A New Japan

Fukushima Kids and Radiation

The Japanese government backpedals a little over new radiation exposure guidelines in Fukushima.

Late last month, the Japanese government declared a 20 kilometre radius no-entry zone around the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. In effect, this was a mandatory evacuation order for all those remaining within the zone. There have also been reports that more and more people could be evacuated by the end of May.

Despite this, many people still reside within Fukushima. One of the most at risk demographics is children. Not only are these children sometimes being bullied by other students once they evacuate, but in a sense the Japanese government is hurting them as well: last month the government took the step of increasing the maximum safe amount of radiation exposure for children to 20 mSv/year. For comparison, 20 mSv/year is the current average limit of exposure for nuclear industry workers. This has led some to characterize the increase as ‘unconscionable’ and ‘inexcusable.’ The government has defended itself by saying this is still within the limits set by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP). But, the ICRP limits that the government referred to were only general guidelines:

'When the radiation source is under control contaminated areas may remain. Authorities will often implement all necessary protective measures to allow people to continue to live there rather than abandoning these areas. In this case the Commission continues to recommend choosing reference levels in the band of 1 to 20 mSv per year, with the long-term goal of reducing reference levels to 1 mSv per year (ICRP 2009b, paragraphs 48-50).'

Because these were general guidelines, it’s possible they may not be wholly applicable to children, a point admitted by a ministry official. According to the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), a US-based physician-led non-profit organization, ‘Children are much more vulnerable than adults to the effects of radiation, and foetuses are even more vulnerable.’ What gives the PSR statements weight in this situation is the fact that they were based on a comprehensive study of radiation's effects on both adults and children by the National Research Council, not mere guidelines.

In response to protests by concerned parents, on May 27 the Japanese government reduced its recommended yearly exposure to radiation for school children down to 1 mSv/year, adding that where this level was exceeded, the government would bear the cost for removing the topsoil on school grounds—a technique which has been effective at significantly reducing radiation readings on the surface. Fortunately, in the interim, some municipal governments rejected the government's prior 20 mSv/year figure and took it upon themselves to take additional, stricter precautions on behalf of the children.

Unfortunately for Prime Minister Naoto Kan, the reduction in recommended exposure levels has come too late for the government to avoid political damage. In addition to incurring the disapproval of organizations like the PSR and the distrust of municipal governments in Fukushima, Toshiso Kosako, an expert advisor to the Cabinet—handpicked by Kan—resigned in protest at the government's prior decision to increase the recommended exposure levels. This disparity between experts' opinions and the government's actions hasn't helped Kan’s image among the public. Its certainly given the opposition another stick with which to beat him.