Report From Tokyo: The Spread of Radioactivity

The greatest concern for people living anywhere near the Daiichi Fukushima nuclear plant these days is the spread of radioactivity emanating from the facility. In recent days, several reports paint a dire picture of what is happening in Japan.

On June 7, Japanese authorities officially doubled the release of radioactivity for the initial days of the crisis to 770,000 terabecquerels, bringing the total close to 40 percent of official emissions estimates made by the Soviets during the Chernobyl crisis.

Radiation from the plant has spread over 600 square kilometers (230 square miles). Soil samples showed one site with radiation from Cesium-137 exceeding 5 million becquerels per square meter about 25 kilometers to the northwest of the Fukushima plant.

Cesium has a half-life of about 30 years. The longer it stays on the ground, the deeper it penetrates the soil and increases the risk of radioactivity entering underground water.

In a recent interview, nuclear specialist Arnold Gunderson shared his longer-term concern that radioactive water from the plant is not only leaking in to the sea but may also be permeating through in to the groundwater system of surrounding Prefectures.

So it is no wonder most Japanese are deeply concerned about the spread of radioactivity. About six-in-ten (59 percent) are worried that they or someone in their family may have been exposed to radiation from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. And it is no wonder more and more people are conducting individual readings around their homes and offices to corroborate "official" figures.

It depends on what one reads and who one listens to in order to make a clear and balanced judgment about such issues. I must admit my learning curve on things dealing with radiation has been straight up since March 11, when the earthquake hit Japan. But those of us in Japan long for the truth -- honest and accurate information on what is happening to the air, land and sea that does not come from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).

My main question right now is how long it will take to stop radioactive emissions and then clean up the mess. The answer is simple -- a long time. The Japan Center for Economic Research, a private think tank, estimated that scrapping all six reactors at the Fukushima complex could cost up to 15 trillion yen, while compensating people who have been evacuated from areas located within 20 kilometers from the plant could reach around 630 billion yen.

And TEPCO now says that, despite its previous promise to stabilize the reactor cores by the end of 2011, that was "just a target.''

If soil decontamination can occur rapidly, then there is a great chance of preventing groundwater contamination from happening. But given the slow speed with which many actions have been taken since March 11 here, I would not hold my breath. Over the past three months, almost every estimate ranging from radiation emissions to the cost of clean up to the estimates for increased taxes to pay for it all has changed. I would expect these guesstimates to continue to go up.

David Wagner is Director of Crisis Communications for Country Risk Solutions, a political risk consulting firm based in Connecticut. He has lived and worked in Japan for 25 years.