Japan’s Prime Minister Defends Handling of Crisis
By MARTIN FACKLER
Published: April 30, 2011
TOKYO — Japan’s embattled prime minister, Naoto Kan, defended his government’s handling of the nation’s nuclear crisis on Saturday, a day after an adviser resigned during a tearful news conference in which he charged that the government was not adequately protecting the population from radiation.
In one of his most damaging charges, the adviser, Toshiso Kosako, drew attention to a recent government decision to allow children living near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to receive doses of radiation equal to the international standard for nuclear power plant workers. That level is far higher than international standards set for the public. “I cannot allow this as a scholar,” said Mr. Kosako, an expert on radiation safety at the University of Tokyo.
He also blasted the government for what he said was a lack of transparency in releasing radiation levels around the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and for setting an overly high limit on radiation exposure for workers who have spent weeks struggling to keep the plant under control.
Government advisory positions are considered prestigious, and it is highly unusual for an academic to quit one in protest. The prime minister brought Mr. Kosako on as an adviser after the powerful March 11 earthquake and tsunami damaged the plant, causing the world’s biggest nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl accident in 1986.
His abrupt resignation fed growing criticism of the handling of the crisis by Mr. Kan’s government, which many Japanese suspect of understating the continuing dangers the plant might pose and the amount of radioactive material released so far.
Mr. Kan’s remarks before Parliament on Saturday were an indication of how much pressure the government is under as it tries to dispute those criticisms and to determine what to do not only about the most contaminated land around the plant, but also about towns outside the evacuation zone that are reporting relatively high levels of radiation.
Any decision about the levels of permissible exposure could force expensive soil cleanups — inflating the already staggering estimates of how much money it will take to rebuild from the natural disasters, a figure already set at $300 billion. But it could also help determine how much land in this densely populated country is ruled uninhabitable.
The calculus is complicated by the fears of farmers and fishermen in the region, who worry that continued talk of high radiation will destroy consumers’ faith in their goods, and their livelihoods.
In rejecting Mr. Kosako’s criticism, Mr. Kan said Saturday that the adviser had resigned as a result of “a difference of opinion among specialists.”
So far, the government has evacuated an area 12 miles around the plant and has suggested, or in limited cases ordered, that people living 12 to 19 miles away leave their homes temporarily. Some towns farther away are also set to be evacuated because particularly high levels of radioactive materials were found there.
The Education and Science Ministry made its announcement about permissible exposure on April 19, when it said that schools in Fukushima Prefecture, where the plant is located, could be used if radiation levels were below 3.8 microsieverts per hour. That exposure level is too low to cause immediate health effects, but may raise the probability of developing cancer.
Environmental groups and local parents have called for lowering the limit, pointing out that children are more vulnerable to radiation than most adults. They have not addressed a perhaps more worrisome problem: if the schools have high levels of contamination, the rest of the towns and cities they are in are likely to also show high readings.
On Saturday, the chief government spokesman, Yukio Edano, defended the limit, saying that it did not mean that the government would accept such levels indefinitely and that it would do everything in its power to bring levels down to normal rates.
But at least one city in Fukushima, which is 35 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, is not waiting for the government to take action. The city of Koriyama said last week that it would remove topsoil at 15 elementary schools where radiation levels had been detected in excess of 3.8 microsieverts per hour, according to local newspaper reports.
Matthew L. Wald contributed reporting from Washington.