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  March 12, 2012

Japan Plays Down Fukushima as Questions About Nuclear Energy Remain

Masaki Oshikawa: Experts told us that reactors in earthquake zones were safe but computer models can't reproduce reality
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Masaki Oshikawa is a theoretical physicist and a Physics Professor at the University of Tokyo. He was interviewed for the journal, Science, about the Fukushima Nuclear accident in March 2011. And he is also engaged in a local Japanese community movement to tackle the nuclear contamination problem.


Japan Plays Down Fukushima as Questions About Nuclear Energy RemainPAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay.

One year ago, the Fukushima nuclear reactor melted down after an earthquake and a tsunami. Now, one year later, many people are saying this was a disaster that could have been avoided—lack of government regulation, lack of proper preparation by the company that operated the reactor. And many questions are being raised whether the full facts and truth of the situation are even now being relayed to the people of Japan, people of the world.

Now joining us to discuss all of this is Masaki Oshikawa. He's a theoretical physicist and a physics professor at the University of Tokyo. He's now engaged in a local Japanese community movement to tackle the nuclear contamination problem. Thanks very much for joining us, Masaki.


JAY: Let's begin with this question of do the people of Japan now know and are they getting an honest picture of how much contamination there was and what to do about it. For example, there's a report that came out recently, and it says the following:

There are over 110,00 people who has been evacuated. Most of these will be unable to return to their homes for decades, and possibly never. Eight percent of Japan has been contaminated by radioactive fallout, and 3 percent of Japan is now uninhabitable. In addition, there are many people who remain in areas where radiation levels are dangerously high, particularly for children and pregnant women.

So, first of all, what do you make of those numbers? Do they seem reasonable to you?

OSHIKAWA: Yeah, roughly sounds reasonable, although, of course, which area is inhabitable and for how long time is, you know, subject of debate. But I think the program, current program in Japan is that the government is trying to play down the situation and trying to declare actually dangerous area as habitable. And they are trying to, you know, make people return to their hometown.

JAY: What are some examples of what you're talking about?

OSHIKAWA: So one prime example is Iitate village, about 40 kilometers, 25 miles from the plant. And that area is heavily contaminated. Once government issued evacuation order [snip] government allowed people to work there. So people could not live there, but still government permitted operation of companies and so on. Then government assigned lot of money for cleanup of that village so that people can return in short period of time. But I don't think it's very realistic to clean up that area in short period of time.

JAY: And why did you think that? I mean, what's the science of this?

OSHIKAWA: One point is, of course, the level of contamination is very high, even compared to situation after Chernobyl. And the second point is that those villages in Fukushima are surrounded by mountains. So even if you clean up the village itself, contamination will come from mountains and trees and so on. So unless you cut down all the trees in the mountains and dig huge amount of soils, you know, you cannot really remove contamination.

JAY: One of the things in this report—it says the following:

After Fukushima the government legislated that up to 20 millisievert per year was now acceptable. This is despite clear evidence that exposure to these levels over time will significantly increase cancer rates. Even using the very conservative figures from the American National Academy of Sciences' Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation report, exposure of children to 20 millisievert per year for five years is estimated to result in 1 in 30 getting cancer.

So, according to this report, what the government is saying is acceptable levels leads to 1 in 30 getting cancer. What do we know about this?

OSHIKAWA: Basically there is a gray zone between safe and unsafe. And in my understanding, as you quoted, for example, as discussed by this BEIR committee and the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, the most reasonable assumption scientifically is that there is a linear relation between radiation and extra cases of cancer. That is, however low the radiation level is, there is cancer induced by radiation in proportion to the amount of radiation you receive. So in case of children, maybe 1 and 30 children gets cancer if they receive 20 millisievert of radiation every year. So it's, you know, rather dangerous level, I would say.

JAY: Most of Japan's nuclear reactors are now shut down. There are plans to open them up again. Is there such a thing, do you think, as safe nuclear energy?

OSHIKAWA: I don't think at least the current nuclear technology can be safe, especially in Japan. Maybe it can be safe in United States or France, where, you know, you have very few earthquakes.

JAY: Well, one of the things being said in the United States and some of the other countries you mentioned, but particularly the United States where there are some reactors near earthquake-prone areas, that they're saying that there is such a thing as a nuclear reactor that can withstand earthquakes. What's your view on that?

OSHIKAWA: In Japan, you know, those experts told us that the Japanese nuclear reactors are safe even under earthquake or tsunami or whatever, but they were completely wrong.

JAY: So your point here is that when they say it's safe, it's really computer modeling, and you never know whether computer modeling is realistic or not. And then when it turns out it's not to be, it's not, then it's—the consequences are far too serious.

OSHIKAWA: Yeah, basically they make some assumptions to derive some conclusion. It shows that these probability estimates by the experts were completely wrong, because they were based on wrong assumptions.

JAY: You're involved, I understand, in community activism now. What is that? And what demands are people making?

OSHIKAWA: Some people are concerned about radioactive contamination, and especially its effect on children. So, for example, you know, schoolyards and parks are also contaminated. First we demanded our local city government to clean up schoolyards, for example. But initially they were very cold, and even the measurement of radioactive level on schoolyards were refused. But after some movement and negotiations and so on in my city, the city changed the attitude completely, and they are now very serious in, you know, tackling the problem. And, for example, my city decided to clean up all the schoolyards in all the schools in the city by removing the topsoil. Already in a few schools the city experimented with this cleanup effort, and that was very effective. And especially in the center of schoolyard, the radiation level went back to the normal level, that is, radiation level before the accident. So it's very effective, I think.

But, of course, we need to watch the level continuously, because it's possible that the contamination come from other area, for example, by wind. Then it's possible that these schoolyards can be contaminated again.

JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us.


JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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