So you want a nuclear waste dump in your neighbourhood?
I am an Australian living and working in Japan. I am married and have two small children, and we live midway between Tokyo and Fukushima, on the Pacific coast. The Japan Atomic Energy Agency has major research facilities near where I live, so we are fortunate, in a way, to be the most monitored part of Japan after Fukushima, at least when it comes to atmospheric contamination.
I feel compelled to write, as I am one of relatively few Australians with first-hand experience of living with chronic, low-level radiation contamination, as a result of the nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima power station in 2011.
If you choose to have a nuclear waste site in your area, and your worst fears are realised, either through leakage from the site, or an accident in transportation; you will have entered a brave new world of probabilities. Nothing is certain when it comes to radiation and illnesses; and in spite of experts’s assurances, we just do not have the data on chronic, low-level radiation contamination. In a way, Japan is the case study. Because radiation is odourless, colourless and tasteless, putting out a positive message about what people cannot smell, see or taste is relatively easy, from the point of view of the authorities and companies involved. People soon forget. Any resulting illnesses, such as cancers, will not appear for many years or even decades, so proving a direct link will be difficult, to say the least. It’s a spin doctors and lawyers dream.
Living with radiation all around us has forced us to reconsider and rearrange our daily lives, in order to prevent being contaminated. The most important thing for us was not the atmospheric radiation, as scary as that was. The official story has it that the main plume of radiation from Fukushima travelled north-west, then south; but our area was still affected, as were other areas.
By way of reassuring the public that they had the pulse of what was going on, the local government placed large, flat-screen TV’s in public buildings and local government offices to ‘monitor’ radiation levels. But to make sure the information is not too alarming, it is displayed in grays (which is like showing how much sun is shining) and notsieverts (which is like showing how sunburnt you are). We bought a personal radiation monitor for use at home and when we go out, and we use Safecast.org as our source of other radiation information.
Parks were not decontaminated around here, and there are hotspots that persist. We rarely go to the park. When my son came home from school with decorated pine cones from art class earlier this year, collected from the local park (as they do every year, said the principal) it took some explaining to get them to stop, with data collected by local NGO’s, demonstrating that the pine cones were likely to have high levels of radiation in them.
Children are not screened here, as we are not in the main contamination area. We have yearly screening done for our son, as he was affected by the fallout, evidenced by the nodules in his thyroid; but this is done at our own expense. At least we know about it and can monitor it; the authorities are not interested in his story.
But what concerns us more than that, is radiation in the food and water supplies. Sure, the authorities do screen food and water supplies, but the data is based on government-set safety levels, however we do not know how these levels were decided. Experts continue to argue. What we do know is that if radiation is detected below those government-set levels, the data shows ‘not detected’. This is false and misleading, and the cynic in me says that this will in all likelihood ‘future-proof’ agencies and companies against class actions, as lawyers in the future will have to demonstrate a link between future cancers and this incident. Hard to make that case if a review of the data 30 years hence shows ‘not detected’. But it’s also bad science; if at some time in the future research reveals that the government levels were wrong, there will be no data available to make any changes to policies.
So the data on water and food safety is less than reassuring. The authorities have published copious data sets on their websites. They do not standardise the information, and do not simplify or explain the data; those likely to access this data soon tire of such cumbersome and confusing information.
We just don’t trust the authorities to get this right.
For example, my son’s school proudly promotes local produce in their school lunch programme. He takes a lunch box. We source our fruit and veggies from Kyushu, in the south of Japan, from a company that does their own testing for radiation, on equipment that we helped pay for. We bought a second fridge for the extra storage needed. And we buy bottled water from a source well away from the affected areas.
With two small children we have to take this stuff seriously. We get on with our lives, but we no longer are willing to take risks with what would otherwise be regarded as ordinary: a trip to the park, or to a restaurant; just turning on the tap has us wondering.
Whatever side of the nuclear industry your politics are, you would be wise to consider the ramifications for you, your family, friends and neighbours, when things go pear-shaped. And go pear-shaped they will; two words I don’t put together any longer are ‘nuclear’ and ‘safety’. And I live day to day knowing why. Chronic, low-level radiation contamination may not be immediately life-threatening, but it will change your life.
I hope you decide wisely.