Since Fukushima failed, the Japanese government and TEPCO have obscured the danger of the Fukushima crisis—and it is a crisis. The word "safe" has been tossed about loosely. Unfortunately, when it comes to radiation, there's no such thing.
Now, there is no cloud of lethal radioactive vapor headed toward your house right now. If you're outside of Japan, as I write this, there's no evidence that you're in any imminent danger from what's spewing out of Fukushima.
Nothing I'll write here is meant to scare you, because we shouldn't be scared.
But we shouldn't be ignorant either. And, largely, we are. Japanese authority figures have taken steps, whether deliberately or out of pure ineptitude, to whitewash the danger of Fukushima's radiation. Speaking out of both sides of his mouth, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yukio Edano, said that Tokyo's drinking water was both safe and unsafe. Levels of iodine 131, a radioactive isotope that clogs your thyroid gland and can have devastating effects on children, was found to be 110 becquerels per liter above the safe level. The evacuation zone surrounding the plant was expanded by seven miles—but only as a voluntary, not mandatory move. The government has advanced and retreated on the danger of irradiated food, with clear internal discord. The radiation limit deemed unsafe was suddenly erased and replaced with a new figure, on the fly. And just today, the TEPCO said it'll start dumping thousands of tons of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean—an act they're saying poses ''no major health risk."
Nevermind that, before the Fukushima disaster, the average person outside of a physics classroom had zero idea in radioactive hell what a becquerel is. Nevermind that the entire concept of a safe level of radiation has been shown to be demonstrably elastic.
A proven, harmful, radioactive substance was detected in Tokyo's tap water—the water drunk and bathed in daily—and Tokyo's water purification chief said babies shouldn't drink it. But this didn't stop Edano from claiming that "Even if people consume the water a few times, there should be no long-term ill effects." Huh?
This is what Dr. Theodore Postol, professor of Science, Technology and International Security at MIT calls "bureaucratic ass-covering mode." Edano, and the lumbering bureaucratic safety monster in general, simply aren't sure what the hell is going on in Tokyo's water, so rather than give one answer and be damned by history, it provides two, entirely contradictory answers. What better insurance policy than that! The water is safe and unsafe—avoid it and drink up!
But this entire exercise—the theatrics of raising safety levels and detecting radiation in abundance of them—begs the question. It makes the massive assumption that there's such a thing as safe radiation, as if iodine 131 under a certain threshold amounts to touching a pan once it's cooled.
We talked to scientists, and scientists agree—to use a highly scientific term, "safe levels" of radiation are bullshit. Radiation is unsafe at any level. "The general view," explains Postol, "is that any exposure to radiation increases your risk of some kind of medical consequences." Namely, cancer. "There is no so-called safe level of radiation," agrees Dr. Lisbeth Gronlund, Senior Scientist & Co-Director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Solid cancer risk," echoes Dr. Arjun Makhijani in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, "is proportional to radiation dose. Small dose, small risk and large dose, large risk." Now, to say that something isn't safe does not equal kill you on the spot. Taking swigs of Tokyo tap isn't going to give you radiation sickness right then and there. Or maybe ever. But what matters is what Postol describes as the "long-range" effects of radiation. The effects that won't hurt you now, but will raise cancer rates, even slightly, down the line.
But it's just like getting an x-ray! is a common refrain from those who cling to the idea of safe radiation. Exactly—it is just like getting a chest x-ray—a procedure that increases, slightly, your chance of getting cancer. So too is ridiculous the claim that Hey, we're exposed to natural radiation all the time anyway, so this is no big deal—again, natural radiation that causes, to some extent, cancer—a recent study by the Congressional Research Service pegs the risk of "recommended" background radiation exposure to raise your chance of cancer by 1 in 300. Not exactly trivial.
Attempting to distinguish between "natural" radiation and something else is like differentiating between the respective risks of a flamethrower and a forest fire—both dangerous, regardless of origin.
As the late Berkeley nuclear chemist, Dr. John Gofman put it, "There exists no reason whatsoever to dismiss as negligible any radiation dose from a man-made source simply on the grounds that the dose it delivers is lower than the dose from some combined sources of natural radiation." Or, in simpler terms, it's silly to say "man-made sources of radiation are acceptable because they do not necessarily add quite as much misery and death as do natural sources." The fallacy of pitting a source of radiation against another in attempt to make one of them look "safe" is what Gofman calls "public health in reverse"—a dangerous way to think.
The danger of Fukushima isn't binary. It's a gradient of danger. Doctors give us chest x-rays because we've decided the danger of the x-ray is less than the danger of not knowing what's going on inside our chests. It's a compromise. But to call this safe, to presume zero risk, is dangerous, when it's pouring from the mouth of a government spokesperson we're supposed to trust. And the bottom line is that science just doesn't know how risky small exposures are: "We don't really know the shape of the dose-response curve at very low doses," explains Dr. Jonathan Links, a radiology and environmental health expert at Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health. In Japan, as has been the case for decades, "safe" is only code for "less cancer-y." How much less? We're not sure. Supposedly "safe" or "normal" levels of radiation may be permissible to us or some authority, "but they are actually low cancer risk levels that assume that that level of cancer risk is acceptable to society," explains Makhijani.
Acceptable to society. That means us. We're society—we should get to decide what's acceptable to us. Do I want a dental x-ray to see how that wisdom tooth is growing in? That's my decision—I consent. Is the elevated risk of cancer I'll face in my lifetime from that scan worth the pain of an infected tooth? That's my call. It's my dentist's job to provide me with the data, and it's my job to act as an individual. Will I get cancer as a result of the x-ray? Probably not. Is my chance of cancer higher because of the x-ray? Yes. I grapple with that, and I alone.
But when the Japanese government is your dentist, and the x-ray machine is a giant, malfunctioning nuclear plant, they don't get some sort of carte blanche. When the risks are greater, so too is the responsibility of those in charge. The government of Japan owes more to its people than ambiguities, dissemblance, and doublespeak. The people are owed the facts, at the very least—because unlike a dental x-ray, they can't opt out of drinking water. They can't opt out of where they live, lest they wind up in an emergency shelter. Lives are affected in Japan right now, not gums. There's no need to promote fear—neither I nor Japan stand to benefit from it. But to tiptoe around the truth, that more radiation equals more cancer, period, is cowardly and negligent—risk remains risky, however slight. Japan may be concerned for its reputation in a generation—but it should shift that concern to its people's DNA, and dignity.