Guest Post by Axel Lieber. Axel is a German national and has been a resident of Tokyo since 1998. He runs a small executive search firm and is married to a Japanese.
[BNC editor’s note: This is a personal perspective, not a professional scientific one, but I can verify Axel’s facts]
Why I stay in Tokyo
[This commentary contains footnotes and links that allow you to verify what I am saying.]
Thousands have left Tokyo recently in a panic about the perceived radiation threat. If you ask any one of them to precisely articulate what the threat consists of, they will be unable to do so. This is because they actually don’t know, and because in fact there is no threat justifying departure, at least not from radioactivity (*).They flee because they have somehow heard that there is a threat – from the media, their embassies, their relatives overseas, friends, etc. These sources of information, too, have never supplied a credible explanation for their advisories.
But they have managed to create a mass panic, leading to thousands of people wasting their money on expensive air fares, disrupting their professional lives, their children’s education, and the many other productive activities they were going about. In some cases, foreign executives have abandoned their post in Tokyo, guaranteeing a total loss of respect among those who have stayed behind. Some service providers catering to the foreign community have lost almost their entire income over night. Other providers reversely will lose long-term clientele because they have fled, leaving their remaining customers and clients forced to find new providers. Domestic helpers (especially from the Philippines) have suddenly lost their livelihoods because their “employers” think it’s alright to run away without paying their helpers another penny. Another result of all the hysteria is that attention has been diverted away from the real disaster: the damage done in north-eastern Japan where thousands have died, and many tens of thousands live in dreadful conditions right now, waiting for help.
Contrast this with the fact that radioactivity levels in Tokyo are entirely safe and have been since the beginning of the Fukushima incident (*1a, and *1b for continuous updates). Modern instruments to measure radioactivity are extremely sensitive and precise, and report even the smallest deviations with impressive reliability. Nowhere in the Tokyo area have there been any measurements that would imply any sort ofhealth risk. There certainly have been increases in radioactivity but they are tiny and simply irrelevant to anyone’s health. There is also no fear that there could be some kind of cover-up.
Instruments to measure radioactivity are available at many different research institutions that are not controlled by the Japanese government. The J-gov does also not control the media. They simply have no laws and no means to do so.
[Editor’s Note: For a contrast, the background level in London is 0.035 to 0.05 µSv per hour, see the pie chart for an average breakdown by source. Also, see this great chart.]
But what about a worst-case scenario, one that is yet to come? For four days now, I have tried to find a serious source of information – a nuclear safety engineer or a public health expert – who would be able to articulate just what exactly the threat to residents of Tokyo is. It has been difficult because there aren’t many who bother to. I could quote several Japanese experts here but won’t do so to avoid a debate over their credibility (which I personally do not have any particular reason to doubt). The most to-the-point assessment I have found from outside of Japan comes from the UK government’s Chief Science Advisor, Sir John Beddington. In a phone call to the British embassy in Tokyo, he says about the worst-case scenario:
In this reasonable worst case you get an explosion. You get some radioactive material going up to about 500m up into the air. Now, that’s really serious, but it’s serious again for the local area….The problems are within 30 km of the reactor. And to give you a flavour for that, when Chernobyl had a massive fire at the graphite core, material was going up not just 500m but to 30,000 feet (9,144m) . It was lasting not for the odd hour or so but lasted months, and that was putting nuclear radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere for a very long period of time. But even in the case of Chernobyl, the exclusion zone that they had was about 30km. And in that exclusion zone, outside that, there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate people had problems from the radiation. The problems with Chernobyl were people were continuing to drink the water, continuing to eat vegetables and so on and that was where the problems came from. That’s not going to be the case here. So what I would really re-emphasise is that this is very problematic for the area and the immediate vicinity and one has to have concerns for the people working there. Beyond that 20-30km, it’s really not an issue for health.(*2)
It is important to note that Beddington, too, uses language such as “really serious”. Most nuclear safety engineers at this moment would describe the Fukushima incident as “very serious” and as having potentially “catastrophic consequences”. But the important point to note here is that these descriptions of the situation do not translate into public health concerns for Tokyo residents! They apply to the local situation at and around the Fukushima plant alone.
As of the time of writing this note (March 19, 2011, 13:00 JST), the status at Fukushima is still precarious but there are now signs that the situation is stabilizing and may be brought under control in the next few days. (*3)
Tokyo, even at this time of crisis, remains one of the best, safest and coolest large cities in the world to live in. All public services operate normally or almost normally. Many areas of central Tokyo have not had any power outages, and when such occur they are limited to a few hours and certain areas, and are announced well in advance. I have personally not experienced any power outages. Food is available in almost normal quantity and quality. The only food type I have personally seen to be lacking is milk and dairy products, and rice because of panic purchases. Gas (petrol) supply is indeed limited but just yesterday I was able to get a full tank of gas after “only” a fifteen minute wait. Public order and safety in Tokyo remains higher than in any other large city in the world, as it has always been over the past few decades.
To really rub this in: if you live in New York, Shanghai, Berlin, London or Sydney or any other metropolis, you are more exposed to public safety threats such as crime or road accidents than I am at this moment, and in most cases considerably so.
Active and passive smoking, driving a car or motorcycle, getting a chest x-ray, jay-walking, or snowboarding down a snowy mountain are all much more risky activities than simply sitting on a sunny roof terrace in Tokyo.
And sunny it is today, in the capital of the country whose name is literally “Origin of the Sun”.
(*) There is, however, a possibility that there will be further strong earthquakes in the next few weeks, especially in the north-east of Japan, but also in other areas, including Tokyo. This was demonstrated in the recent earthquakes in New Zealand and Chile, where powerful quakes followed the original ones, not necessarily in the same spot either. It would be more rational to stay away from Japan for a few weeks because of this. But again, the risk of being harmed by another earthquake, especially in Tokyo with its superb infrastructure, is not very high. And if you consider this reason enough to stay away, then indeed, you should never live in Japan because we will always face this risk here.