USA | Radiation Expert Predicts More Threats

Posted on July 2, 2011

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USA | WALL STREET JOURNAL |  2 July 2011

TOKYO—A former nuclear adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan blasted the government’s handling of the crisis, and predicted more revelations of radiation threats to the public in the coming months.

In his first media interview since resigning his post in protest in April, Toshiso Kosako, one of the country’s leading experts on radiation safety, said Mr. Kan’s government has been slow to test for dangers in the sea and to fish, and has understated certain radiation threats to minimize clean-up costs. In his post, Mr. Kosako’s role was to advise the prime minister on radiation safety.

 

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And while there have been scattered reports of food contamination—of tea leaves and spinach, for example—Mr. Kosako predicted there will be broader discoveries later this year, especially as rice, Japan’s staple, is harvested.

“Come the harvest season in the fall, there will be a chaos,” Mr. Kosako said. “Among the rice harvested, there will certainly be some radiation contamination—though I don’t know at what levels—setting off a scandal. If people stop buying rice from Tohoku … we’ll have a tricky problem.”

Mr. Kosako also said that the way the government has handled the Fukushima Daiichi situation since the March 11 tsunami crippled the reactors has exposed basic flaws in Japanese policy making.

“The government’s decision-making mechanism is opaque,” he said. “It’s never clear what reasons are driving what decisions. This doesn’t look like a democratic society. Japan is increasingly looking like a developing nation in East Asia.”

Specifically, Mr. Kosako said the government set a relatively high ceiling for acceptable radiation in school yards, so that only 17 schools exceeded that limit. If the government had set the lower ceiling he had advocated, thousands of schools would have required a full cleanup. With Mr. Kan’s ruling party struggling to gain parliamentary approval for a special budget, the costlier option didn’t get traction, he said.

“When taking these steps, the only concern for the current government is prolonging its own life,” Mr. Kosako said.

Mr. Kan’s office referred questions about Mr. Kosako’s remarks to a cabinet office official, who declined to be identified. The official said the government is making “utmost efforts” to improve radiation monitoring in the sea and working closely with fishermen and others.

“Particularly close attention is paid to the safety of rice as Japan’s staple food,” the official said, adding the government would suspend the shipment of crops if radiation exceeding a set standard is detected. The government has banned the planting of rice in certain areas.

As for schools, the official said the government was working to lower the ceiling for acceptable radiation, and “is also considering additional steps. ”

Mr. Kosako, a 61-year-old Tokyo University professor who has served on a number government and industrial panels, quit Mr. Kan’s newly appointed group of nuclear experts on April 30, fueling concerns about the government’s handling of the accident.

Saying that many of recommendations from himself and the group were ignored by Mr. Kan, the scientist described the government’s ceiling on schoolyard radiation levels as “unacceptable.” The image of him wiping tears at a news conference on the day of his resignation, as he said he wouldn’t subject his own children to such an environment, was widely broadcast.

Having spent two months focusing on teaching radiation-safety courses at his university, Mr. Kosako said he is ready to begin speaking his mind again, starting with foreign audiences outside of the Japanese controversies. Over the coming weeks, he is scheduled to give speeches in the U.S. and in Taiwan.

He said he is especially concerned with contamination of the ocean by the large amounts radioactive material from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi reactors dumped into surrounding waters. The government has released only sketchy information about what has drained into the sea as a result of efforts to cool the smoldering reactors. Mr. Kosako has urged more seawater monitoring, more projections of the spread of polluted water and steps to deal with the contamination of different types of seafood, from seaweed to shellfish to fish.

“I’ve been telling them to hurry up and do it, but they haven’t,” he said.

As he resigned, Mr. Kosako submitted to government officials a thick booklet that contained all the official recommendations by him and his group he had offered during his six-week tenure. A copy of the booklet was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal through an independent source. Mr. Kosako authenticated the material.

From the time of his appointment on March 16, Mr. Kosako and some of his colleagues offered recommendations touching on a broad range of topics, according to the booklet. It was weeks before the public learned of some of them, such as a March 17 call for using the government’s Speedi radiation-monitoring system to project residents’ exposure levels using the “worst-case scenario based on a practical setting.”

On March 18, they urged the government’s Nuclear Safety Commission to re-examine the adequacy of the government’s initial evacuation zones, based on such simulations by Speedi.

The Speedi data weren’t released to the public until March 23, and the evacuation zones weren’t adjusted by the government until April 11. Critics inside and outside the government say the delay in the adjustment may have subjected thousands of Fukushima residents to high levels of radiation exposure.

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