Anthropological Voice on the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

By Barbara Rose Johnston
Center for Political Ecology, Santa Cruz, CA

SfAA Newsletter Editor Tim Wallace sent a note to me awhile back asking if he might reprint one of my commentaries on Japan’s nuclear disaster. He wanted to be sure that the next issue of the SfAA Newsletter included a focus on events unfolding in Japan following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. I suggested he include the article below, prefaced by an update on the nuclear disaster and a brief review of what some SfAA members have been doing to help shape and further stimulate public dialogue on the nature of this disaster and what it represents in terms of public health, energy policy, and disaster response.

At the time of the disaster, SfAA member Gregory Button had just launched his new book Disaster Culture—Knowledge and Uncertainty in the Wake of Human and Environmental Catastrophe. Government, industry and media response to the immense disaster provided current and ample illustration of his primary points, and thus, became major elements in his public work in the immediate aftermath and in the weeks to come. For example, his March 22 CounterPunch commentary “Downplaying Disaster – Informational Uncertainty in the Wake of Japan’s Nuclear Crisis” ( noted, “In the early days of the crisis the Japanese government reassured their nation that they were in no danger of experiencing a major nuclear disasters and downplayed any health or environmental risks. The Tokyo Electric Power [company] issued opaque statements, which described the ongoing events in extremely sparse, technical language totally de-contextualized from the everyday lives of the citizens whose lives have been placed at risk.” Button’s point here is that this manipulative approach to crisis communication is the norm, rather than exception, not only in Japan but in most other nations of the world. His primary message is that the chaos in the aftermath reflects very real uncertainties as well as opportunistically shaped and manipulated notions of “truth” that help further an array of political and economic agendas. Thus, we see in the first few weeks of the disaster ample evidence of efforts to shape and spin the public message in ways that limit liability and protect economic investments. This spin cycle evolved from silencing to a cacophony of largely critical yet often conflicting voices debating every aspect of the disaster and its potential consequences.

By late March 2011 and early April, experts of all sorts, industry, government and otherwise—including anthropologists—were sought out by mainstream and alternative news media. For example, Gregory Button was asked to give his “Disaster Culture” insights in local and national forums (c.f., Button’s interview on “Mind Over Matter” a nationally broadcast radio show produced by KEXP: Holly Barker was asked to offer her insights on the Japanese disaster with reference to hard-learned lessons of other radiation-exposed populations, especially the Marshallese, in local newspaper op-eds
(c.f.,, in University of Washington-sponsored talks, in a public forum on nuclear issues related to the Hanford facility, and on NPR (c.f., “Radiation, Climate Change Drive Pacific Islanders to NW Enclave”: And, as illustrated below, I wrote commentaries for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, CounterPunch,, and various list serves. Like my colleagues, as a result of these publications, I received radio and TV show interview requests to talk about government censorship and radiation dangers, including a request from an Al Jazeera affiliate in Iran, an NPR affiliate closer to home (Pacifica Radio,, a Marin-based “Nuclear Power—What’s at Stake?” debate televised by community TV (, and, more recently, a May 10, 2011 “Indians and Energy” conversation on “Native America Calling” (

Anthropological voice in these and other forums are part of the larger critical conversation exploring the pros and cons of nuclear power, the history and consequences of the military/industrial/academic complex, the biases and politically-motivated application of the science that informs public health policy on permissibility levels, and that shapes the public understanding of the human experience with radiation and fallout. From the media frenzy (“Is this another Chernobyl?”) to the current relative silence (“Yes, but no need for EPA to continue monitoring fallout”), anthropological voice has played a very modest role in questioning energy and public health policy.

At this writing, some nine weeks after Japan experienced its March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the associated nuclear disaster at Fukushima continues to unfold, with (from my point of view) shockingly scarce attention or apparent interest in local conditions and regional and global consequences.

