Thursday, 19 September 2013

Fukushima - what the government should be doing.

Getting the nuclear plant stable so it is not emitting or dumping nuclear waste is obviously an imperative.  The New Scientist's assurances that it is less radioactive than Pacific nuclear tests such at Bikini Atoll, (which incidentally included the  irradiation of the Japanese fishing boat the (un)Lucky Dragon) are  not consoling.  Poison in the Well's  assessment of the evolution of nuclear waste policy in  helps build historical context,  but knowing that nuclear dumping has happened in other places is no consolation to the fishermen who can't sell their fish or to the farmers whose rice is growing in contaminated soil.  It's not acceptable anymore to be dumping waste into the ocean, irrespective of whether it can be feasibly argued to be safe.  Public outrage and distrust of information sources is too high. At the moment saying a bit of nuclear in your food is not ideal but on balance it's OK is a bit like saying be like trying to mount a case that a little bit of pedophilia is OK..

Anyway, the government doesn't seem to get the fact that they have to deal with the outrage as well as the nuclear problem, and that the two are inextricably linked.

At the moment Japan is considering taking Korea to the WTO to demand that they lift trade bans on fish caught in the waters off north eastern Japan.  In a sense it makes no sense to ban fish based  on location since fish can obviously swim... but the government misses the point that forcing people to buy fish which they believe is unsafe does not restore faith in the food system.  If anything it stigmatises all Japanese fish...

According to Sandman there are 5 steps that need to be taken to reduce outrage.  The government is not doing so well.
  • Admit the error.
I am trying to think of examples of the government admitting error. What comes to mind is PM Abe blaming former PM Kan for his handling of the situation in the initial days.  (I think history is likely to treat Kan well - it is bad, but it could have been much worse in the initial days.)  TEPCO has been admitting errors, but they have a tendency to do so only AFTER they have been caught in the spotlight.  
Abe's assertion that everything is under control might be good for getting an Olympics, but good at all for restoring the faith of those who are affected.

PM Abe's decision today that reactors 5 and 6 need to be decommissioned is long over due and very welcome.  It's not an admission of error, perse but it comes close.  The PM is planning to visit Dai-ichi this week... I hope  he spends enough time with people there to be more compassionate in the way the govt. deals with them.

  • Apologize 
Again, I can't think of any government apologies. TEPCO officials were apologizing to fisherman  the other day for dumping wastes that destroys the fishermen's livelihood. Apologies are often "kuchi dake" - just words in Japan (like anywhere I guess.)  Their website has emblazoned across it
We deeply apologize to the people of Fukushima and broader society for the tremendous inconvenience and anxiety caused by the accident at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

"Inconvenience and anxiety"  !!  Abysmal EQ.  

Apologies are important, but unless they reflect an understanding of the devastation that their actions have caused... it trivializes people's suffering and just makes people angry and cynical.

  • Compensate and mitigate
Compensation is inadequate, and will never be adequate for the upheaval that people have faced.  But, farmers should not be farming land that they believe is unsafe.  If land is contaminated, people must be given the option to relocate.  It's hard to restore confidence when farmers themselves believe they are producing tainted goods.

It is a great pity for Fukushima prefecture that the area is so large and that the reactors were named after the prefecture.  All Fukushima produce is tainted by association.

The government has been doing a lot of health checks to alleviate concerns, except they haven't alleviated concerns because they have been finding an abnormal number of growths in children.  Medical experts are saying that it is too early for growths from the reactor to be showing up, and they are finding growths because they are testing.  (The inference being that if mass testings were done anywhere, elevated results would be found).   People have to wait and see.... which contributes to anxiety. 

  • Promise to never do it again
They can't and they won't.  So long as they can't and they won't they need to be doing testing has to be vigilant, and results have to be transparent.  Abe is still determined to bring nuclear back. Without cheap(ish) electricity, it's hard for Japan to regain exports.
  • Do penance
No evidence of that ...


The situation is very difficult. It's easy to criticize the government and there is a lot they could have done and could be doing better - like insisting on safety procedures being followed, being transparent with information,consulting more with Chernobyl experts, communicating with the public and not treating the public as idiots by saying things like "everything is under control", being more empathetic and responsive to farmers and residents and making it clear that the health and well being of people in Fukushima prefecture is as important as people in Tokyo, making sure that information is available in Japanese and other languages, that there are people who are informed who can answer technical questions in lay people's language.

I am sure many govt. and TEPCO workers are working as hard as they can. It doesn't help that the policy with workers in Japanese government and corporations are often deliberately kept generalist but not truly specialised in anything.  Many of them are clearly, despite good intentions, way out of their depth.

I don't see the plight of the farmers being resolved any time soon, nor is there much to persuade those who are anxious about food safety that it's Ok to consume food from the north.  I don't think the government has the PR skills, or the integrity to persuade people otherwise.

My outrage level is not nearly as high as my food consumption from Fukushima. A lot of the reaction is  hysterical, inconsistent and uninformed, people are very risk averse when they feel the govt. is playing them for mugs.  But the the lack of transparent information,  lack of effective communication, lack of empathy in listening to and acting on concerns makes it almost inevitable.

All of this compounded by media that in many cases is not interested in promoting deep understanding... While most of Japan can switch off or zone out or eat food from Kyushu,  for the farmers, fishermen and people of Fukushima - there is nowhere where they can avert their eyes.

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