In the summer of 1954, I was a 3rd year undergraduate helping out at the Meteorological Research Institute, which was then at Koenji, Suginami Ward, Tokyo, measuring radioactivity contained in seawater collected around Bikini atoll. The water had been collected two months after the H-bomb test of March 1, and contained fairly high amounts of radioactivity.
Since that time, I have continued to pay attention to research by the Institute and was wondering why it did not report on the Fukushima Daiichi NPP accident. My question was answered in November.
Sudden notification of research budget cuts
On November 7, 2011, the article “Order No.1 to suspend observations” in the series of articles entitled “The Promethean Trap,” published in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, began as follows:
“On March 31, 2011, Michio Aoyama (58), of the Meteorological Research Institute of the Japan Meteorological Agency, was attending an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conference in Monaco when he received an e-mail from Japan. Aoyama was stunned to read it. ‘We’re discontinuing radiation monitoring? Now? But we’ve been doing it for more than half a century!’
A U.S. thermonuclear test at Bikini atoll in 1954 prompted the Meteorological Research Institute to begin nuclear research that year. In 1957, the Institute began monitoring environmental radiation in the atmosphere and the oceans, which was never discontinued and was still going on when Aoyama received the disturbing e-mail. The undertaking had already set a world record as the longest of its kind, and the Institute had earned the respect of other countries for its activities.
Why do we have to stop? Why at this time of all others?
The sender of the e-mail was Takashi Inoue (47), a researcher at the institute’s Office of Planning in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture. According to Inoue, he received an unexpected phone call from the Meteorological Agency’s Planning Division in Tokyo at 6 p.m. on March 31.
The caller told Inoue, ‘Effective tomorrow, there will be no more budget for radiation monitoring. Please do as you see fit at your end.’
Inoue could think of no reason why the budget was pulled just when radiation level readings were at their highest in the history of monitoring. He “demanded an explanation, but the caller merely repeated that ‘the agency’s decision was irreversible.’”
This was hardly an acceptable notice at that particular time, when it was necessary to address the problem of the Fukushima NPP crisis with all possible knowledge. Why was budget allocation withheld from researchers who have been largely dedicated to the field of environmental radiation studies?
Is the publication of research outcomes to be suspended?
A paper on “The Effects of Radioactive Substances Released from the Crippled Fukushima Nuclear Plant into the Marine Environment” by three researchers, Michio Aoyama, K. Buesseler (of the U.S. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), and Toshiro Fukazawa (of the Marine Research Development Organization) had been submitted to Nature, the U.K.-based science magazine. The journal was interested in the report and had agreed to publish it.
The salient points of the paper are: Cesium 137 concentration in seawater registered 1,000 to 50,000 Bq/m3 near the Fukushima nuclear plant’s effluent drain; 50 Bq along the Fukushima coast; and 1 to 50 Bq 30 km offshore. These measurements are higher than the level of contamination from atmospheric nuclear testing by several orders, and higher than in the Black Sea and Baltic Sea following the Chernobyl nuclear accident by at least one order of magnitude.
On April 18, when the draft paper was finished, Aoyama showed it to his superior, Mr. Midorikawa, head of the Geochemical Research Department. “I don’t see any problem,” said Mr. Midorikawa as he affixed his seal to the publication authorization form. But things were not that simple. The next day, Aoyama was called in by Hiroshi Nirasawa, head of the Office of Planning, to explain the content of the paper.
On the 25th, accompanied by both men, Aoyama faced Yuji Kano, Director General of the Institute.
Kano: “The Chernobyl accident data pertains to the sea contaminated with radioactive substances that were carried there via rivers running hundreds of kilometers. I must question the scientific validity of comparing it to the condition in the sea offshore from Fukushima.”
Aoyama: “The radioactive substances from the Chernobyl accident reached the sea via rivers. But radiation doesn’t diminish much in rivers, regardless of the distance it travels.”
Aoyama explained that radiation levels near the Fukushima plant’s affluent drain were nearly 10,000 times higher than those in the Black Sea, but 30 km off Fukushima, the radioactive substances were diluted in the seawater to almost to the same level as those found in the Black Sea.
The dialogue went on until Kano finally decided that he would not authorize publication of the paper by Aoyama with the byline of “Researcher of the Meteorological Research Institute of The Japan Meteorological Agency” unless he deleted the lines concerning the comparative analysis with the Chernobyl accident.
Had the report been published in Nature, a significant finding by Japanese researchers would have been put before the eyes of a worldwide public at an early date. However, the chance was lost and I feel very sorry about this.
A canceled oral presentation at an academic meeting, and other issues
In early July in Tokyo, when the Japan Radioisotope Association held “A Workshop on Radioisotope and Radioactivity Research,” the Association planned to have a session on the effects of radioactivity released into the environment and the role of scientists. The Association intended to have Aoyama make a presentation, since he was one of the participants, and requested the Meteorological Research Institute to dispatch Aoyama as a lecturer. The Institute’s Planning Division refused the proposal, saying it did not have enough time to follow the official procedures. Instead of Aoyama, the Association found a researcher from another organization, and this person made a presentation quoting Aoyama’s research data on the contamination of sea water.
In early June, it was decided that Japan and the U.S. would collaborate to investigate radioactive contamination in offshore Fukushima seawater for two weeks. Although Aoyama was planning to participate in this investigation, he was ordered to decline.
Another case I heard was that newspaper companies contacted Aoyama and his colleague Yasuto Igarashi for interviews. However, the names of the two researchers never appeared in newspapers, possibly because of intervention by the Meteorological Research Institute authorities. The Institute tried not only to bar publication of the paper, but also the presentation of a reliable research result, I suppose in order that those would not reach the eyes of a wider public.
Research budget recovered too late.
On June 28, an Upper House Member, Ms. Yuko Mori, visited the Meteorological Research Institute and spoke with Aoyama and others. The November 18 article in the series goes as follows:
According to Aoyama, Mori took out her cell phone during the briefing and made a call. “I presumed she was calling the Science and Technology Ministry. I heard her yell, ‘Just tell me what’s going on with the budget!’ or something to that effect,” Aoyama recalled.
Soon after that, a notice from the Science and Technology Ministry that the budget for radioactivity research study had been restored came to the Meteorological Research Institute. The budget had been recovered.
I understand that suspension of the research budget had a strong impact. The research by Aoyama and others was seriously damaged by the loss of budget. There were cases in which they had difficulty purchasing research equipment or could not pay personnel costs for research assistants. I heard that they laid analyses aside and managed to hold firm on sampling during the period when the budget was frozen.
The reason given for the budget recovery was certainly phony, and no doubt the true reason for the research budget suspension in the first place was that the authorities did not want the research results to be made open.
Although so-called “data cover-ups” are often talked about, in this case at the Meteorological Research Institute, restrictions were aimed at the obtaining and publishing of data. Why did this happen at this specific time?
Depending on how you look at it, the Fukushima Daiichi NPP accident was the worst ever in the history of nuclear accidents. The Japanese government must inform the whole world of the present situation and the future prospects for Japan’s nuclear plants. I hope the government will respond to this issue in a serious manner.
Michiaki Furukawa (Member of CNIC Board)
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