Tokyo's new N-standards 'may give false sense of security'

Tokyo's new N-standards 'may give false sense of security'

TOKYO - Japan's nuclear power operators have set themselves new safety targets that exceed international standards, but experts and residents still grappling with the fallout from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster fear the costly exercise may not result in any meaningful improvements.

Instead, they see the move as an attempt to create a new "safety myth" to set the minds of the Japanese at ease.

For instance, the long-term goal for decontamination of areas in a 20km-radius evacuation zone around the crippled Fukushima plant is to reduce the radiation per year to 1 millisievert. That compares to the international standard of up to 20 millisieverts a year when it comes to evacuation areas. A millisievert is a measure of the background radiation a person is exposed to in a year.

It is also a dramatic change for Japan. When fish caught near the Fukushima coast were found to be contaminated after the disaster, Tokyo first set the maximum permitted level of radioactivity at 500 becquerels per kg of wet weight, then reduced it to 100 becquerels.

Both are much lower than the US standard of 1,200 becquerels per kg wet.

But experts say the more stringent standards are costly and may not contribute meaningfully to safety as international standards are already very conservative.

According to scientists, the health risks of eating food contaminated at the international levels are miniscule.

"Of course you can put more and more money into the more stringent standards... it will cost a lot, but not contribute a lot," said Ms Agneta Rising, who heads the World Nuclear Association, an organisation that promotes the safe use of nuclear energy.

Yet, it is this kind of overconfidence that is seen to have exacerbated the Fukushima disaster and its recovery as plant operators and nuclear regulators failed over the years to update safety measures and keep up with advances in technology, such as emergency robots.

Long-time Fukushima resident Arata Owada said that power company Tepco, operator of the Fukushima nuclear plants, had reassured generations of residents during their visits as students that the plants would be safe "even if a jumbo jet were to hit them".

"Fukushima residents were told that the nuclear plants were safe, safe, safe," said Mr Owada, 59, a Fukushima radio announcer and producer.

Since Japan's first nuclear plant went online in 1966, the nuclear industry has spent millions of dollars on public relations, including building on-site visitor centres that became tourist attractions, and advertisements promoting the industry as safe.

So sure were the authorities that Japan's nuclear plants were safe that in the first few days after the March 11, 2011, disaster hit, they had denied that a nuclear meltdown had occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

The people had also accepted the premise that Japan's nuclear plants were safe, to the extent that the government was able to bring three nuclear reactors online in 1987 as planned, despite the 1986 meltdown in Chernobyl.

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