Below is the first in a two-part series about radioactive risk management in Japan following March’s earthquake and tsunami. MGA’s Kip Cheroutes is the director of an eight-year education program for Japanese teachers of English, funded by Japan’s Ministry of Education. He has traveled throughout Japan, including Tohoku, and has conducted business there in government, university and business settings.
A painful concept to fathom, radioactive risk management based on education and communications must now help guide the physical reconstruction and emotional healing of Japan. It will be difficult for this risk-averse society. But cataclysmic events forced the issue.
The national psyche of Japan changed dramatically on March 11, 2011, when tens of thousands of mostly elderly and small town inhabitants perished in Japan’s northeast Tohoku coastal region due to the massive earthquake and tsunami. Buildings are gone and farmland is now salty. Human loss aside, at least the damage to the land is well-defined and understood.
Less well understood is the radiation evacuation zone in the region’s southernmost Fukushima Prefecture. Evacuation boundaries are defined but radioactive footprints are not due to localized weather patterns and groundwater flows. And no one knows what the current or future risk to human health and the environment is in both the evacuation zone and beyond.
Understanding that risk is a crucial first step to determine if, when, where, who and how to resettle the evacuation area and how to inform people further away of their own risks (real or perceived).
Radioactive risk education must now be part of reconstruction planning. There’s a lot of ground to cover, too, from differentiating the released radioactive isotopes and its properties to calculating the risk among age and gender groups. All of this must be explained in terms people can understand.
Certainly there is scientific uncertainty. No doubt, major epidemiological studies have begun. But there also is fear and ignorance. The mayor of Tsukuba, a city realistically a safe distance from Fukishima, initially denied any evacuee entry for fear of contamination. Irrational reactions like this do no good for an already injured national psyche.
Many Japanese must now make daily life choices based upon a new understanding and re-evaluation of risk. Education and communication are bound to help now and for months to come. It is scary but as a society it is part of the national healing.