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Teaching about radiation after Fukushima via The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By Maxime Polleri, February 26, 2019

At the entrance to the Fukushima Prefectural Centre for Environmental Creation, a friendly hippopotamus-like mascot welcomes visitors while accepting hugs from children. Buzzing with young families, this government-sponsored scientific hub was created to explain the phenomenon of radiation to the population of Fukushima, the victims of the eponymous 2011 nuclear disaster.

Inside the main annex, an interactive model explains how external radiation exposure can be lowered. Visitors are encouraged to increase their distance from a radiation-emitting device while making use of shielding, thereby lowering their overall exposure. In another corner, children are learning about the radioactive isotopes released during the disaster, although representations of these perils are anything but threatening. Using posters and comic books, radionuclides such as plutonium‑239 and cesium‑137 are represented as adorable anthropomorphic figures. Each radionuclide has its own characteristics, such as pronounced eyebrows or a distinctive hairstyle. There is no discussion about how exposure to these radionuclides can cause serious bodily harm—an increased risk of cancer, for example.

In the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdowns, which triggered a released of radioactive pollutants, the Japanese state initially decided to increase the mandatory evacuation trigger from 1 millisievert of radiation exposure per year to 20 millisieverts per year. In other words, the public was forced to accept a new threshold of safety. While this policy caused much scientific and public controversy, 20 millisieverts per year remains the benchmark for what is considered safe in Fukushima. Places like the Centre for Environmental Creation downplay the controversy of a raised threshold of exposure.

Situated in the town of Miharu and opened in July 2016, the center was established by the prefecture of Fukushima, with the financial support of the Japanese government, to conduct research and provide education on radioactive contamination. The center is one of several government-sponsored revitalization projects aimed at rebuilding the trust of people living in Fukushima. Mostly visited by young families, it represents a new approach to risk communication. As a technical advisor explained to me, this approach aims to “deepen the understanding of children about radiation” by allowing visitors to experience information firsthand through interactive games, fun activities, and cute presentations.

Past efforts to present nuclear science in appealing ways have often blended education with propaganda. The 1957 Disney TV episode Our Friend the Atomis a perfect example of this. What are the dangers of resorting to such forms of explanations in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster? In 2015 and 2017, I spent a total of 14 months in Japan examining the public’s interactive experience at state-sponsored centers and public activities that explain radiation. I found that while the information on radiation is easy to understand, many aspects of its hazards are carefully concealed. In particular, the government’s educational approach shifts the post-Fukushima Japanese public’s attention away from manmade danger and toward a vision of naturalness, technological amusement, and scientific amazement. In doing so, this approach downplays the risk inherent to residual radioactivity in Fukushima.

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