JAPAN | Japan Amateur Radiation Sleuths Using Borrowed Geigers Seek Hidden Dangers

Posted on June 13, 2011

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USA | BLOOMBERG | Jun 12, 2011 4:05 PM GMT+0100

Japan Amateur Radiation Sleuths Toil With Borrowed Geigers

Hiroko Yamada shows her cell phone-sized dosimeter in Minami Soma city, Fukushima prefecture, Japan. “I don’t trust the government or Tepco after they hid information,” said Yamada, who lost a relative in the tsunami. “But there’s nothing we can do until the nuclear crisis is resolved.”

Makoto Tonami starts his workday by slipping on a white surgical face mask and then drives around with a borrowed Geiger counter, taking radiation readings. Three months ago, he was sorting garbage claims in Minami Soma, a city north of the Fukushima nuclear plant.

“It’s usually two or three of us and we drive till sunset,” said the 43-year-old city official, who grew up in the coastal town. His group takes readings at 35 locations with equipment loaned from the Fukushima government, he said.

Masanori Monma, principal of the Kashima Elementary School in Minami Soma, borrowed a portable Geiger counter from the science ministry. Last month, he got a reading of 2.1 microsieverts an hour at a ditch next to a school flowerbed, about 35 times higher than in downtown Tokyo and at the top end of the annual safety limit forradiation exposure.

More than three months after the biggest earthquake in Japan’s history and a 15-meter (40-foot) tsunami wrecked the Fukushima atomic power station, a picture emerges of ad-hoc responses to the crisis. In the days after the worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl, Tokyo Electric Power Co. was using fire hoses and makeshift pumps to try and cool the crippled reactors.

About 100,000 evacuees still sleep on gymnasium floors, unsure if they can ever go home. Less than half of Minami Soma’s 71,000 residents now live there, with some carrying personal Geiger counters. Tepco forecasts the reactors will be brought under control by October at the earliest.

“The government’s action was inefficient, extremely slow and outdated,” said Sentaro Takahashi, a professor studying radiation control at Kyoto University. “Right from the start, Japan lacked thecrisis management to cope with a disaster that requires quick plans and action.”

Radiation Pockets

Radiation leaks from the Fukushima reactors have spread over 600 square kilometers, Tomio Kawata, a fellow at the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan, said in a research report published May 24 and given to the government.

Radioactive soil in pockets of areas outside the 20- kilometer exclusion zone around the plant have reached the same level as in Chernobyl following a reactor explosion in the former Soviet Union territory 25 years ago, the report said.

Tokyo Electric, the operator of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, failed to provide sufficient measures to prevent the disaster,International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano said last month.

The utility, known as Tepco, on April 17 set out a so- called road map to end the crisis in six to nine months, aiming to bring down radiation levels at the plant within three months and then achieve a so-called cold shutdown where reactor temperatures fall below 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit).

Tepco Critics

The chance of Tepco achieving that goal is 60 or 70 percent, William Ostendorff, a member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last month.

Efforts to bring the reactors under control have been marred by accidents and delays.

Tepco lost power to cooling systems at reactors 1 and 2 last week and has yet to identify the cause. A broken cooling pump at the No. 5 reactor was not discovered and replaced for 15 hours on May 30, allowing temperatures at the unit to more than double to 93.6 degrees Celsius.

The plant had a gas tank explosion on May 31 and reported oil leaks into the ocean. The nearby Dai-Ni nuclear station, also operated by Tepco, reported a fire in a distribution panel on May 27, during a visit by an investigation team from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

‘Ineptitude, Negligence’

“If Tepco was operating this facility in the U.S., all of the reactors would have been shut down indefinitely and there would have been a complete changeover of management,” said nuclear engineer Michael Friedlander.

“In terms of the way they handled the accident, in terms of the way they let the information out to the press, the inconsistency in the data they have presented; words like ineptitude, negligence is the only way to characterize it,” said Friedlander, who spent 13 years operating U.S. nuclear power plants, including the Crystal River Station in Florida now owned by Progress Energy.

This past weekend, thousands of protesters gathered in Tokyo to rally against nuclear power, according to the Associated Press, without citing the source of the estimates.

Japan’s government criticized Tepco last month for withholding radiation data, a move that was contributing to “public distrust,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters on May 27. The utility responded by pledging to publish in August the combined figures of radiation released to the atmosphere and in contaminated water.

Children

School principal Monma disputes the results of official radiation tests in the city and says more needs to be done.

“The readings don’t represent the whole area around the school,” he said in a phone interview. “We want the city to run more radiation tests in ditches along roads and similar areas.”

Children and unborn babies are more sensitive to radiation than adults because their cells are dividing frequently as they grow. Radiation can disrupt that process, increasing the risk of birth defects, leukemia or mental retardation.

On June 6, Japan’s nuclear safety agency doubled its estimate of radiation released into the air by Dai-Ichi to 770,000 terabecquerels between March 11 and March 16. That’s about 15 percent of the total radiation released in the Chernobyl accident.

Overexposure

People living in certain areas of Minami Soma will receive 23.8 millisieverts of annual cumulative exposure at current radiation levels, exceeding the yearly safety limit of 20 millisieverts, according to a report by Japan’s science ministry earlier this month.

The ministry has 15 vehicles equipped with Geiger counters doing daily tests at 70 locations outside the zone and runs weekly tests at 50 areas inside the zone.

Today, less than half of Minami Soma’s companies are back in operation and rice crops are banned after 10 percent of the city’s land was submerged by sea water, said Kiyotaka Yamaki, an official at the city’s disaster center.

Hiroko Yamada, 66, who owned a clothes boutique in Minami Soma before the quake, was in the city this weekend to mark the three-month anniversary. She had returned to the city at the end of March after spending time in a shelter in neighboring Yamagata prefecture. She brought with her a cell phone-sized dosimeter that cost 50,000 yen online.

“I don’t trust the government or Tepco after they hid information,” said Yamada, who lost a relative in the tsunami. “But there’s nothing we can do until the nuclear crisis is resolved.”

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