Earthquake and Tsunami Bring New Issues to Light

The Japanese people are outraged.

In particular, Japanese women are outraged.

As well they should be. With the decision to reactivate the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors, there has been a lot of scrutiny into what happened last year in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Many problems arise, but one of the most unsettling revolves around the Japanese nuclear power industry’s views on women.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which is managed by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), seems to have a history of trouble empathizing with women. Take a look back and their 2010 campaign to educate the general public, especially women, on the functioning of a nuclear reactor stands out. Rather than appeal to reason, they chose to assume women had a narrow scope of understanding limited within their kitchen walls. The intent was to understand nuclear power from the perspective of an average Japanese person, however the perspective seems limited to that of the Japanese male. The cartoon, with accompanying translation, you see was the focal point:

Yellow: My wife’s shouts are like radiation.
Orange: Her shouting is unrelenting; her excitable nature is like radioactivity.
Purple: My excitable wife is like radioactive matter itself.
Image courtesy of fukushima-diary.com.

The real message here seems to be that the average Japanese man thinks of his wife as a toxic substance, but fails to adequately inform on anything else, and the campaign was dissolved last month.

If TEPCO feels this way about the general population, how do they feel about their own employees? In a nuclear facility, obviously the first area of concern is minimizing radiation exposure of employees to the lowest levels possible. In order to achieve this, the 2006 Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency’s Joint Convention on Spent Fuel and Radioactive Safety established legal dose limits for the general population and workers of nuclear facilities, and specifically cited the need for increased monitoring and decreased exposure for female employees. For male employees, the legal dose limit is 50 mSv/year, and for female employees, the legal dose limit it 5 mSv/3 months, citing a need to more closely monitor women’s exposure rates as the negative effects on their health could be more profound.

Although this information was known to TEPCO at the time of the earthquake and subsequent plant failure, the employees who suffered the greatest exposure levels during this period were female. In the most severe case, one woman received 17.55 mSv/3 months (January 1-March 27 2011), more than three times the legal limit.

TEPCO knew this was wrong.

They knew it was inappropriate to allow a female employee to be in such close proximity to those levels of radiation, but they still allowed excessive exposure to occur. While backpedaling, they simultaneously tried to brush the incident off by saying that there were no discernible physical side effects. However, as University of Buffalo Nuclear Medicine Department head, Dr. Alan Lockwood, points out, statements like this can be misleading and unfounded without long-term study of deep tissue, which is more susceptible to radioactivity that a short-term skin sample would show.

It would seem that the JAEA and TEPCO have been paying lip service to women for a number of years, and the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami which disrupted the Fukushima Daiichi plant only helped to bring these issues out into the open. With so much protest being thrown at them, from the general public, from their employees and the doctors who have examined them, to NISA itself, how will the nuclear power industry in Japan proceed from here? With the agreement to restart the plants last month, it should not be long before we know.