David McNeill/The Chronicle of Higher Education
TOKYO — In the chaotic, fearful weeks after the Fukushima nuclear crisis began, in March 2011, researchers struggled to measure the radioactive fallout unleashed on the public. Michio Aoyama’s initial findings were more startling than most. As a senior scientist at the Japanese government’s Meteorological Research Institute, he said levels of radioactive cesium 137 in the surface water of the Pacific Ocean could be 10,000 times as high as contamination after Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear accident.
Two months later, as Mr. Aoyama prepared to publish his findings in a short, nonpeer-reviewed article for Nature, the director general of the institute called with an unusual demand — that Mr. Aoyama remove his own name from the paper.
“He said there were points he didn’t understand, or want to understand,” the researcher recalled. “I was later told that he did not want to say that Fukushima radioactivity was worse than Chernobyl.” The head of the institute, who has since retired, declined to comment for this article. Mr. Aoyama asked for his name to be removed, he said, and the article was not published.
The chance to study in this real-life laboratory has drawn a small number of researchers from around the world. Timothy A. Mousseau, a professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina who has written widely on Chernobyl, studies the impact of radiation on bird and insect life. He has published papers suggesting abnormalities and defects in some Fukushima species. But he said his three research excursions to Japan had been difficult.
In one case, a Japanese professor and two postdoctoral students dropped out of a joint research paper, telling him they could not risk association with his findings. “They felt it was too provocative and controversial,” he said, “and the postdocs were worried it could hamper their future job prospects.”
Mr. Mousseau is careful to avoid comparisons with the Soviet Union, which arrested and even imprisoned scientists who studied Chernobyl. Nevertheless, he finds the lukewarm support for studies in Japan troubling: “It’s pretty clear that there is self-censorship or professors have been warned by their superiors that they must be very, very careful,” he said.
The “more insidious censorship” is the lack of funding at a national level for these kinds of studies, he added. “They’re putting trillions of yen into moving dirt around and almost nothing into environmental assessment.”
Long before an earthquake and tsunami triggered the Fukushima meltdown, critics questioned the influence of Japan’s powerful nuclear lobby over the country’s top universities. Some professors say their careers have been hobbled because they expressed doubts about the nation’s nuclear policy and the coalition of bureaucrats, industrialists, politicians and elite academics who created it.
“Researchers are told not to talk to the press, or they don’t feel comfortable about talking to the press without permission,” Mr. Buesseler said. A veteran of three post-earthquake research trips to Japan, he wants the authorities to put more money into investigating the impact on the food chain of Fukushima’s release of cesium and strontium. “Why isn’t the Japanese government paying for this, since they have most to gain?”
Correction: March 17, 2014
An earlier version of the headline with this article misstated the actions of the Japanese government. There are deep differences over how to determine the health impact of the Fukushima disaster. The authorities are not ‘‘squelching” efforts to measure the effects of the accident.