The Exclusion Zone

Having grown up in fear of nuclear catastrophe, the post-earthquake turmoil at the Fukushima reactors has really knocked me for a loop. From the moment the plants’ administrators started issuing mealy-mouthed explanations about the situation, I knew that disaster was imminent. The big question now is not only how much radiation will blow toward Japan’s major population centers, but what will become of the area around the plants. Land is an incredibly precious resource in Japan, given its relatively tiny size and large population. Let’s assume that, whether by official edict or mere consumer prefer, a terrestrial semi-circle behind the plant becomes devoid of inhabitants for several years. Let’s also assume that the radius of this semi-circle is 30 kilometers, equivalent to that of the “exclusion zone” around Chernobyl. That comes out to around 1,413 square miles, or roughly 1 percent of Japan’s total land mass. (No, I’m not controlling for national parks, inland lakes, and other variables—go with it.) In the American terms, the equivalent would be roping off a piece of property the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined (plus a few hundred miles more).

It’s heady stuff to contend with, but I’ve found some comfort by thumbing through Haruki Murakami’s Underground, one of my all-time favorite works of non-fiction. An oral history of the Tokyo gas attacks of 1995, Underground provides a slew of tiny moments that attest to the Japanese public’s ability to cope with the unthinkable. I’ve previously written about the subway attendant who took time to fix his tie and hair despite suffering the ill effects of sarin; now I’d like to turn your attention to the recollections of an accountant whose daily ritual once consisted of buying milk in Shinjuku. Nothing, it seems, could keep him from that appointed task on the day of the attacks:

It was around Yotsuya Station I first felt sick. My nose ran all of a sudden. I thought I’d caught a cold, because I started to feel empty-headed, too, and everything before my eyes grew dark, like I had sunglasses on.

At the time, I was scared it was some kind of brain hemorrhage. I’d never experienced anything like it before, so I naturally thought the worst. This wasn’t just a cold; it was a lot more serious. I felt as though I might keel over any minute.

I don’t remember much about the others in the car. I was too concerned about myself. Anyway, somehow I made it to Shinjuku-gyoemmae and got off. I was dizzy; everything was black. “I’m done for,” I thought. Walking was a terrific struggle. I had to grope my way up the steps to the exit. Outside it might as well have been nighttime. I was in pain, yet I still bought my milk as usual. Strange, isn’t it? I went into the AM/PM store and bought some milk. It didn’t even occur to me not to. Thinking back on it now, it’s a mystery to me why I’d buy milk like that when I was in such agony.

Actually, I sort of get it. Routines serve an important function—they’re evidence that all is normal. And when things go awry, you try to stick to that routine to convince yourself that the chaos around you is an illusion, that you’re still in control. Such a strategy has little chance of working on an individual level—this poor accountant collapsed soon after purchasing his milk. But if an entire population commits to continuing to go through the motions of daily life, however difficult, virtually any catastrophe can be overcome.

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8 comments on this post.
  1. selenized:

    That was one thing about the stories in Underground that really got to me. In an absence of anything else to do, people just continued on with their morning routines, even though many of them knew something was really wrong. How many of the people interviewed continued on to work, even though they were really sick? It sort of boggles the mind.

  2. Brendan I. Koerner:

    @selenized: I was haunted by those anecdotes, too. I’d be interested to hear Murakami’s perspective on what those action reveal about the Japanese psyche–he doesn’t address the issue in the book.

  3. growler:

    Two links (one from MIT) that may alleviate your fear somewhat:

    http://mitnse.com/2011/03/13/why-i-am-not-worried-about-japans-nuclear-reactors/

    http://forums.somethingawful.com/showthread.php?threadid=3396817

  4. Brendan I. Koerner:

    @growler: The MIT one is debunked (mostly) here. Wish the writer had noted that he has no nuclear expertise, but instead comes from the world of business.

