Fukushima: Six Years Later Is It Safe to Go Back?

By Urvashi Verma

Nearly six years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, environmental activists are raising alarms that radiation levels are still dangerously high, despite the Abe government’s reassurances that thousands of residents can return home.

Last week the Japanese government lifted the evacuation orders in the Fukushima prefecture citing radiation measurement levels under 100 mSv per year and pronouncing that safe for residents to return. mSv means 1 one-thousandth of a sievert, which is a measure of the health effect of low levels of ionizing radiation on the human body, according to a Wikipedia entry. But activists say 100 mSv is far from a safe level.

The primary contention of environmentalists regards the acceptable level of radiation for resettlement. “The notion that doses below 100 mSv are safe is not supported by science and contradicts internationally accepted standards,” said Kendra Ulrich, senior global energy campaigner at Greenpeace in Tokyo.

Radiation levels of 530 sieverts per hour, considered by some as alarmingly high, were measured in Fukushima’s Daiichi reactor number two in a test conducted by Tokyo Power and Electric Co., known as TEPC0, just last month.

A dosimeter measuring radiation levels in a parking lot in Naraha, Fukushima. Taken on Feb. 27, 2016. (Creative Commons photo via Flickr)

These are the highest radiation levels recorded since the 2011 meltdown. Ten minutes of exposure to radiation at 600 sieverts can cause death in humans, according to the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Japan.

Although the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not give long-term radiation dose recommendations, it does require licensees to limit exposure to members of the public to 1 mSv per year.

The International Commission on Radiological Protection in Ontario, Canada, recommends that in the crisis phase of a nuclear accident, the allowable exposure is only 20 mSv.

Six years after the acute crisis phase the International Commission should have lowered its recommendation since this benchmark is for emergency exposure, according to Ulrich, who has authored several reports for submission to the United Nations regarding potential human rights violations stemming from excessive exposure.

In the United States, exposure to adults working with radioactive materials must be below 50 mSv per year, according to the regulations and radiation exposure limits set forth in Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 20.

The five year cumulative radiation doses for TEPCO workers with 1mSv is nearly 43.8 percent and 14 percent of workers have been exposed to higher than 10 mSv, according to data released by TEPCO last month. There are 112 workers with exposure between 20 mSv and 50 mSv. All of them are contractors, not employees of the company.

A study on the effects of radiation on women and children by Greenpeace released last month found that the long-term effects of radiation are much higher than the exposure recommendations from the International Commission.

In the Iitate area, located in Sōma District in the Fukushima prefecture, 20 to 50 kilometers from the reactors, radiation levels are between 39 mSv per year to 134 mSv per year, according to the report. The study suggests that women and children are at greatest risk including the potential for increased perinatal deaths or still births, cancer and leukemia if they return to the affected areas.

However, there is no data to establish a firm link between cancer and doses below 100 mSv (100 times the Nuclear Regulatory Commission limit), according to a report published on the biological effects of radiation by the NRC in September of 2015. The report notes that effects of doses less than 100 mSv may take many years to materialize into health issues since they would occur slowly at the cell level and may not be detected for years or even decades after exposure.

A team of NRC officials, led by Chairman Allison Macfarlane, views the steel plate-covered spent fuel pool of reactor 4 at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex Dec. 13, 2012. (Creative Commons photo via Flickr)

But not all voices express alarm. Since the disaster, mothers’ legitimate concerns and fears of food contamination have been equated to hysteria giving rise to the term “hoshano” to refer to people who have become unduly paranoid with fears about radiation, according to Kimura Aya Hirata, author of “Radiation Brain Moms”.

Experts say Japan has little choice but to stick with nuclear energy.

“The incident in Fukushima was an anomalous event,” said John Keeley, spokesperson for the Nuclear Energy Institute, in an interview. “Japan does not have abundant natural gas or other energy resources. They have been committed to adding nuclear energy to their long-term strategic plan and are getting back on track,” he declared.

But activists such as Cindy Folkers, associate director of an anti-nuclear organization called Beyond Nuclear, differ. “What if something does go wrong? If there’s one thing Fukushima has taught us, it’s that this can’t be reversed. Nuclear is just not a safe choice for anybody,” said Folkers in an interview.

Photo at top: A satellite image shows damage at Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant In Fukushima Prefecture. The damage was caused by the offshore earthquake that occurred on 11 March 2011. (Creative Commons photo via Flickr)