Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Tokyo After the Tsunami: Water, Radiation and a Nervous Public

The first new nuclear reactor since the Fukushima Disaster in 2011 has come on line as of August 11th, 2015. The Japanese government spent $120 million (US) to rehabilitate this reactor. This is a milestone of sorts since nuclear power has long been under question in Japan. The earthquake and subsequent tsunami - 30 feet high – devastated much of the region. But what many people don't remember is that once the disaster occurred there were no safe supplies of drinking water. So I wanted to take a look back to see what transpired in those early days in 2011 because even now many Japanese citizens are concerned about the quality of the drinking water.

“Although immediate and long-term health risks of nuclear accidents are often exaggerated, social, psychological and economic consequences are obviously enormous,” wrote Bloomberg News after the Japan earthquake and tsunami. One of the psychological issues many Japanese faced was the safety of their water. Radiation spikes detected following Fukushima caused concern and sometimes panic in Tokyo regarding the water supply. A higher than permissible level of iodine-131 was detected in the drinking water and residents immediately cleared store shelves of bottled water after Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said levels of radioactive iodine in tap water were more than twice what is considered safe for babies. Officials begged residents to buy only what they needed, saying hoarding could hurt the thousands of people without any water in areas devastated by the disaster. But, you know how people are and stores were cleared out in minutes of bottled water. Water safety is a critical issue, however the truth was that the amount of contamination in Tokyo water was so low that residents would have needed to drink six quarts of it a day for a month to get the same radiation dose that an airline crew member receives in a year of flying between Los Angeles and Tokyo. But try telling that to a freaked out public.

People understandably worried about eating fish from the ocean around Fukushima, and stringent mitigation actions were taken. Bluefin tuna caught off the California coast six months later were found to have traces of cesium-137 from Fukushima, though less ounce for ounce than the amount of radioactive potassium-40 found in an ordinary banana. “Though radioactive iodine has a short half-life of about eight days and decays naturally within a matter of weeks, there is a short-term risk to human health if radioactive iodine in food is absorbed into the human body,” the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement.

The bottled water market in Japan, faced with a national emergency, worked with the Japanese government and other water suppliers to increase production and ease regulations on imported bottled water. In spite of radiation fears consumers were nonetheless highly attuned to the safety of bottled water in Japan. To meet heightened public awareness in this area, Coca-Cola Japan for example posted details of its water collection sites and radiation tests on its website. Kirin Beverage introduced a service that enabled customers to view the results of radiation checks via cellphone. But a year after the disaster fears about water safety were still apparent. Yuki Kokubo a documentary film maker said, “On my first trip to Ibaraki Prefecture, 90 miles south of Fukushima, I was really careful about food, and I bought bottled water because my parents drink well water and it scares me to think what might be in their soil.”

Fear over contaminated water will take a long time to subside. In late 2013 National Geographic wrote: “Even after the immediate crisis eased, scientists have continued to find radioactive contamination in the waters off the (Fukushima) plant. Ken Beusseler a senior scientist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who has analyzed thousands of samples of fish from the area, said he continued to find the high levels of cesium-134, a radioactive isotope that decays rapidly. That indicates it’s still being released.” And even in 2014, three years after the disaster concerns were still high for residents and visitors to the region. While the tap water is safe to drink in Japan many locals do not like it in part because of the common use of residual chlorine in the water, which is added to kill off bacteria in the pipelines. The metropolitan government, concerned about the bad rap it received from citizens who refuse to drink municipal water quickly wrapped up a 25-year-long project to connect the majority of Tokyo residents to “great-tasting and specially treated water” from the Tone River system. When the Tokyo government polled 3,600 people and businesses only 52% said they were satisfied with Tokyo’s water. Not surprisingly, the main reason people gave was that they did not like the taste of tap water, and the concerns of it still being contaminated.

Changing people’s minds about their tap water is apparently harder than rerouting a river. Sales of bottled water remain strong and the fears over contaminated water for Fukushima are slowly beginning to abate, but once the public believes its water supply is compromised it can takes years to get them to come round. Should the residents of Tokyo find other water sources rather than Tokyo tap? That’s a call for the residents to decide, but what the government is not forth coming about the levels of contamination in compromised water, you can bet a skeptical public will search elsewhere for pure water.

The Japan tsunami should remind us that water is an enormous, powerful force and we are wine to respect it. To learn more about water, from its spiritual component to natural disasters to the healthy things pure water does for us, get a copy of my book, “Our World of Water” HERE.

1 comment:

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