The world watches anxiously to know whether nuclear disaster will unfold in Japan. Even as far away as Vancouver, we strain to learn what distance leaked radiation might travel, and what danger it might pose to us and those we love.
For me, the vigil has been all the more agonizing. I have lived in Tokyo for 26 years. My wife and son live there. But when the earthquake struck, I was here in Canada on a combined business trip and family visit.
I've had to decide whether it's safe for my family to stay in Tokyo, whether they should head further south in Japan, or whether they should come join me in (relatively) safe Vancouver. It's not a dilemma I ever thought I would face.
Waking up to a nightmare
It was a case of incredibly good -- and incredibly bad -- timing.
On March 9, I flew out of Tokyo to attend the Canadian Music Week conference in Toronto.
The morning of March 11 found me in my room at the Royal York Hotel trying to re-achieve some semblance of consciousness after much schmoozing and boozing the previous evening. I turned on my laptop to check my email. The first message I saw was from friends in Boston, who hoped that my family and I were all OK after the earthquake. I thought they were referring to the relatively moderate temblor that had shaken Tokyo the morning of March 9. But when I saw a message from my mother-in-law, not usually the most prolific writer of emails, assuring me that she was fine, I knew that something very much out of the ordinary had happened.
As I read through my emails, surfed the Web and watched the news on TV, I soon became aware of the full scale of the disaster that had hit Japan. I realized how lucky I'd been to miss such a catastrophe, but how unlucky I was not to be with my family to help them get through what was obviously going to be a very trying time indeed.
When I reached my family by email and phone, they described how it took them hours to get back to our house the day of the quake and how much the disaster has disrupted their daily lives -- although that pales in comparison, of course, to the enormous suffering of the people in the areas worst affected by the earthquake and tsunami. (In her inimitably loving but unsentimental fashion, my wife, Rie, told me not to worry about being across the Pacific in Canada, as that simply meant there was one less person to worry about in Japan.)
But nightmarish news kept rolling in about radiation leaks from the Fukushima nuclear power complex. I began to receive phone calls and emails from family and friends asking me whether I was going to go back to Tokyo, or whether my family members in Tokyo were thinking of leaving the city for "safer" parts of Japan or even Canada. My kind-hearted brother and sister-in-law even offered to put us all up at their house in Salmon Arm, which I'm sure my unilingual Japanese mother-in-law would have found a rather interesting cultural experience.
Stay or pull out?
I phoned Rie to ask her whether she was thinking of leaving Tokyo. The gist of the conversation was that as far as she was concerned, high-tailing it out of town wasn't really an option. She would most likely lose her job, and there really wasn't any place for Rie, Ryan (our son) and Rie's mother to go outside of Tokyo, unless the family chose the rather extreme step of decamping to Canada.
These practicalities took precedence in Rie's mind over my attempts to ask her whether, based on the information available to her, there was any possibility of significant health risks from radiation if one were to stay in Tokyo. In other words, what was the worst-case scenario for people living in the Japanese capital? Her answer: "Nobody knows."
Rie added that perhaps a bigger concern was the threat of a major earthquake in the city on the heels of the March 11 megaquake. Meanwhile, she had to deal with rolling power blackouts, reduced service on our local commuter-rail line (which meant severe overcrowding on the trains) and the unavailability of milk at our neighbourhood shops (Japan's cows have not stopped giving milk; it seems there has been a breakdown in the supply chain involving the company that makes milk cartons).
Hearing the stress and sheer exhaustion in Rie's voice, I decided not to press the point for the time being, given that I was by now comfortably ensconced at my aunt's house in Vancouver (which is my native burg, by the way). But during the next several days, the question of to what extent radiation posed a threat to Tokyo residents remained uppermost in my mind, and the one that guided my analysis of the torrent of information that was coming out of Japan.
On March 15 the British Embassy in Tokyo released the transcript of a briefing given by the British government's chief scientific advisor, Sir John Beddington, in which he stated, "The Japanese government's advice is entirely proportionate and appropriate to the risk." Beddington outlined the implications of a worst-case scenario, in which failure to keep the reactors cool and keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level would cause meltdown. He explained that this means the basic reactor core melts, and nuclear material falls through to the floor of the container, where it reacts with concrete and other materials.
"In this reasonable worst case you get an explosion," Beddington said. "You get some radioactive material going up to about 500 metres up into the air. Now, that's really serious, but it's serious again for the local area. It's not serious for elsewhere. . . If you then couple that with the worst possible weather situation, i.e., prevailing weather taking radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo and you had maybe rainfall which would bring the radioactive material down do we have a problem? The answer is unequivocally no. Absolutely no issue. The problems are within 30 kilometres of the reactor."
I found Beddington's analysis very reassuring, especially as it was from a scientist looking at the situation objectively, as opposed to someone from plant operator TEPCO or the Japanese government, who might conceivably be less than forthcoming with the truth in order to avoid mass panic.
