Furious parents in Fukushima have delivered a bag of radioactive playground earth to education officials in protest at moves to weaken nuclear safety standards in schools.
Children can now be exposed to 20 times more radiation than was previously permissible. The new regulations have prompted outcry. A senior adviser resigned and the prime minister, Naoto Kan, was criticised by politicians from his own party.
Ministers have defended the increase in the acceptable safety level from 1 to 20 millisieverts per year as a necessary measure to guarantee the education of hundreds of thousands of children in Fukushima prefecture, location of the nuclear plant that suffered a partial meltdown and several explosions after the earthquake and tsunami on 11 March.
It is estimated that 75% of Fukushima’s schools may have radiation levels above the old safety level of 1 millisievert. The local authorities in Koriyama have tried to ease the problem by digging up the top layer of soil in school and day centre playgrounds, but residents near the proposed dump site have objected.
The new standard of 20 millisieverts a year – equivalent to the annual maximum dose for German nuclear workers – will mean those schools remain open, but parents and nuclear opponents are angry that safety concerns are being ignored.
A group claiming to represent 250 parents in Fukushima visited the upper house of parliament and presented government officials with a bag of radioactive dirt from the playground of one of the affected schools. A geiger counter clicked over it with a reading of 38 millisieverts.
“How dare they tell us it is safe for our children,” said Sachiko Satou of the Protect Fukushima Children from Radiation Association. “This is disgusting. They can’t play outside with such risks. If the government won’t remove the radioactive dirt then we’ll do it ourselves and dump it outside the headquarters of Tokyo Electric.”
Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other environment and anti-nuclear groups submitted a petition against the regulations. They accused the Nuclear Safety Commission of meekly accepting the new safety limit after just two hours of closed-door discussions with government officials.
However, representatives of the commission denied agreeing that 20 millisieverts was safe. Education ministry officials fudged demands for an explanation. “I think 20 millisieverts is safe but I don’t think it’s good,” said Itaru Watanabe of the education ministry, drawing howls of derision from the audience of participants. He promised the government would carefully monitor the situation and do all it could to get radioactivity down to 1 millisievert.
The health impacts are disputed. Physicians for Social Responsibility – a US-based Nobel prize winning organisation that opposes nuclear power – said children were more vulnerable than adults. It said the new acceptable limit exposed children to a one in 200 risk of getting cancer, compared with a one in 500 risk for adults.
“It is unconscionable to increase the allowable dose for children to 20 millisieverts,” the group said in a statement. “There is no way this level of exposure can be considered safe.”
This is not the first time the government has shifted safety baselines since the start of the crisis. Permissible levels of radiation exposure for nuclear workers were amended soon after the disaster struck to allow emergency operations at the stricken Fukushima reactor. Several weeks later the cabinet allowed the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric, to violate regulations by dumping 11,500 tonnes of contaminated water into the Pacific. The radioactivity of the discharge was 100 times higher than the acceptable limit. The government says it has to take unprecedented measures to deal with an unprecedented disaster.
Kan has lost one of his chief scientific advisers over the latest decision. Toshiso Kosako – a Tokyo University professor who was called in to help deal with the crisis – walked out on Friday and has since accused the government of ad hoc policy making and contravening internationally accepted norms for the sake of political expediency.
Kan has also come under fire from lawmakers in his ruling Democratic party.
Mori Yuko, an upper house member, said she was disgusted by the decision to loosen the safety limit. “Would politicians and bureaucrats allow their own children to go to a contaminated school,” she said. “This makes me furious.”
She called for more rigorous and widespread health monitoring of children and criticised an earlier government policy to withhold data about radiation levels and wind direction. After a public outcry these figures are now published daily in newspapers, but the allegations of cover-ups and shifting safety baselines are taking a heavy political toll.
A mere 1.3% of respondents in a weekend poll by the Kyodo news agency thought Kan was exercising sufficient leadership. But many people also criticise the main opposition Liberal Democratic party for lax nuclear regulation while it was in power.
– Parents fight back over raised radiation limits (Independent):
Thousands of parents living near Japan’s stricken Fukushima Daiichi power plant have condemned a government decision to lift radiation limits for schools in the area by 20 times, saying the move is based on incomplete science and could put children in danger.
The decision, which has also prompted the resignation of a government adviser, has been condemned as political expediency. Toshiso Kosako, the adviser who resigned on Friday, denounced the Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, for his “whack-a-mole” policies on the crisis. A tearful Mr Kosako said: “The government has belittled laws and taken decisions only for the present moment.”
He said new guidelines raising the acceptable annual radiation exposure in Fukushima Prefecture’s elementary schools from one to 20 millisieverts “are inconsistent with internationally commonsensical figures” and were “determined by the administration to serve its interests”.
But it is the voices of local parents that are likely to prove hardest for the government to ignore. Takayuki Sasaki, a baker and father of two, barely knew what radiation was two months ago. Today, he thinks about little else. “I’ve sent my kids to my wife’s family in Tokyo,” he says. “I told her to stay there till it’s safe but who knows when that will be? We’ve all been left in the dark.
“Those parents who have the means to move their children are already doing so,” Mr Sasaki adds. “I feel like one of the lucky ones because my wife is from Tokyo.”
In the seven weeks since the crisis began more than 80,000 people have been evacuated from a 20km zone around the Fukushima plant. The power station has been leaking radiation since the earthquake and tsunami triggered a partial meltdown of its reactors.
Mr Kan’s government has repeatedly defended the new limits, which are equal to the annual maximum dose permitted for German nuclear workers. Workers at power plants in the United States can be exposed to 50 millisieverts per year. The average annual radiation exposure from natural sources is about 3.1 millisieverts.
The impact of cumulative exposure on children, however, is a scientific grey area. Parents in Fukushima say the government’s calculations are deceptive because they assume people spend most of their time indoors.
“I keep my children inside now all the time because I’m afraid of what they’re breathing,” said Niki Soeta, a mother of two from the prefecture. “Can the government imagine what that’s like? We want to be reassured that it’s safe.” She was among hundreds of parents who gathered yesterday in a meeting hall in Fukushima City to plan strategy and protests against the government policy.
“We’re all absolutely furious,” said Machiko Sato, banging the table for emphasis. “We’re angry at the government and at Tepco [Tokyo Electric Power] for doing this to us. We’re breathing in this contaminated air as we speak. But we’re old and the radiation can’t do us much harm. It’s the children we have to protect.”
Parents and lobbyists are scheduled to meet bureaucrats today to hand over a petition demanding the withdrawal of the new radiation standard. Activists say the country’s Nuclear Safety Commission rubber-stamped the school radiation limit after just two hours of closed-doors discussion, without consulting anyone outside the government.
Mr Kosako also criticised the government for stalling the release of simulations showing the spread of radiation from the Fukushima plant. The head of Japan’s Meteorological Society, Hiroshi Niino, admitted last week that announcing all the radiation forecasts carried the risk of “creating panic” among the public.
Mr Sasaki said: “The system isn’t working because it’s top down. The officials from the Nuclear Safety Commission tell the government what they’ve decided. The government tells Fukushima. Fukushima tells the schools and the school principals tell us that it’s safe. That’s when I knew it was time to get my kids out of school. I just don’t believe them.”
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