Report From Tokyo: Who to Believe?

Since the beginning of the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan, the question of who to believe has been of great concern. The Japanese government has shown better transparency in recent weeks and is even distancing itself (at least publicly) from Tokyo Electric Power Company
(TEPCO). Yet as the weeks roll by and the news keeps getting worse, it gets more difficult to trust reports from those who have a vested interest in making things sound worse than they are.

On May 26th, Greenpeace announced findings from its testing efforts off the coast of the Daiichi Fukushima nuclear facility. I have been waiting for this report and it is not good news. After extensive testing was done in Belgium and France this past week, seaweed with contamination levels 50 times higher than safety limits was found, leading them to conclude that caesium and iodine emanating from the plant is spreading and accumulating in sea life. Despite Japanese government assurances that contaminated water leaking from the plant would disperse in the ocean, the truth is that there is a significant, ongoing discharge of contaminated water coming from the damaged plant and it is having a damaging effect on marine life.

So what does all this mean? At minimum, it surely means that the fishing industry can expect the number of people who no longer wish to eat food that comes from the sea around Japan to increase. It also means that more people will be asking critical questions about food grown on land and the implications nationally for the food chain.

All of this does beg the question of whether or not the Japanese government can possibly test all food grown and sold inside Japan. Even in the best of times, there is not a great track record as I noted several weeks ago. In 2008, the Japanese government uncovered 879 cases of incorrect food labeling but made public information on only approximately 10% of them, fearing "adverse effects on the firms that sold the products". In other words, purposely mislabeled food was kept out of the public eye to protect food packers and producers. Add to that the track record to date of being able to stop banned shipments of food from the affected areas and it does not inspire confidence for what lies ahead. As I wrote previously, a Tokyo-based cooperative delivered 74 lots of contaminated spinach to 70 households in Gunma, Saitama and Chiba prefectures in April.

Then there is the issue of the air. Up to now, the winds have by and large blown much of the radiation out to sea. But as we are learning, not all of it. On May 25th, it was confirmed that soil contamination from the Daiichi Fukushima plant is already comparable to Chernobyl. Soil in a 600 square kilometer area, mostly to the northwest of the Fukushima plant, is likely to have already absorbed radioactive cesium of over 1.48 million becquerels per square meter, the yardstick for compulsory migration orders in the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe.

What is becoming clear is that even those full of good intentions are limited in what they can do. The best people in Japan can hope for is that a concerted effort to be transparent by setting up a nation-wide system of accurate testing and shipping of food is established soon.If it does not happen soon, one might expect people to wonder if living in Japan makes good sense.

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.