Radioactive contamination and psycho-stress in Japan
Radioactive Contamination and Psycho-Stress in Japan (Autumn 2011)
Six months after the Fukushima meltdown, the following facts on the after-effects of the catastrophe can be gleaned from close perusals of the quality mainstream media’s back pages (J. Murray, ‘Further contamination fears across Japan’, Sydney Morning Herald 15-16/10/11, p. 24 and J. Watts, ‘Contaminated by mistrust’, The Guardian Weekly 30/9/11, pp. 25-27). In general, of course, the mainstream and tabloid media have lost complete interest in ‘yesterday’s news’.
• higher levels of radiation (3.35 microsieverts/hour) have been found in Setagaya ward in Tokyo (225 km from Fukushima) than in some parts of the 20 km exclusion zone around the nuclear plant from which residents have been evacuated
• the levels found there are more than 17 times the internationally recommended level for the general public
• a citizen’s group in Funabashi, 200 km from Fukushima, has discovered even higher levels of radioactivity ( 5.82 microsieverts/hour) in a park
• officials in Yokokama, just south of Tokyo, have found abnormally high levels of radioactive strontium-90 on the roof of an apartment block (strontium has a half-life of 29 years and accumulates in bones causing bone cancer and leukemia)
• The Fukushima crisis has also caused a cultural, mental crisis that may be beneficial in the long run: ‘Individuals are being forced to make decisions about what is safe to eat and where is safe to live, because the government is not telling them – Japanese people are not good at that’, says Satoshi Takahashi, a leading clinical psychologist.’
• ‘The radiation creates a slow, creeping, invisible pressure that can lead to prolonged depression. Some people say they want to die. Others become more dependent on alcohol. Many more complain of listlessness.’
• ‘Each day for most of the past six months, there has been a steady drip, drip, drip of worrying news: caesium found in the breast milk of seven mothers; strontium discovered inside Fukushima city limits; 45% of children in one survey testing positive for thyroid exposure. There are reports of suicides by desperate farmers and lonely evacuees, contaminated beef smuggled on to the market, and warnings that this year’s rice crop may have to be abandoned.’
• ‘Ministers have admitted holding back vital information in order to prevent a panic.’
• ‘Since March, the government has relaxed radiation targets for food, nuclear workers, school playgrounds and discharges into the sea. What was considered dangerous a year ago is now deemed safe and legal.’ (Just like after Chernobyl: so much for ‘objective science’).
• ‘Close to 2 million people in Fukushima are living in areas where the annual radiation dose exceeds the one millisievert per year safety target set by the government for the general population.’
• ‘Even in downtown Tokyo – 240 km from the reactor – levels have risen close to the point where they would have to be marked with a “Radiation Hazard’ warning if they were found in a workplace.’
• ‘The divergence of opinion has led to divisions among families, generations and communities. Behind much of the anxiety and suspicion is a lack of clear guidance about the health risks and the fact that no one is capable of setting a totally safe level of radiation.’
• ‘There is also growing awareness of the influence of the nuclear industry, particularly Tokyo Electric, which is one of the country’s biggest advertisers, campaign donors and science graduate employers.. Watching the obfuscation by Tokyo Electric and the slow government response, some people have become depressed. Others have become radicalised.’
• Reiko, one voice among many, after five months of intense stress and the need for ‘normalisation’: ‘Even though I am much louder than other Japanese, I feel I am lost. My life here requires me to be normalised, to behave like we used to. I have to work, I have to eat. After five months of struggling, I am getting tired of worrying. It is much easier to give up pursuing reality. What bothers me most is being torn in this conflicting situation with no answer, every moment.’
Perhaps the best therapy for the Fukushima trauma would be for Japanese people to use the crisis as an opportunity for increased, real democracy: learn from their brothers and sisters globally and ‘occupy everything’ (squares, government regulatory offices, Tokyo Electric…). This would be to engage in the empowering and creative process of discussing the nuclear, political and economic issues in open assemblies and coming up with democratically determined solutions. The alternative is business-as-usual and mass depression.