Fear has been our biggest mistake.

Dr Ben Heard for Bright New World

It’s my third visit to 1F, shorthand for ‘Fukushima Daiichi’, and it all starts to change as I zip up the coveralls. 

They are white, as distinct from the TEPCO blue, and individually named to tell who-is-who in our group of six. The back of mine, near my neck, says ‘HEARD – SCIENTIST’. That’s the identity I am fighting to maintain as a mild claustrophobia sets in.

First cotton gloves and a pair of blue socks, then baggy coveralls obscure the 1.9 m frames of me and reporter Tom Steinford. Rubber gloves go over cotton gloves, taped up to the sleeves of the coveralls, then rubber gloves number two go over the top. Same around the ankles with a second pair of blue socks, then boots, and by now I am feeling distinctly separated from the world around me. A simple blue bonnet goes before the half-face mask and safety goggles, and then the hood is lifted over the top of it all. My personal protective equipment (PPE) is complete save for the hard-hat. It takes more effort to breath, to hear, and to be heard, and I already know it’s going to be hot. Observers can now barely tell Tom and me apart.

But the ‘SCIENTIST’ is feeling some responsibility to the crew to check my gut response to this elaborate get-up. When I first visited Fukushima I was with a delegation that included Geraldine Thomas. That made for pretty simple rules – If Gerry is relaxed, relax. If Gerry looks worried, pay attention. If Gerry runs, run faster. So, it’s my turn now to try and make ‘calm’ the infectious sentiment. Tom and the crew have jobs to do and deserve to feel safe while they do it. But how do you feel safe when everything being done to you screams DANGER!!!’?

It is helping me less than I expected that I understand what is happening here. With the exception of the mask, nothing else I am wearing is to project me from radiation -  I might as well be wearing a giant chicken suit or a plastic raincoat. It is to prevent us from picking up radioactive material that we might bring back with us.

TEPCO have four and a half thousand workers on site with important jobs to do, and the site is demarcated into three distinct radiation zones. They need to remain within occupational limits for radiation exposure while getting work done as efficiently as possible. That means taking all reasonable steps both to reduce the site radiation, and to keep the ‘hot’ areas separate from the ‘clean’ areas. It is contamination, not exposure to radiation per se, they are seeking to prevent with all this PPE. Contamination also might result in me losing my favourite pair of jeans, so I am all for the precaution. 

Is that knowledge making me feel better? Not much…it takes more experience than I have wearing this level of PPE to counteract a full-body response suggesting that I am about to do something deadly - even though I know I am not.

We will manage our exposure to the radiation simply by limiting the time we will spend in the reactor, and using the equipment measuring our dose and the dose rate. They have visitor limits of 100 micro-Sieverts (uSv), and they aim to complete the site tour at 70 uSv to allow for contingencies.

So, a 7 hour site visit of Fukushiuma Daiichi (1F), including a tour all the way to the reactor hall of Unit 3, is about the same exposure as a return flight Tokyo-New York. Seriously. The important addenda to that information is that I will get getting almost all that amount within about 30 minutes in specific locations. Which leads to a second important addenda – provided anyone chooses not to walk right into a melted down nuclear reactor, they can basically spend as much time at the 1F site as they want – far from creating a radioactive wasteland, the bulk of the site itself is a total radiological non-issue.

Which raises questions for me. Why are these limits being forced on us? And what are the implications of these limits for our overall safety?

It would make a more relaxed and, frankly, safer visit if we were to work with TEPCO to set our own limit within a sensible range, and thereby reduce the time-pressure. It would also mean we are feeling in control of the risk. A sense of control is one of the single greatest determinants of how we humans relate to risk (I am smoking. I am steering the car. I am skiing downhill. I can manage my diabetes).

It doesn’t work that way. Instead, a top-down approach enforces what is safe and not safe for me to do with my workday. When things go wrong for the nuclear industry, authorities typically responding by ratcheting the limits down. This sends exactly the wrong message, raising a society-wide paranoia, not about radiation in general, but about radiation caused specifically by nuclear operations. It is a multi-generational industry blunder of psychology and risk communication.

Perhaps, this sounds petulant? Surely, we need experts to guide us and keep us safe and healthy?

Yes, we do. But ‘health and safety’ means a lot of things.

