it,” Ms. Nozawa said. “Children were playing outside.”

A neighbor, Hiroyuki Oto, 31, said he was working at the plant for a Tepco subcontractor at the time of the earthquake and was now in temporary lodging with his wife and three young children, after also staying in Tsushima. “The effects might emerge only years from now,” he said of the exposure to radiation. “I’m worried about my kids.”

Seeds of Mistrust: Mr. Hosono, the minister charged with dealing with the nuclear crisis, has said that certain information, including the Speedi data, had been withheld for fear of “creating a panic.” In an interview, Mr. Hosono — who now holds nearly daily news conferences with Tepco officials and nuclear regulators — said that the government had “changed its thinking” and was trying to release information as fast as possible.

Critics, as well as the increasingly skeptical public, seem unconvinced. They compare the response to the Minamata case in the 1950s, a national scandal in which bureaucrats and industry officials colluded to protect economic growth by hiding the fact that a chemical factory was releasing mercury into Minamata Bay in western Japan. The mercury led to neurological illnesses in thousands of people living in the region and was captured in wrenching photographs of stricken victims.

“If they wanted to protect people, they had to release information immediately,” said Reiko Seki, a sociologist at Rikkyo University in Tokyo and an expert on the cover-up of the Minamata case. “Despite the experience with Minamata, they didn’t release Speedi.”

In Koriyama, a city about 40 miles west of the nuclear plant, a group of parents said they had stopped believing in government reassurances and recently did something unthinkable in a conservative, rural area: they sued. Though their suit seeks to force Koriyama to relocate their children to a safer area, their real aim is to challenge the nation’s handling of evacuations and the public health crisis.

After the nuclear disaster, the government raised the legal exposure limit to radiation from one to 20 millisieverts a year for people, including children — effectively allowing them to continue living in communities from which they would have been barred under the old standard. The limit was later scaled back to one millisievert per year, but applied only to children while they were inside school buildings.

The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Toshio Yanagihara, said the authorities were withholding information to deflect attention from the nuclear accident’s health consequences, which will become clear only years later.

“Because the effects don’t emerge immediately, they can claim later on that cigarettes or coffee caused the cancer,” he said.

The Japanese government is considering monitoring the long-term health of Fukushima residents and taking appropriate measures in the future, said Yasuhiro Sonoda, a lawmaker and parliamentary secretary of the Cabinet Office. The mayor of Koriyama, Masao Hara, said he did not believe that the government’s radiation standards were unsafe. He said it was “unrealistic” to evacuate the city’s 33,000 elementary and junior high school students.

But Koriyama went further than the government’s mandates, removing the surface soil from its schools before national directives and imposing tougher inspection standards than those set by the country’s education officials.

“The Japanese people, after all, have a high level of knowledge,” the mayor said, “so I think information should be disclosed correctly and quickly so that the people can make judgments, especially the people here in Fukushima.”

Norimitsu Onishi reported from Fukushima, and Martin Fackler from Tokyo. Ken Belson and Kantaro Suzuki contributed reporting from Tokyo.