Urine tests for cesium? Government says basically, "Piss off."
Eighteen months after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, it's difficult to guess whether Japan has continued to sleepwalk toward the next earthquake and meltdown or whether it has changed course drastically.
On the one hand, business interests have pushed hard for the restart of nuclear reactors. Policy wonks in the government agree it's too expensive to import fossil fuels. Apparently, the country can fix the balance of trade and keep the economy strong only by avoiding the loss on investment already made in nuclear plants. The cost of nuclear fuel itself is cheap, and abandoning nuclear now would mean destroying thousands of jobs and walking away from the sunk costs of a massive infrastructure of nuclear power plants – structures which are still going involve the massive cost of decommissioning, whether they are stopped now or milked for a few more years of “cheap” energy. This dilemma is also a raging debate in France right now, and it should be a debate in other places like Ontario, but Canadians seem to be totally asleep on the matter of where their energy is going to come from in the future.
On the other hand, do we want to be poor or dead? This is the obvious question asked by the millions of people in Japan who are now in favor of the complete elimination of nuclear power. Get rid of this threat to our existence then work out energy policy later.
Last year, it looked like a small protest movement might fizzle out, but this year it has erupted into a powerful force. When the Oi reactor was restarted, VIPs coming to flick the switch had to fly in by helicopter because the road access was blocked by protesters. There have been large weekly protests in front of the prime minister's residence, and at one point former prime minister Naoto Kan brokered a sit-down between the protesters and the current prime minister Yoshihiko Noda. The Japanese government's disaster response has been appalling, and I don't agree with the Noda government's approach to energy policy, but one has to be amazed that such a dialog could happen. The equivalent in the Western world would be Jimmy Carter brokering talks between the Occupy Movement and President Obama, ushering the representatives from Pennsylvania Avenue to a side door of the White House. This never happens.
A few months ago, the government announced that it would consider three energy policy options, and that it would hold public hearings and survey the public for their opinions. It turned out that the message of hundreds of thousands of protesters was a pretty accurate reflection of the millions of people who couldn't attend. The result of the public consultation showed that the public was 90% in favor of the complete elimination of nuclear power. Predictably, business interests and bureaucratic fiefdoms are fighting back, and now the Noda administration has said that they want to look for other options and find out what the “silent majority thinks.” The anti-nuclear movement can't claim victory yet.
Another sign that the once-dormant Japanese public still has a pulse is in the various groups that have emerged to share data and protect health. The government has exerted strict limits on which hospitals can give screening and treatment, and insurance doesn't cover anyone who wants to get “peace of mind” checks on the radiation their children have been exposed to. When a survey of children in Fukushima showed that 36% of them had thyroid nodules, the doctor in charge of the government health survey, Dr. Shinichi Yamashita, deemed this a rate of normal occurrence. Yet it was later discovered that he was an author of a 2001 study done elsewhere that found the usual rate of abnormalities to be less than 1%. This discrepancy may be due to the fact that screenings are now done by the latest ultrasound technology that can detect very small nodules (doctors have been known to refer to technology-driven over-diagnosis as the finding of "incidentalomas"). The baseline normal occurrence in children of thyroid nodules, and the cut off size of nodules to be concerned about, are yet to be defined.
The policy seems to be that if any problems emerge in the future, from minor thyroid problems to cancer, they will be dealt with as they normally are, without any questions raised about causes and liability. Dr. Yamashita has risen above his calling as a scientist and appointed himself the government's judge, defense lawyer and treasurer. He spent a lot of time in Chernobyl and concluded that the Soviets and subsequent governments had limited success in protecting themselves from welfare cheats and dubious lawsuits claiming harm from radiation. He has vowed to protect the national purse from such abuses:
We might find small cancer, but thyroid cancer can occur at a certain frequency under normal circumstances... After the Chernobyl accident, many lawsuits happened regarding health effects, with compensatory expenses cut into the national budget. When that happens, the ultimate victims are people of the country.
Given this limited help from their government, citizens have had to take action at their own expense. Some grocery store chains announced their own commitments to food monitoring, above what the government was promising to do, and submitting themselves to third party monitoring.
Sorakuma has data on milk produced in various places. A group called Keitousagi has helped parents test their children's urine for cesium (50,000 yen per child, about US$625), and now thousands of samples have been plotted on maps and in tables that show whether the children have any symptoms of poor health. The urine test is not as accurate as a test with a whole body counter, but it gives a good estimate, and an idea of the scale of contamination in the population. In the Tokyo and Chiba area, many of the results are ND (not detected) and the rest are below 1 Bq/kg. Some in the Fukushima area are between 2 and 3 Bq/kg (It's not clear why the data is not given as Bq/L for urine - is this an estimate of the load per kg of body tissue based on what comes out of the urine?) The Chernobyl children who were treated for heavy cesium loads by Bandazhevsky were in three groups: those with less than 5 Bq/kg (in their flesh, not in their urine), those with 38.4+/-2.4 Bq/kg and those with 122+/-18.5 Bq/kg. So based on the urine testing in Japan (with no thanks at all to the government), we can say that the scale of the problem in Chernobyl was probably much worse. In this case, it was not a good thing to be a locavore. Japanese people eat food sourced from various locations, and a big portion of the nation's food supply is imported. In contrast, the Chernobyl children who suffered heavy loads of cesium ate food that was almost entirely sourced from their local area. A big staple of the diet was mushrooms, a food source that accumulates cesium at high levels.
For people in Japan, the results of the urine tests are both good and bad. It is good that they confirm that the levels are very low and that what we've been told about the food supply is accurate. If you choose your food carefully, and perhaps even if you don't, levels will be far below what caused problems in Chernobyl victims. Yet it is very bad that the Fukushima victims had to pay for this testing and organize it themselves. Even if the government feels vindicated by the low levels that came up, still people had the right to be tested and given peace of mind. Furthermore, the data would be valuable in determining how well the food monitoring was working to protect the population. And you have to wonder, when you see all the pins on the maps, whether the lab running the urine tests could have started offering a better price for the volume of tests they were doing. Finally, cesium 137 and cesium 134 are not naturally occurring substances. They shouldn't be in our bodies, so any detected level is enough to make one feel outraged.