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Japanese government not giving "straight story" on dumping radioactive water into ocean, physician says

Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant image from Wikimedia Commons

“We’re not getting the straight story from the government,”  Jeff Patterson, past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said about Japan's dumping of radioactive water from a quake-damaged nuclear power plant into the ocean. 

TEPCO, the operator of Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, said it began releasing radioactive water into the sea Monday evening so that it could make room in storage tanks for even more severely contaminated water. It plans to release around 11,500 tons of radioactive water into the sea over five days.

Japan's Nikkei News reported on Monday that Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano called the decision "unavoidable based on the options available." Although the released water had radioactive iodine 131 that was over 100 times the legal limit for release in seawater, the Ministry of Health assured that the water posed "no immediate threat to public health."

Patterson, however, said that the government has likely been downplaying the risks of the radioactive water. "When you hear there's no harm to human health, that's just absurd, because there is no safe dose of radiation," he said. 

“Reports I’ve been reading just talk about just iodine contamination, but that water is running through the plant, so you’ve got iodine, cesium, probably strontium, maybe even plutonium," he said, listing cancer-causing radioactive materials found in the plant which last many times longer than iodine. 

Patterson, who lectured extensively in the former USSR to lecture about the effects of radiation, views Japan's response as a typical case of governments not providing sufficient information to the public. "The history of governments involved in the nuclear industry is one of minimization and cover up," he said. He added that no one yet knows what is to be done with the more seriously contaminated water which is taking the place of the released radioactive water at the plant.  

Kuniaki Nemoto, a political professor from Japan at the University of British Columbia said the Japanese public has been getting "more and more skeptical about what the government says" regarding the radiation crisis. Nemoto's hometown, Sendai, was among the worst-hit cities during the earthquake and tsunami and continues to be at an elevated risk for radiation contamination. 

"The structural problem may be that the government, bureaucracy, and TEPCO have developed such a collusive relationship over the past decades so that there’s no competitor against the electric monopoly in this tightly regulated market," Nemoto said. "This monopoly created an obstruction to the government’s swift response to such an emergency situation." TEPCO is the world's fourth-largest electric power company. According to its Japanese-language website, the company provides about a third of Japan's electricity, and has a monopoly in key metropolitan areas such as Tokyo.

Keith Stewart, an energy and climate campaigner at Greenpeace, said that even though the radiation in the dumped water appear to be low, but that it could affect human health years down the road.

"It’s definitely elevating levels of water in the ocean, and that can bioaccumulate," he explained. "That’s when toxins in the water are relatively low, but they get into plants, and the fish eat them, and what was a very diffuse form of contamination becomes more concentrated as it moves up the food chain."

Stewart said while the released radioactive water in Japan is of a concern, it will likely not affect people living in Vancouver and on the West coast. "From what we've seen so far, we don't think it's a cause of concern for Canada yet. The impact has been localized in Japan. The levels recorded here are not alarming." He said it will likely affect marine life in the area, but that the effects on the environment cannot be measured yet. 


"You don’t need to panic and take iodine pills here on the coast," said Patterson. "But I think people need to take this a lesson and think what would happen to a reactor in Oregon or California where there are two reactors built on a fault. We also need to take care of spent fuel pools all over the US. This technology is not clean, it’s not green, it’s not safe, and not sustainable." 

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