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Strict Standards for Food: Human-Induced Disaster for Affected Fishing and Farming Households

Hiroyuki MatsudaHiroyuki Matsuda Professor, Environmental Risk Management, Fisheries Science, Ecology
Yokohama National University
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The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has drafted a table of reference standards for radioactive substances in food since the nuclear power plant accident, and is currently soliciting public opinion. The tentative reference standard of cesium (total for 134 and 137) after the nuclear power plant accident was 500 Bq/kg. The proposed table offers a stricter standard, and sets the value at 100 Bq/kg or lower, depending on the food product, in order to hold lifetime internal radiation dosage to 100 mSv or less.

In response to the solicitation, I submitted a dissenting opinion based on a number of reasons clarified herein. But above all else, I feel that Japanese people need to reconnect with each other after this earthquake disaster, in a sense of belonging. For instance, since the nuclear accident, a conscientious movement to purchase Fukushima agricultural products has been set in motion. Some consumers recognize a value in purchasing food from the affected areas. But lowering the reference standards will lead to denying the initiative led by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of “supporting through eating.”

The reader may think that payment of compensation will avert more victims of the disaster, but money alone cannot compensate the misfortune of being denied one’s livelihood. Moreover, even if compensation for farmers and fishermen is made, the compensation of associated processors and distributors will be difficult. In short, the social connection between producer and consumer will be disrupted, regardless.

The scientific research community in my corner has considered the risk that accompanies the consumption of agricultural and marine products harvested in Fukushima Prefecture, and has concluded that supporting the affected producers affords benefit and value that outweigh the risks. Certainly, information was inadequate immediately after the nuclear accident, and a dosage of around 100 mSv could not be disputed outright. Even then, the exposure was considered a lower risk than cancer mortality from passive smoking (living with a smoker).

Based on current findings, the actual internal exposure sustained by eating agricultural and fisheries products from northern Kanto or Fukushima areas is far lower. To date, there is no known case exceeding 1 mSv/yr for actual internal exposure, even with the current, provisional standards. On January 19, the Asahi Shimbun reported that the median value of tested Fukushima residents was 0.02 mSv/yr, and the maximum value was 0.1 mSv/yr. In other words, we were facing hardly any actual health risk.
Under ordinary conditions, an internal dosage of 1 mSv/yr could be achievable socioeconomically, where the standards are set at levels that safely allow continual consumption of food products at the permitted borderline maximum. But since a nuclear accident has actually occurred, applying such values is not realistic.

As of this writing, agriculture and fishing in the vicinity of Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant continues to be impossible, and neighboring prefectures are also affected. Farmers and fishermen are not perpetrators of the nuclear accident, but victims. Effective measures are now necessary to secure both sides of the equation: health for consumers and economic activity for farmers and fishermen. Currently, consumer health presents no real, serious issues, which means that the proposed new standards run completely counter to the dual objectives here.

Application of the new standards will result in the political fabrication of a fresh basket of victims, whose farming and fishing will be restricted across a vast region far greater than the planned evacuation zone.

That would be a human-induced administrative policy disaster, which violates the optimization principle among the three ICRP (International Commission on Radiological Protection) principles. As the Chairman of the Science Council of Japan has proclaimed in the discourse "For the Correct Understanding of Radiation Protection", the response to the recent nuclear power plant accident should follow the three principles of ICRP. The three ICRP principles refer to (1) Justification, (2) Optimization, and (3) Application of Dose Limits. (1) Justification means that exposure is permitted when “the benefit outweighs the harm.” (2) Optimization means to achieve the lowest possible dosage and headcount to radiological exposure while considering socioeconomic factors. (3) Application of Dose Limits means not to exceed appropriate total individual dosage under foreseeable exposure conditions, such as radiation work and disaster relief work.

There are consumers who recognize value in “supporting through eating,” and the fear of internal radiation exposure from food products actually exceeding 1 mSv is essentially unfounded. The additional regulations contemplated by government under these circumstances violate the fairness principle of accepting exposure, when the benefit outweighs the harm. Furthermore, the institution of such regulations is a divisive act that cuts the ties between affected farmers and fishermen, and their consumers.
Some consumers, however, continue to demand safety. During this period then, concentrations of radioactive substances in food products should be displayed when in excess of the new standards, and the consumer should be given the freedom to choose. That will lead to consumer security. At the same time, testing for thyroid cancer and insurance for patients should be maintained for Fukushima Prefecture residents and nuclear power plant workers. Again, the Chairman of the Science Council of Japan has stated that although the cause-and-effect relationship to the nuclear accident will be hard to establish, the victims of the accident should at least be entitled to a sense of security as much as possible.

The tentative standards set forth by the national government are not necessarily optimum values. A relaxation will hardly ever result in a consumer with 1 mSv/yr. for internal exposure from food products. By the principle of applying dose limits, however, the standards once put in place should not relaxed.

Thus, in response to the proposed new standards of the MLHW, rather than deny them, I offered the following partial changes. Revision to the tentative standards should be postponed until recovery proceeds to a manageable level. The deadline noted in the description of tentative measures should be changed from April 2012 to until the time when recovery reaches a manageable point.
Since the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident, the disorder continues: no end to the cleanup is in sight, residents remain evacuated, and farming and fishing cannot restart. Under these circumstances, the same standards as ordinary conditions—when the accident is resolved—cannot be applied. The new proposed standard, unfortunately, does not relate the reality. The same, extensive government service like before the accident is impossible. The affected farmers and fishermen will doubtless feel this impact as a further hardship in the future.

The Association of Japanese Agricultural Scientific Societies issued a technical recommendation that states, “With the confirmation of safety made through inspections at the distribution stage, the continued, excessive avoidance of agricultural products from the environs of the accident zone could impair the fair marketplace,” and continues with “Unfortunately, local governments and even residents of other areas have become perpetrators of rumors. Radiation contamination is even said to be infecting the hearts of the Japanese like discrimination.” The real conditions of the disaster need to be confirmed, and judged calmly now.
As an expert of ecology and fisheries science, I sense that the arguments surrounding this issue are similar to the whaling debate. Whaling issues also have created a malicious adversity between pro-whaling and anti-whaling advocates who have enlisted non-expert scientists. Frequently, the scientists who actually do not share expert knowledge are issuing opinions. At least in Japan, essentially no dissent is heard among ecologists regarding the commercial whaling possibility for minke whales, which are not endangered (citation: 2002 paper by the author).

The Japan Branch of the World Wildlife Federation(WWF), a major global environmental organization with an anti-whaling stance, has released a declaration of willingness to engage in a conversation. In Japan, a reasoned dialogue is finally possible, although the anti-whaling movement continues to be a funding source of environmental organizations in nations that have quit whaling—like the United States.

In the same vein, debating the pros and cons of nuclear power plants and considering the radiation risks of a nuclear power plant accident that actually occurred are two different stories. The tendency to portray every issue as a dichotomy and to label anyone not against nuclear power and not preaching the dangers of radiation as a “government mouthpiece” actually reveals the desires of the anti-nuclear movement for scientists to support their cause.


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