Sat, Aug 06, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Mismanaged radiation threat kills trust

As Japan’s government tries to hide widespread radiation contamination after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear accident, people are doing their own monitoring out of fear and even despair ... and because they feel they can’t believe feet-dragging officials

By Ken Belson  /  NY Times News Service, IWAKI, Japan

Illustration: Yenchun Chou

Kiyoko Okoshi had a simple goal when she spent about US$625 for a dosimeter: She missed her daughter and grandsons and wanted them to come home.

Local officials kept telling her that their remote village was safe, even though it was less than 32km from the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. But her daughter remained dubious, especially since no one from the government had taken radiation readings near their home.

So starting in April, Okoshi began using her dosimeter to check nearby forest roads and rice paddies. What she found was startling: Near one sewage ditch the meter beeped wildly and the screen read 67 microsieverts per hour, a potentially harmful level. Okoshi and a cousin who lives nearby worked up the courage to confront elected officials, who did not respond, confirming their worry that the government was not doing its job.

With her simple yet bold act, Okoshi joined the small but growing number of Japanese who have decided to step in as the government fumbles its reaction to the widespread contamination, which leaders acknowledge is much worse than originally announced.

Some mothers as far away as Tokyo, 241km to the south of the plant, have begun testing for radioactive materials. And when radiation specialists recently offered a seminar in Tokyo on using dosimeters, more than 250 people showed up, forcing organizers to turn some people away.

Even some bureaucrats have taken the initiative: Officials in several towns in Fukushima prefecture are cleaning the soil in school yards without help from the central government, and a radiation expert with the Health Ministry who quit his job over his bosses’ slow response to the nuclear accident is helping city leaders in Fukushima do their own monitoring.

Such activism would barely merit comment in the US, but it is exceptional in a country where people generally trust their leaders to watch out for them. Driven by fear and even despair, that faith has been eroded by a sense that government officials have been, at best, overwhelmed by the enormousness of the disaster, and at worst, hiding how bad things are.

“They don’t riot and they don’t even demonstrate very much, but they are not just sitting on their hands, either,” said Gerald Curtis, Burgess Professor of Political Science at Columbia University and a longtime Japan expert.

“What the dosimeter issue reveals is that people are getting more nervous rather than less about radiation dangers,” he says.

The corrosion of trust, at first aimed at faceless bureaucrats and lawmakers in distant Tokyo, now includes governors, mayors and city councils as well, a potentially unsettling trend because it pits neighbors against neighbors. That trust may also be hard to restore: Under pressure from concerned citizens, bureaucrats in Tokyo have expanded their monitoring, but many people doubt the government’s standards are safe or that officials are doing a thorough enough job of testing.

It did not help that the government recently had to backtrack on the acceptable exposure levels for schoolchildren after a senior government adviser quit in a tearful news conference, saying he did not want children to be exposed to such levels, and parents protested. The recent discovery that radioactive beef made it into stores raised fresh alarms.

“We need to do strict research to make people feel assured,” said Keiichi Miho, the mayor of Nihonmatsu, a city of 60,000 people west of the Dai-ichi plant.

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