Imagine my total absence of shock!
– Japan admits twice as much radiation released (ABC News, June 7, 2011:)
ELEANOR HALL: To Japan now where nearly three months after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, Japan’s nuclear authority has dramatically revised up its estimates of the amount of radiation emitted from the Fukushima nuclear plants in the week after the earthquake.
In a statement overnight, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency more than doubled its original estimate of the radiation in the atmosphere.
Plutonium has also been found for the first time in soil just a few kilometres from the plant. Tests have confirmed the plutonium came from the plant, but researchers say the levels are not a cause for alarm.
A short time ago I spoke to Tokyo correspondent Mark Willacy.
ELEANOR HALL: Mark this is an extraordinary admission from Japan’s nuclear safety agency isn’t it, that the earlier estimates of the danger were out by more than 100 per cent?
MARK WILLACY: Well the safety agency says that it was taking on board figures that were provided to it by TEPCO because they’re based on basically water injection assumptions. Now that’s quite technical but that water was pumped in to try and stop the meltdown – as we know now there were partial meltdowns in three of the reactors.
Now the nuclear safety agency is saying it’s pushing up – it’s doubling the amount of radiation released in the week after the crisis. It’s more than doubling it to 770,000 terabecquerels. Now that probably doesn’t mean much to people but it is quite a lot of radiation escaping into the atmosphere.
If you take that figure it’s about 10 per cent of what was released in Chernobyl 25 years ago – obviously the worst nuclear accident in history. Now only 10 per cent, yes, but it’s still a massive figure in its own right.
ELEANOR HALL: So has TEPCO responded to these allegations that essentially it got the numbers so wrong?
MARK WILLACY: No it has not. TEPCO has obviously been revising its own figures in the last few weeks as it says it’s getting more information, more data from inside the plant. It’s getting computer systems up online, it’s sending in robots, taking readings.
It’s saying this is a moveable feast – we’re really in unchartered territory for the Japanese nuclear safety industry and that basically it’s a case of getting new figures all the time and revising old figures.
ELEANOR HALL: So what’s the reaction from people who were in the affected zones and people who are now wondering whether they’re in danger?
MARK WILLACY: Well I think it really does re-enforce some of the moves that the Japanese government has been taking in the last couple of weeks. Now there’s a 20 kilometre exclusion zone around the plant. The communities inside that exclusion zone have all left but in recent weeks we’ve seen the government say, look there’s a couple of communities outside that exclusion zone we think should move.
And in fact I was in one of them last week, documenting some of the people who were moving from there and they were saying yes, we’re not comfortable here because we do believe that the radiation levels are higher than the government and TEPCO are letting on.
Now these figures released overnight by the nuclear safety agency would bear that out.
ELEANOR HALL: Now you mentioned Chernobyl a moment ago – are people on the ground there making those comparisons themselves?
MARK WILLACY: Well they’re certainly saying that, you know, being able to return to their homes is the major factor for them and they’re looking at Chernobyl just saying, well look at those people in the Ukraine, a lot of them can never go back.
And I suppose that’s the biggest concern for these people, they just don’t know when they’ll be able to return to their homes.
Also their livestock – this is a major farming area around Fukushima and, you know, Japan has raised the severity level of this crisis last month or in April rather to seven. Now that’s the maximum on the international nuclear event scale, as it’s called, and it puts it on a par with the Chernobyl disaster – not quite as big in scale but in terms of, you know, that scale on the nuclear accident level it’s right up there.
ELEANOR HALL: And Mark there are also revelations today that plutonium has been found in the soil outside the nuclear plant for the first time. How big a concern is that?
MARK WILLACY: Well it is a concern. It’s been found in the township of Okuma which is about 1.7 kilometres away from the plant’s front gate. It was found by some university researchers who then analysed the ratio of the three types of isotopes in the plutonium.
Now that’s like taking a fingerprint. And they determined that this was plutonium that was emitted by the Fukushima plant and not from past bomb tests. Now that’s important because they are saying that usually they can detect plutonium on the ground in Japan, microscopic levels from bomb tests overseas.
So that’s important that they’ve been able to narrow it down to Fukushima.
ELEANOR HALL: And how is the government responding to these figures on the contamination on the soil?
MARK WILLACY: Well they haven’t said too much about it yet, but the researchers are saying look, don’t get too concerned yet because the levels of plutonium that we found in this township are lower than the average level observed in Japan after nuclear tests which have been conducted abroad.
What the Japanese researchers are saying – that fallout is greater than what we’re seeing from this plutonium from the Fukushima plant.
ELEANOR HALL: Mark you say you were in Fukushima last week, do these figures scare you?
MARK WILLACY: Yeah well we got within about 21-22 kilometres of the plant. We were there to film and to interview a farmer who had to leave his Wagyu beef herd behind and we took in two Geiger counters and I have to say, they were screeching at us quite a bit these Geiger counters and some of the readings we got were quite high, in fact they were higher than some of the readings that we understand the Japanese government has released.
So I suppose yes, it is concerning because the figures that we are hearing – they are always higher, there are always upward revisions, we’re not hearing downward revisions and that is a cause for concern for all the Japanese population and for anyone who lives here in Japan.
ELEANOR HALL: That’s Mark Willacy, the ABC’s Tokyo correspondent.