Report from Tokyo: Limited Progress

Roughly six weeks have passed since the horrific events of March 11th unfolded in the Tohoku area of Japan. The total number of deaths and those still unaccounted for has now surpassed 28,000 and tens of thousands of people remain in makeshift shelters with uncertain futures. It is a very challenging time for Japan.

The good news is time has provided clarity on a number of key issues. While four of the six nuclear reactors remain in various states of danger, the efforts of some very brave Japanese and foreigners helped to stabilize the situation. Radiation is still of course being emitted from the reactors, but there have not been any additional explosions at the site for more than a month. In recent days a plan for bringing the reactors under control has been released by Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) and the Japanese government, and there is even talk of rejuvenating the affected regions once the clean up process is completed. This is real progress.

The bad news is that the level of radiation being spewed in the surrounding atmosphere remains largely uncontrolled. On April 11th, the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency raised the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi to Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, making Fukushima the second Level 7 "major accident" in the history of the nuclear industry. From the standpoint of how much radiation has been released, Fukushima is equal to or more serious than Chernobyl. Where the radiation is going depends on wind patterns and density, but radioactive particles continue to be released into the air, sea and on to land surrounding the facility.

On April 21st, a citizen's group concerned about the impact of the radioactive leaks on mothers and babies in Fukushima Prefecture said that small amounts of radioactive iodine have been found in the breast milk of four women living east or northeast of Tokyo. This was the first public report of its kind since the accident. Tests are ongoing, but it does not help the public to believe that the effects of the radiation are confined only to the surrounding area.

Also on April 21st, the first report of the sale of banned spinach hit became public. A Tokyo-based cooperative delivered spinach grown in Chiba Prefecture to consumers in three eastern Japan prefectures, despite a government ban on shipments. 74 lots of spinach were delivered to 70 households in Gunma, Saitama and Chiba prefectures and had already been consumed by the time it was realized they were banned. There is growing concern that irradiated food has entered the food chain and will continue to do so.

As I wrote on April 11th, it is anyone's guess how effective the Japanese government can be at enforcing the sale of banned food produce emanating from the affected areas. Supply and distribution of food can only be monitored and controlled to a limited degree in any country. The government is surely well intended in attempting to manage the flow of food from the region and sincerely wants to assure everyone in Japan that they are consuming products that have been deemed safe. But transparency, while needed and desired, brings with it the potential for increased fear.

The truth is that Japan -- and the world -- remain in untested territory. A nuclear calamity of this magnitude has never before been experienced and the government, TEPCO, and international agencies assisting in the containment effort are in reality learning as they proceed in terms of what works and what does not. Japan and its people are surely in for a difficult spring and summer in which the 'new normal' may last for some time.

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.