As an Australian, I can expect 1,500 uSv per year from nature. Thanks to my visit, I can assume I’m getting at least 1,570 uSv in 2018, against a global average from nature of 2,400 uSv. To get 5,000 is perfectly normal, so is 10,000. You can find spots in nature worth 50,000 per year or even around 200,000 per year, and a basic medical scan or two will raise my dose again. The health implications of my visit to 1F are negligible.

What about the safety implications?

 This is the reactor in which filming took place. The cylindrical structure is a new roof to house cranes to undertake the used fuel removal.

This is the reactor in which filming took place. The cylindrical structure is a new roof to house cranes to undertake the used fuel removal.

The reactor hall is five floors up, accessed by a small, external lift. The fall hazard is plausible. It’s noisy and doubly hard to hear because of the PPE, and we are speaking different languages. It’s a little crowded, there are stairs, and there is a pool of used fuel with debris from an explosion. The crew are carrying some bulky equipment and it is, as we know, an area prone to earthquakes. 

Thanks to the imposed 70 uSv limit we only have about 15 minutes from when the bus arrives at the foot of the reactor. Mid-interview our guide grabs my chest to check my dosimeter and tells us we have to go. By now, my science-brain is back in charge and I am simply not panicking. The crew get a couple more shots in while I calmly leave the hall. I am firmly directed into a steel box to shield (i.e. ‘protect’) me. I smack my head, hard, on a steel girder within; it was the same height as the door frame. I couldn’t see it of course, with the hood, but the hard-hat works well. There are instructions called to the rest of the crew to leave. We cram back into the elevator, get back on the bus, and return to discard our PPE. We are sweaty, and thirsty, and a little elated– they just got some great television. We hydrate and congratulate. 

There were many identifiable hazards about this site tour. Having done a lot of work in risk over the years, I’m certain the radiation was among the smallest. But the radiation had primacy, creating time-urgency, driving the entire procedure, and, I argue, raising likelihood of falling foul of the other hazards. Trips, falls, hitting my head…the worst outcomes so often come from poor decisions made under pressure. That is analogous to the entire, devastating social response to this serious nuclear accident. 

Before coming to the plant we visited towns that are still abandoned, or close-to. In most places the radiation was either normal from pre-accident, or well-within the range of normal around the world. We had to actively seek out hot spots, like gutters and drains, which is obviously not where people spend much time. 

Just as there were many hazards in my visit, there are many well-understood hazards to evacuation and dislocation. A hurried, mass, and prolonged evacuation killed many people and traumatised and stigmatised thousands more. Until the last few years, people from the evacuation zone were deprived the dignity of informed choice, control and self-determination. Now, for many, it is too late and they will not return.

This is the wrong way to treat people. Looking again at the micro-example of our site tour, consider a hypothetical alternative approach from the experts to us.

‘It’s our responsibility both to keep you safe and to try and make your visit a success. This is where you will be going. These are the various hazards we need to pay attention to. You will be wearing PPE to keep our other worksites clean and to manage some of the hazards. You must be aware, the PPE makes communication harder’’. 

‘We will be tracking your radiation dose. If you want to minimise your dose, we can do a 15-minute stay in the reactor – but you might feel in a hurry. If you want a 20-minute stay in the reactor, you will get this larger dose, but it will be calmer and easier to film. If you want to stay for 25 minutes, you will get a higher dose again and you will also be getting hot under all the PPE. We would be concerned about hydration. We also need to manage our staff exposure, because they go there regularly, and we have occupational guidelines’. 

‘So, while we can’t support anything longer than 25 minutes, there is the information you need to make your choice. We will make sure your choice is an informed one, and then to help you implement your choice as safely as possible.’

We desperately need to rein in the primacy of radiological protection. We must reinstate the right to informed choices, lest we ‘protect’ more people to premature death or social dislocation. The people of Fukushima should have been given the support to safely implement informed choices to return home much, much sooner. 

When the crew and I make it all the way back to the clean areas we are famished, so we head to Lawsons, the onsite convenience store. 

Prominently displayed at the counter is a wide array of cigarettes. 

‘Inside Fukushima’ premiers this Sunday 21 October, 8.30 pm on Channel 9 Australia and will feature exclusive interviews with Bright New World founder Dr Benjamin Heard, as well as unique access to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.

See our day in a radiation map here, from our accomodation via bus to 1F, including some time on foot in a village near the reactor. Further maps of our site visit coming soon.

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