Anxiety surged when Tokyo water was listed as too contaminated for children to drink. Over the summer doubts regained momentum and anxiety levels intensified. Contaminated beef reached the market. Food that had been declared “safe” was found in fact to be contaminated; the cattle had eaten contaminated feed. The cattle had been tested for external radiation, but not internal radiation and the meat, sold in supermarkets and butchers made its way to the consumer. There has been an outcry, understandably, that checking feedstuffs for radiation was not on the radar of agricultural co-ops, or the government. Interestingly the criticism has focused almost exclusively on the safety of the food chain – a very legitimate concern – but if the feed stuffs in the area had been contaminated by atmospheric radiation to the point where it made radiation levels in feedstuff unacceptably high… what about the people living in the area? The amount of radiation a consumer will get from eating beef that has eaten contaminated feedstuffs, is presumably a tiny fraction of the level of exposure that local people have received. At the same time people in the region are victims of radiation, there is also suspicion of them being expressed – are the farmers victims or are “they” complicit in “our” irradiation? Are the victims also the enemy?
Information often conflicts. Academic studies about the extent of damage are contradicted in other papers. It’s hard to know what or who to believe, which is part of the reason people are so sceptical. It seems that people are talking about it less and have little stomach for argument, not because the situation has changed much, but ultimately because people have to come to their own understandings and develop their own framework to slot in new information. The “authoritative” sources have got it wrong too many times – why would people believe them. Ultimately people have to reach their own understanding of the situation, abut who to believe and what constitutes acceptable risk. People seem to gravitate to others with a similar perspective and become defensive if their opinion is challenged. It’s understandable.
Personally I don’t ascribe to the view that the government is all lies. There have been some noble efforts among major government failings. Former PM Kan’s unilateral decision to order Hamaoka nuclear plant to close was brave, defying the power nuclear lobby who also judged Fukushima to be safe. Hamaoka, like Fukushima, is built on a fault line next to the ocean in a place overdue for a major earthquake. I can’t say I trust the government, but I also don’t really know what people mean when they accuse the government of major covering up and not telling the full story. General accusations are harder to prove or disprove than specific examples. In a way this point of view reminds me of being in China when people would not believe that the US could have made a mistake with the coordinates when they bombed the Chinese embassy. Science makes mistakes and is full of uncertainties. Any attempt to arrive at a definitive safe level of radioactive elements is just guessing.
Comparisons are sometimes made with the government's cover up of Minimata mecury poisoning in the 1950s and 60s. But times have changed...there are so many individuals and groups out with radiation measures, there is simply not the capacity to lie for any length of time about information that can be scrutinised by outsiders. It’s ironic that positive tests for caesium in beef make people more suspicious of beef rather than more willing to accept that the food chain is being monitored effectively. But given the history of food scandals, assurances are being given to a sceptical audience.