  5. Physicist:

    Well, I’m a little late to the party, but the case -has- been a little overblown. I think the news media’s love of a scare and loathing of actual investigative journalism, coupled with most people’s relative ignorance of the physics of radiation led to more panic than was necessary.

    The comparison we keep hearing is to Chernobyl, however that was built with a breathtakingly Russian indifference to safety. Chernobyl was the disaster that it was because there was no containment vessel to keep the core from being exposed to the atmosphere. Fukushima and Three Mile Island did. Barring a huge disaster in Japan, both have been brought under control with a minimal escape of radiation and loss of life.

    The fact that the Fukushima plant had no passive kills for the core (i.e. one that automatically enables in the event of power loss) was the main issue. Headslappingly obvious in hindsight (and foresight, if you ask me). However the newest generation of nuke plants are all equipped in one way or another to shut down safely automatically.

    As for the radiation detected so far, I think it’s to be expected that the food wouldn’t be safe to eat, although I’ve heard the levels were rather low in the milk and spinach tested. The one test I do have numbers for was the radioactive iodine found in Tokyo’s drinking water. 1.5 becquerals/kg, without an explanation of the unit or how much radiation that is in absolute terms. Obviously any is worse than none, but the human body is positively glowing compared to that.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Becquerel

    4000 Becquerels/day means that a ~80kg man (~170lbs) would emit about 33 times as much radiation per kilogram than a liter (which weighs a kilo) of Japanese water. Iodine collects in the thyroid, so the effects would be more pronounced than that, but I’d wager that chugging Tokyo water, you’d die of hyponatremia long before you felt sick in the slightest from radiation.

    Again, I’m not saying everything’s fine, people taking the dangers of nuclear power seriously is why the reactor was built in a safe manner, and why the response was able to get things under control, but especially in a situation like this one, you should take everything you hear on the news with a grain of salt and fact check as much as possible.

    Sorry this went on so long, and I’m not much of a writer, so I hope I’ve made a coherent point.

  6. Physicist:

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/19/us-japan-water-idUSTRE72I29J20110319

    Oops, forgot to post that link.

  7. Brendan I. Koerner:

    @Physicist: Thanks a million for the extremely thoughtful and lucid post. That is a huge help.

    I think part of the anxiety stems from the poor communications job done by the Japanese government. There was a lot of doublespeak in the earliest statements, which made my cynicism kick into gear. But as you note, the situation doesn’t really seem analogous to Chernobyl.

    I do wonder, though, how quickly the area around the reactors will be repopulated. Even if the government deems the region safe, will people really move back? How many inducements will the government have to offer to entice people to ignore their fear (irrational or otherwise) of radiation?

  8. Physicist:

    Hey, thanks, I actually came back to this discussion to eat a little crow after the iodine levels topped out above what’s safe for infants in Tokyo. I’m studying fusion, not fission, and still in grad school, so I’m not an authority. What I do know of them suggests that they’re pretty damn impervious, and considering the energy and extremely poisonous nature of what they contain, it’s a testament to the scientists and engineers who design them that (in the west) the few accidents I’ve heard of have been as innocuous as they’ve been so far.

    I was going to blame the poor communication from the authorities as well. Having worked in Korea, I know how Asian society sometimes confuses the bad news with the telling of the bad news.

    I have found this

    http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/tsunamiupdate01.html

    website useful, if you’re still keeping up, and if you aren’t checking it out already.

    I honestly don’t know what the Japanese will do, but having been to Hiroshima a few years ago, I’ve seen that they can wrap their heads around living in an irradiated area. (I honestly have no idea what, if anything, they did to mitigate the radiation there and at Nagasaki so people could move in. New project, perhaps?)

    Glad I didn’t come off as one of those libertarian blowhards who populate the internet. I think I came across this article

    http://www.nypost.com/p/news/international/fukushima_heroes_walking_into_certain_kxe5jvUT8MMti45nZk1FrO

    a few days before I posted, and was sickened by how blatantly they were trying to whip up a panic. Ignorance and poor journalism doesn’t cover it, that’s deliberate.

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