Wednesday, October 10, 2012

In which the Japanese government inadvertently perpertuates fear

Since March 11 last year, the Japanese government has been between a rock and a hard place in regard to its public policy on nuclear power and radiation.

On the one hand, the Japanese economy depended on (and, in truth, still depends on) its large fleet of nuclear power stations to provide reliable power.  In addition, I am quite sure that those who make decisions have been informed about the scientific and engineering realities and are quite aware that the radiological effects of the accident were minimal, at least after the panicked days of the middle of March.

On the other hand, an increasingly fearful public has made ever-more desperate and irrational demands, whipped into paranoia by a global overreaction and a general fear of the unknown.  In retrospect, this was entirely predictiable.  In the Japanese psyche, the world is a dangerous place.  These are a people who are afraid of sunlight (which, admittedly, is far more dangerous than nuclear radiation and causes millions of cancers every year). So it is little surprise that something which is invisible, esoteric and known to be dangerous could generate such fear.  The only surprise is that public reaction has been so vocal and vehement, a rarety in Japan.  In fact, the misdirection of dissent is a real tragedy. If only this anger could have been directed at government-industrial corruption, or the abusive education system, or the entrenced gerontocracy, all things which might have been the targets of a real revolution.

But this fear of radiation is a fear that knows no boundaries, that is not susceptible to reason or concession.  Arguments about dosage and safety limits fall on deaf ears.  Thus the Japanese government has been forced, in a futile and self-defeating attempt at placating public concern, to assume a stance that publicly presents minute amounts of radiation as a threat to public health, and perpetuates the belief that the accident is a continuing crisis.

A number of examples can demonstrate this problem:

  • The government has repeatedly revised safety limits of various isotopes in foodstuffs downward, to where the limits are significantly below safety limits in other countries, which are already extremely conservative.
  • There is an actual ministry devoted to perpetuation of fear, with its own 'nuclear crisis' minister, Goshi Hosono.  What his duties are it is challenging to imagine.
  • The government is going ahead with expensive and unnecessary 'decontamination' in areas that were evacuated, right down to areas getting 5 millisieverts of radiation a year, a level barely above background radiation.
  • 'Public hearings' were staged which were designed to give people the chance to discuss Japan's energy policy, but the meetings were so vitriotically anti-nuclear that when a pro-nuclear speaker received hundreds of complaints Mr Hosono was forced to step in and promise that such a speaker would not be heard again.
  • Even the word 'crisis' is still being used, months after the plants achieved cold shutdown.

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