Journalists as alarmists
Two days later, however, the embassy advised Britons to "consider leaving" Tokyo.
That led Rupert Murdoch's London-based Sun "newspaper" to run the only slightly alarmist "GET OUT OF TOKYO" headline on page 1. Many other international media outlets featured equally sensationalistic, shallow and just plain ignorant coverage of the disaster. (Check out the Journalist Wall of Shame blog for chapter-and-verse examples of this kind of rubbish.)
I found echoes of the media's irresponsible scaremongering in comments from friends in Vancouver, who suggested that I was perhaps lending too much credence to the reassuring statements of the Japanese government when I said I didn't believe radiation leaking from the Fukushima reactors posed a significant health risk to people living in Tokyo. This despite my quoting Beddington and other non-Japanese analysts to them.
In a March 18 briefing, however, Beddington explained that the embassy had advised Britons to consider leaving Tokyo because of "major disruptions to transportation and supply chain in the whole of Japan. We are NOT advising that people leave due to the risk of radiation. Even IF a plume were to reach Tokyo, it would not pose major health risks."
Beddington's assessment of the situation in Tokyo is shared by other scientists. In a March 18 story, Radio Netherlands Worldwide cited quoted Albert Keverling Buisman of the Dutch Society for Radiation Hygiene:
"The nuclear disaster at Fukushima is will remain a local one. Even if there were a meltdown in all the reactors at once, and the wind were blowing in the wrong direction, says radiation expert Albert Keverling Buisman. "The radiation level in Tokyo would rise, but not nearly enough really to pose a health risk," he says.
I found another eminently sane analysis of the situation at the Japan.Inc website, which spelled out the cold facts of the case, for the benefit of those for whom the prospect of any increase in radiation, no matter how minute, conjures up images of leprous horror and babies with flippers:
Fear is not about actuals, as any good horror movie director will tell you, it's about possibilities. And the foreign media have been doing their best to feed that fear, since this is what sells. Reading some of the reports abroad, Japan is already radioactive and Tokyo is doomed.
Yes, the situation in Fukushima is volatile, and yes, the reactors could still yet blow up. But Japan has its best and bravest up at the power station site, working on dousing the fuel rods and restoring infrastructure so that they can bring things under control, and so far they appear to be making progress.
If you're wondering how much radiation we're talking about, here's something to put things into perspective:
- Banana: 0.0001 millisieverts (mSv)
- Mammogram: 5 mSv
- CAT Scan: 6 to 18 mSv
- Radiation Sickness: starts at around 500 mSv
- Reading March 15 at Fukushima Dai-ichi, right at No. 2 reactor:800 mSv/hour (Worst)
- Reading March 16 at Fukushima Dai-ichi plant front gate:z10 mSv/hour
- Reading March 19 at Fukushima Dai-ichi, right at No. 2 reactor:20 mSv/hour (Much reduced)
- Reading March 20 at Fukushima Dai-ichi: around 700 microsieverts/hour (700 μSv) and falling
- Reading March 19 in Tokyo: around 0.17 μSv/hour and stable (normal)
It's not just the media that has been unduly alarmist. On March 16, the French government said Japan was losing control of the situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant and urged its nationals in Tokyo to leave the country or head to southern Japan.
Asked about this, Beddington replied crisply, "Their advice is not based on science." Touché.
Fighting a meltdown of reason
This whole episode has reminded me how difficult it is for some people to think logically and non-emotionally, and how emotive terms such as "meltdown" and "radiation" can cloud people's judgment. I don't pretend to be the most rational and dispassionate person, but I've done my best to try to come to a science-based opinion about the risks involved for those living in Tokyo. And so I have decided to return to Tokyo and get on with my life along with my family.
Other broad conclusions suggested by this crisis include the non-viability of nuclear power as a long-term energy source. As one commentator pointed out in a TV interview last week, the Fukushima disaster shows that such worst-case scenarios have never been adequately factored into the nuclear cost-benefit analysis. In other words, it is increasingly clear that in the long term, nuclear power's socio-economic and ecological costs outweigh its benefits.
On a more positive note, my gut sense is that the triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident will jolt Japan out of its post-Bubble Economy doldrums and get the country back on track. As anyone who has spent time there knows, Japan is a deeply conservative, conformist society that is not terribly conducive to initiative and going against the grain. But when Japan is faced with basic, existential challenges such as its forced opening to the world by the Western powers in the 1850s and its apocalyptic defeat in the Second World War, its government and people rise to the occasion and put their shoulder to the wheel to remake and remodel their country. I know they can do it again.
I am writing this on the morning of March 22 as I prepare to leave Vancouver for Tokyo. I know how lucky I am to have been spared the worst of the disaster that has befallen Japan. I also know how lucky I am to have a loving family waiting for me there. I can hardly wait to see them.
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