What do we know now? Fukushima emissions prompted a number of European, Asian, and Pacific Island nations to restrict imports from Japan and to issue fall out advisories and precautionary prohibitions on the consumption of dairy and other foods which are accumulating radioiodine, cesium, plutonium and other isotopes. Public information in the form of atmospheric plumes and fallout forecasts has been relatively accessible in some places (c.f., and and largely nonexistent in others. The most comprehensive and accessible monitoring in the United States has come from independent sources (c.f., and UC Berkeley’s Nuclear Engineering Department As evidenced by Google News tracking, from a high of 17,000 plus Google news citations per day to the current average of 150 or so, public concern (if media coverage is any indication) has moved on. Nevertheless, while media interest rapidly turned to other issues and concerns, the situation in Japan continues to ulcerate. A selected sampling of the news this week illustrates.

The Japanese government, recognizing that radioactive fallout from Fukushima Daiichi continues to pose a public health threat, has further expanded the evacuation zone from 20 to some 30 kilometers. This action is the result of the findings from a joint aerial survey conducted by the Japanese Government and the US Department of Energy which by April 29, 2011 showed high level radiation contamination over an 800 square kilometer area. (c.f., This selected set of data suggests that radiation levels are decreasing, and that no new atmospheric deposition is occurring.

Independent monitoring has produced different revelations, in part as a result of different questions and data gathering techniques. Greenpeace, for example, has been explicitly focused on food chain questions, including main and terrestrial food chain, where concern for bioaccumulation, bioconcentration, and associated health effects from ingestion are markedly different from the concern for gross new contaminants and the associated levels of radioactivity. Their news this week included findings from their analysis of food sources outside of the exclusion zone; their findings include high levels of cesium in seaweed (indicating marine food chain contamination), and high levels of cesium in vegetables grown in gardens in Fukushima City, Koriyama, and Minamisoma (

A broader government approach to radiation monitoring in the region has also produced disturbing revelations, as illustrated with the news that highly-radioactive sewage sludge has accumulated at the Fukushima prefecture’s waste treatment facility. As there are no Japanese guidelines for dealing with this situation, “Sludge with radioactivity levels of over 100,000 becquerels per kilogram should preferably be incinerated and melted in Fukushima Prefecture before being kept at sewage plants. Ash generated through sludge incineration should be contained in metal barrels to prevent it from scattering. Sludge with radioactivity levels of under 100,000 becquerels per kilogram can be temporarily kept at sewage plants and controlled disposal sites, with radioactivity monitoring required … Sludge with relatively low-level radiation could be recycled into cement and other material” (

And, TEPCO announced very recently that explosions from Fukushima reactor #3 (which used MOX fuel) did indeed send high levels of plutonium and uranium into the atmosphere, while full nuclear meltdown has occurred in reactor #1. Further, it acknowledged that a meltdown likely began within hours of the disaster and may have begun before the tsunami hit, as evidenced by a crack in the containment vessel and loss of cooling fluid (a fact that, if verified, raises significant questions for nuclear power plants on earthquake faults worldwide). TEPCO also announced that the plan to achieve a cold shut down of the plant by cooling the reactor by flooding the containment chamber with water is no longer viable as melting fuel rods have created a hole in the chamber and an estimated 3,000 tons of highly radioactive water has leaked into the basement of reactor #1. Engineers are, once again, back to the drawing board in their effort to control the out-of-control situation.

For those in Japan, and for those in the path of fallout (regionally and globally), this nuclear disaster is having and will have profound effects on health, livelihood, ways of life, and the overall happiness in life. What is most disturbing for Japanese citizens, residents, and to a much lesser degree for those downwind, is that—despite the acknowledgements that the worst has happened, that emissions continue to persist, that there is no viable plan for the safe control and cleanup—the average citizen still struggles to access current and meaningful information that might inform proactive action that reduces exposure and minimizes risk. Some of my anthropological colleagues have left this region of Japan. Others have left Japan. Still others have or contemplate a move from the US west coast. But in a world of many hazards and risks, one that suggests ill health for some, at some point, in some distant future, life is a relatively easy concern to put aside—especially when our main engine of concern (the media) has moved on. Thus many, my own kids included, prefer to think about other things.

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