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Tuesday, March 22, 2011     GET REAL

Japanese cope with fear, skepticism of media, concerns 'government cannot tell the truth'

By Donald Kirk

TOKYO — Just as everything appears to be “under control” at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, new shocks confound scores of engineers and technicians attempting to cool down the reactors before meltdown shoots radioactive gases into the atmosphere.


Officials and ordinary citizens alike have to expect the unexpected — an uncomfortable feeling that again swept the country when the International Atomic Energy Agency reported radiation levels picked up in a town 20 kilometers from the plant. That’s right on the edge of the most dangerous zone within which authorities are advising people to leave or at least stay inside, wash carefully and wear protective clothing.

On top of that news came unsettling word that traces of radiation may have spread to the same waters that inundated the region with multiple tsunamis on March 11. The word was that traces carried by vapors from the plant or by water running off the soil, possibly affecting the sea life from which thousands of people in the worst-affected areas were accustomed to making a living.

Seawater samples reportedly showed levels of radiation to be 126.7 times higher than the legal limit. The Japanese news agency Kyodo quoted an official as also saying high levels of cesium and a trace of cobalt-58 were found in seawater near the plant. While officials persist in saying you would have to dine out on seafood and veggies around the plant for a year before suffering ill effects, nobody seems totally confident.

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The fear is experts will never quite figure out all that’s gone wrong, much less come up with permanent solutions for avoiding disaster “next time.” Just ask Masahige Sugiyama, who as a small boy was staying with family friends outside Hiroshima when his mother and father were radiated in the atomic bombing of the city on August 6, 1945. “I never saw them again,” he told me when I stopped off with a volunteer worker at the tent where he lives in a small city park populated by scores of aged, indigent people, the flotsam of one of the world’s richest economies. “I never knew them.”

Beneath an outward appearance of calm, lack of confidence in anyone’s ability to deal with the nuclear crisis has been steadily rising even as officials claimed limited success in cooling down the reactors with seawater and restoring power to the coolant facilities.

“Why,” asked a waitress in a nearby coffee shop, “is the American government saying people within 60 kilometers of the plant should leave and our own government is saying only people within 30 miles [48 kilometers] should leave.” Unaccustomed though Japanese are to accepting the American over the Japanese version in most matters, she said this time she believed the Americans were probably right. “The Japanese government cannot tell the truth. They are afraid if they do people will get panicked.”

Azusa Imamura, the volunteer who accompanied me among the narrow streets and alleys of the historically poor district by the Sumida River, on the northern edge of the city, was even more skeptical about government assurances. Why, she wanted to know, were reports carried by the government’s NHK network so different from what she was seeing on CNN and BBC.

“NHK is for ordinary people with no news from foreign networks,” she said. “BBC and CNN say the news is more serious. Our government is afraid many people will panic. Then it will be hard to calm them down. I don’t like the way the government is acting. I’m afraid the contamination will get worse.”

The greatest immediate concern is for the workers inside the power plant, risking immediate and long-term effects as they struggle to bring power to the systems needed to cool down the reactors. How impervious are their white radiation-proof garb is an open question after a number of them were reported injured. “The people working inside the plant must be very brave,” said Imamura. “I’m very thankful for them but very worried.”

Along the banks of the Sumida River, in a canvas-roofed hut that he’s set up while eking out a living selling empty soft-drink and beer cans to recycling companies, Fumiyo Hicuchi had another fear — that of another tsunami. On the day the tsunami was flooding cities and villages northeast 241 kilometers northeast of here, the river crested high above the banks three times. Warned by local officials to climb to a walkway above the river, he watched as his makeshift quarters were flooded but remained firm.

“I could see the river bottom as the water drained out,” said Higuchi. “Then suddenly the water came up. The flooding here wasn’t so important,” he said. “Now we’re worried about radiation.”

The latest shock came after a grey cloud of smoke wafted from the damaged building into which fire trucks and helicopters had pumped thousands of tons of water to stop the number three reactor from completely melting down. Workers had to flee the site, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) reported, for fear of radioactivity — and possibly an explosion similar to the blast last week that blew off the roof and a portion of the walls surrounding the reactor.

TEPCO technicians reported having connected power lines to operate cooling systems in four of the six reactors, but they were still uncertain whether sea water from the tsunami and then from the fire trucks would get everything working. Workers also had to flee the number two reactor after it too began emitting what looked like steam.

In the face of official pronouncement of carefully qualified optimism, Industry Minister Banri Kaieda was quoted by Kyodo, the Japanese news agency, as finding it “difficult to say that things are showing progress.” Many hours later, the smoke had dissipated, firefighters still had not returned.

“We shall consider the intention to go back to work or not after confirming the level of radioactivity,” said Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director general of the ministry’s nuclear and industrial safety agency. No, he added, he still did not know what it was that was smoking or why.

Always, however, the bureaucracy here looks for a silver lining in the clouds, mingling cautious optimism with realism. “We have come to a situation that is close to getting the situation under control,” said Tsuburo Fukuyama, deputy chief cabinet secretary. “However, we have repeatedly faced a situation that was not predicted. We must remain attentive in dealing with the situation.”

Careful avoidance of any declaration of success in containing the threat of radiation portends a long struggle to which there is no certain ending. The fear is that radiation may spread over a much wider area if the reactors that present the worst problems are not cooled down soon enough to stop radioactive gases from escaping into the high atmosphere before drifting in rain and wind currents over a much wider swath of the country, including this densely populated capital region.

Although far from panicked, many preferred to buy foodstuffs from other regions after Prime Minister Naoto Kan ordered the governors of the four hardest hit prefectures to restrict shipments of milk and all varieties of vegetables in which samples had been “detected to exceed the limit” of radioactive material.

Jeffrey Tudor, who worked for many years for a large Japanese company, said that he and his wife were no longer buying spinach from the entire region: “The Japanese are very careful about labeling,” he said. “We get vegetables from Shikoku,” the large island off the coast well south of here.

The revelation of the mysterious smoke rising from the number three reactor showed how uncertain is the recovery. What to do now, and what will happen next, remained painfully unclear. “We consider the cooling is the most important matter we have to deal with,” said Fukuyama, the deputy chief cabinet secretary. “It would not be appropriate to say how long it will be.”

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