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Public skepticism of government assurances grew when the man appointed as health adviser for Fukushima prefecture, Shunichi Yamashita, repeatedly said exposure to 100 millisieverts of radiation a year was safe.

Studies have found that cancer risks rise at an annual exposure of 100 millsieverts or above but aren’t statistically detectable at lower levels. Below 100, experts can’t say for sure whether it’s safe, just that a link to cancer can’t be proven.

In Fukushima and nearby areas, outside the 20-kilometer evacuation zone, the annual exposure is 20 millisieverts in some places and as high as 50 in others. Before the disaster, people in Japan were exposed to about 1 millisievert of natural background radiation a year; in the United States the average is about 3 millisieverts.

The controversy earned Yamashita a nickname: “Mr. 100 Millisieverts.” Toshiso Kosako, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s graduate school, stepped down as government adviser last year in a tearful protest of Yamashita’s views.

Kouta Miyazaki is among those who have lost confidence in the government.

“Government officials should all come live in Fukushima for several years and bring their families. They’re all staying in places where it’s safe,” Miyazaki says. “We’re being told to get radiated and drop dead.”

Miyazaki, 40, closed his online business selling Fukushima peaches; he doubts anyone would buy them now. He plans to move away with his 15-year-old son, although that would mean living separately for a while from his wife, who works as a counselor in Fukushima.

The nature of the threat has changed over time. Initially, it was exposure to the large releases of radiation from explosions at the plant. The risk from leaks remains but at a much reduced level.

These days, the main danger is less obvious but just as real: consuming contaminated food and water and ingesting radioactive particles. Radioactive material has accumulated in gutters where rainwater collects and shrubs with leaves that suck in radiation.

The risk is cumulative. The radioactivity in one’s body builds up through various activities, including eating contaminated food every day or staying in a hot spot for an extended period.

Schools are restricting outdoor activities, and radiation meters dot the streets. Some people are using their own devices to measure radioactivity.

At area hospitals, thousands of people are on waiting lists to get their radiation levels measured with whole-body counters. One child at Minami Soma Hospital, southeast of Fukushima, was found with 2,653 becquerels of radioactive cesium.

It’s a big number, but is it dangerous? Jacques Lochard, an International Commission on Radiological Protection official advising Fukushima prefecture, says the child’s exposure could amount to as little as 0.3 millisieverts a year, or as much as 8 millisieverts, depending on how the child was exposed to the radiation.

All most residents know is that their bodies are contaminated. What the numbers mean is unanswered.

Kunihiko Takeda, a nuclear and ecology expert who has been more outspoken about the dangers than many others, says people become less afraid after he explains the risks.

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