October 17, 2011

This Weekend’s News: In Japan, a Struggle to Understand Radioactive Fallout

On Saturday, The New
York Times
reported that Japan continues to reel from the radioactive fallout
from the March Fukushima nuclear disaster. According to the Times, Japanese citizens groups have
started to monitor for radioactive hotspots in Tokyo after they learned that
the Tokyo Metropolitan Government had no plans to monitor radioactive fallout
in the city. “Like
Japan’s central government,
” the Times
reported, “local
officials said there was nothing to fear in the capital, 160 miles from the
disaster zone

Yet citizens’ testing has uncovered a worrying number of
radioactive hotspots around Tokyo, which “were
contaminated with potentially harmful levels of radioactive cesium
.” As a
result, experts have criticized the government’s efforts to understand
long-term radioactive fallout from Fukushima. “The
government’s failure to act quickly, a growing chorus of scientists say, may be
exposing many more people than originally believed to potentially harmful
,” according to The New York
. “It
is also part of a pattern: Japan’s leaders have continually insisted that the
fallout from Fukushima will not spread far, or pose a health threat to residents,
or contaminate the food chain. And officials have repeatedly been proved wrong
by independent experts and citizens’ groups that conduct testing on their own.

But it is not that the Japanese government has ignored the
potential fallout. Indeed, “it
recently completed aerial testing in eastern Japan, including Tokyo
,” The New York Times reported. “But
several experts and activists say the tests are unlikely to be sensitive enough
to be useful in finding micro hot spots such as those found by the citizens’
.” These criticisms only add to the growing rebuke of the government’s
response to the Fukushima disaster at a time when it is trying to better understand
the long-term implications of radioactive fallout. “The
metropolitan government said it had started preparations to begin monitoring
food products from the nearby mountains, but acknowledged that food had been
shipped from that area for months
,” according to the Times report.

Taking a step back, The
New York Times
report offers some worrying observations that naturally lead
one to wonder how well-prepared governments are when it comes to monitoring the
long-term implications of radioactive fallout. Indeed, Japan is one of the most
technologically advanced states in the world, with a long history of using
nuclear power to feed its energy demands. Yet policymakers in Tokyo have been
criticized for not being prepared to manage the impacts of a potential nuclear
disaster. Indeed, Prime Minister Kan and his top advisors were unaware of a
radioactive monitoring system – known in Japan as SPEEDI, the System for Prediction of Environment
Emergency Dose Information
– that the government had installed in 1986 which
could have provided much more useful information to the government in crafting
a response. “I
had no idea what sort of information was available
," Prime Minister
Kan told the Japanese Diet in June. “I didn't know
anything about it then, and there was no way I could make a judgment

Given that nuclear power is not going away anytime soon,
even despite the Fukushima meltdown, one has to wonder how prepared other governments
are in responding to potential nuclear disasters. Indeed, states that have a
more limited capacity to respond to these kinds of disasters – like Vietnam,
which has plans to develop nuclear energy capabilities in the next decade –
will likely require outside assistance should they face a nuclear calamity like
Fukushima. This, of course, is not to suggest that these countries will face a
nuclear meltdown; it is that they should be
to face one should it happen.

Looking forward, training and capacity building around radioactive
monitoring could be a potential cooperative avenue for the United States to
pursue with states developing nuclear energy capabilities. Indeed, even in
Japan – which has a long history with nuclear power – the U.S. government has
an opportunity to leverage its experiences and lessons learned from its own
history with radioactive monitoring that could support the Japanese government’s
efforts to better understand long-term radioactive fallout from Fukushima. What
those experiences and lessons learned are is an area of research I am happy to
say that CNAS is engaged in. So look for more from us on that front in the
not-so-distant future.

This Week’s Events

Today, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation
will kick off its Energy
Innovation 2011
forum beginning at 9 AM. At 10 AM, CSIS will host an event
on U.S.
Defense Spending and East Asian Security
. At 12:30 PM, head over to SAIS
for Science During Crisis: Lessons
Learned From the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
. Also at 12:30 PM, the Aspen
Institute will host 7
Billion: Conversations that Matter - Lessons from the Crisis in Somalia
. At
1 PM, the U.S.-Japan Institute will answer the question, How Does Japanese
Railroad Technology Contribute to the Low-carbon Society?

On Tuesday at 8:30 AM, Resources for the Future will host Fiscal
Reform and Climate Protection: Considering a U.S. Carbon Tax
. Also at 8:30
AM, CSIS will explore India's
Energy Options: New Sources, Innovations and Areas of Cooperation
. At 10
AM, don’t miss Peter Gleick launch the next iteration of The
World's Water Volume 7: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources
at the
Wilson Center. Then at 10:30 AM, the U.S.-Japan Institute will discuss What Comes After the
Great Eastern Japan Earthquake? Implications on the Japanese and East Asian
Economy, as well as Global Energy Security and Nuclear Policy

On Wednesday at 9AM, head over to New America for What
Will Turn Us On in 2030?: Competing With Fossil Fuels to Power the Future
At 5:15 PM, World Resources Institute will host UNEP
Finance Initiative Global Roundtable: Hedging Water Risks for Buyout Capital

Finally, on Friday at 9 AM, head to the Wilson Center for Social
Dimensions of REDD+: Current Practices and Challenges
. Also at 9 AM, New
America will explore How $4
Gas Is Killing the Middle Class: A New Paradigm for Fairer Energy Policies
At 12:30 PM, SAIS will discuss Delivering
Development in a Changing Climate
. Cap off your Friday with a discussion
with Chris Mooney at the Potomac Institute where he will discuss The
Science of Why We Deny Science