Transparency, the olympics, and that damned water, Part 2

Above: Official messaging about Fukushima focusses on happiness.

Part 1 here

Part 2: What about the Olympics?

The concerns we hear about the 2020 Olympics are more generalized and less focussed than those about the water in the tanks at Fukushima Daiichi. Some people ask us if it’s safe to come to Japan at all. Others narrow it down to Fukushima Prefecture. A few journalists and others have specifically asked us to weigh in on the potential risks to people who attend the events which will be held in Azuma Stadium in Fukushima City.  Our response to Tokyo businessman Roy Tomizawa was to suggest he build a bGeigie and survey the stadium himself. He did, and wrote about it. Helping people find out for themselves is how we prefer to interact with and inform the public. We often point out that the entire framing of “safety” when it comes to radiation risk is problematic. The guidelines for acceptable radiation limits in food, the environment, and elsewhere are not really “safety” limits, and exceeding them does not mean “unsafe.” They are warning levels that trigger protective actions intended to prevent actually “unsafe” exposures. In each case, the important questions are: Do you understand this risk, and is it acceptable to you? This is where people need help, and where government has so far largely failed in its mission to inform. Once again we think it comes down to transparency.

A quick Google search of “Fukushima Olympics”  will illustrate the widespread belief that athletes and visitors who go to Fukushima next year will be putting their lives at risk. The Korean government has announced that their teams will bring their own food so as not to incur potential health risks from eating local products. Many people suspect that the Japanese Government is holding Olympic events in Fukushima in order to cover up the effects of the disaster and paint the prefecture with a tint of normality. It seems clear that the government lost control of this narrative long ago and may well be unable to recover before the 2020 Olympics begin, and that the negative effects could persist for years afterwards. We do not see any adequate messaging or information about the kinds of risks people around the world are concerned about, presented understandably and accessibly. What messaging we have seen so far is clumsy and tends heavily towards images of smiley happy people intended to suggest that everything is fine. No-one really trusts these blithe reassurances, because they distrust government itself.

Japanese government agencies seem to be operating under the assumption that their authority in matters like this is still intact in the eyes of the public. Their messages appear to be shaped under the assumption that they can simply say, “We’ve had a committee look into it and we’ve determined that it’s safe,” without demonstrating the necessary transparency and breaking the explanation down in appropriate ways. We have no desire to make government’s job easier about any of this, but we care about the people in Fukushima, and so we want government to present clear and accurate information about their situation. Things in Fukushima are not as bad as alarming Google hits often suggest, but it’s definitely not hunky-dory either. Honest messaging would reflect this. We too wonder why the government has rushed to hold Olympic events in Fukushima, ignoring the global public’s existing fear and skepticism. Many Fukushima residents are supportive of the games and hope they will shed a positive light on the progress the prefecture has made since the disasters in 2011. It could be good for local economies as well. On the other hand, it could be another avoidable PR disaster.

We think people can visit Fukushima today without undue fear. The preponderance of data, both independent data like ours as well as official data, shows that typical visitors are extremely unlikely to travel anywhere in the prefecture where external radiation exposure is higher than natural background radiation levels in most of the world, unless they go out of their way to enter very contaminated areas to which access is normally prohibited. If people are willing to consider normal background radiation levels “safe,” then most of Fukushima fits this description. There are a lot caveats, however. There may be cesium contamination in the ground even in places where the external dose rate is in the normal range (Minnanods has published a very good map of their independent measurements of soil contamination). While food produced in Fukushima is closely monitored by both official bodies and independent labs, both of which indicate that it is overwhelmingly “safe,” people should avoid wild mushrooms, wild vegetables, wild game, and other items which are not produced under controlled agricultural conditions and distributed by supermarkets. With few exceptions the forests are not being decontaminated, and radiation levels can be considerably higher there, so it’s probably best to avoid entering unknown forests.

We get a lot of pushback for saying this, but years of Safecast radiation measurements in Fukushima and elsewhere show that short-term visitors to Fukushima will almost certainly get a higher radiation dose on their flights to Japan than they will by spending several days in Fukushima. (You can see Safecast measurements taken during air travel here.) These exposures are not entirely comparable, though, and the equation is different for people who live in parts of Fukushima where they are likely to receive decades of elevated radiation doses. But we stand by our overall conclusions, while pointing out that the only way to be sure is to have good data available for the places you’re going, which Safecast tries hard to provide. We’re very critical of the Korean government’s politically motivated manipulation of fear about Fukushima food despite not presenting any measurement data in support of its claims. On the other hand, Korea has demanded that radiation risks for next year’s Olympics be verified by independent third-parties, which we highly endorse. The Japanese government and the Olympic committee have announced that the torch relay will run though over 20 Fukushima towns, but they have not provided the public with survey data showing the current radiation levels along those routes. Safecast volunteers are ready to measure these routes, and indeed most have probably already been measured at some point, and while our data might indicate no particular risks for participants and viewers in most locations, it might reveal areas of concern. What maddens us is that we have been unable to obtain information about the actual street routes for the Fukushima portions of the relay and do not know how long before the events route information will actually become available.

Ultimately, we expect that official messaging about the Fukushima 2020 Olympic events will continue to avoid frank discussions of radiation risks and will continue to focus on “happiness.” The current information void and amateurish messaging are likely to be shattered at some point early next year by a massive and expensive PR blitz which will also focus on “happiness” but with higher production values and market reach. If radiation is dealt with at all, it is likely to be in a superficial and somewhat misleading manner. It doesn’t have to be that way.

About the Author

Azby Brown

Azby Brown is Safecast's lead researcher and primary author of the Safecast Report. A widely published authority in the fields of design, architecture, and the environment, he has lived in Japan for over 30 years, and founded the KIT Future Design Institute in 2003. He joined Safecast in mid-2011, and frequently represents the group at international expert conferences.