Invisibility Versus Transparency: The Ex-SKF Blog

If the radioactive contaminants released from the crippled reactors were terrifying because of their invisibility, communications from Government and the nuclear industry induced profound anxiety for precisely the opposite reason—because they lacked transparency.

For GKS1350021 in the immediate and prolonged aftermath of the nuclear accident, negotiating everyday life choices in order to minimize radioactive contamination always came down to the issue of “communication,” defined here as the goal/s, content/s, and method/s of every act of sending and receiving information, and the aggregation of such individual acts. Every act of communication is a decision originating in the minds of one or more specific individuals, about why and how to communicate what, whether in the course of routine work or times of crisis.

Indeed, my personal belief is that we can only exercise in times of crisis the forms and goals of communication we have practiced or attempted to devise during the course of our routine work. There is a lot of talk these days about “thinking outside the box,” but in fact such thinking cannot be expected from most of us if we have never been encouraged to understand or perform “thinking outside the box” as a viable form of response in ordinary life. Nor can we suddenly care about “society” as individuals if we are not used to conceptualizing Japan's 127 million residents as individuals. In 2011 and since then, Government's concept of “the people,” by and large, has been “a faceless entity to be pacified, deceived, and ignored.”[1] Their concept of “responsibility to the citizenry,” judging by their actions and more tellingly their non-actions, has meant protecting the political life of politicians, or doing whatever was necessary to enable the nuclear industry to carry on business as usual. On NHK and other TV stations, although there was nonstop “coverage” of the nuclear accident in the first weeks after March 11, I cannot recall seeing any instance of Japanese nuclear experts organizing themselves as an independent professional community to address the public in comprehensible language about what they were observing or surmising was happening at Fukushima Daiichi NPP, or what they understood to be the consequences for the human body of what they were seeing as it unfolded each day.

What does transparency look like when communication is dedicated to converting the invisibility of radioactive contamination, and the invisibility of political and industrial practices, into tangible, graspable knowledge in the service of public discussion and decision-making regarding nuclear energy?

By September 2011, I had discovered the Ex-SKF blogger.[2] To be precise,

I requested an email subscription to Ex-SKF on September 16, 2011, and that is when I started to read this blog each time a new post arrived in my smartphone email box. This was the fi watershed in the relationship between GKS1350021 and Fukushima Daiichi NPP. In the half year from March 11 to September 11, I had become extremely worn out with the effort to search for, sift, grasp, assess, and correlate information on the situation in Fukushima as well as my residential neighborhood in Tokyo's Koto Ward. I live about 6 km north of Tokyo Bay, where radioactive ash has been deposited as landfi and about 4 km west of the Arakawa River, where an incinerator for regular household garbage burns debris trucked in from Tohoku. These policies were part of the unfathomable thinking of Government that spreading the toxic debris throughout Japan constituted an act of patriotism, democracy, and solidarity with those who had borne the brunt of loss and injury from the triple disaster. In the fi 6 months after March 11, there were many things I felt I needed to know but couldn't fi answers to, because in the limited time I could devote to internet searches the information I sought in English was not easily discoverable on the web, or because the information I was able to access spoke of radiation in general terms or for sites other than Fukushima, and thus was not easily applied by a layperson like me to the produce making its way into my local supermarket, let alone all the foodstuffs I was ingesting whenever I had lunch or dinner near my workplace. At my local supermarket, it was now taking me one hour to get through what used to be a 10 min trip, because now I was trying to read every label completely to figure out exactly where every item of food came from. But at the same time I couldn't help thinking: surely the labels are not 100 % trustworthy. No one who has read Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2001) can ever fully trust food labels again. And what exactly does screening for radiation levels consist of or mean, since presumably not every single bean or carrot can be tested? Meanwhile, husband (an experimental psychologist) and son (a college student majoring in business) were weary and aggravated by my constant nagging at them: to not get wet in the radioactive rain, to avoid going too close to street drains and trees and shrubbery because cesium concentrations would be highest there, to not (for the same reason) enjoy wading through the fallen leaves that autumn of 2011; my list of Avoid This and Don't Eat That was long. Meanwhile, I couldn't very well launder every item of clothing as soon as someone stepped into the house, or have all of us shower down as soon as we got home, and what about our shoes and coats and bags (filled with personal belongings neither washable nor replaceable every day) and non-food purchases that had passed through so many unknown locations before we picked them out and brought them home? I split into two people: the woman who nagged to keep from screaming, and the woman who watched the nagger and understood that she needed to figure out a better strategy for living in the post-Fukushima Daiichi world. It was in this state of mental and physical fatigue that I found Ex-SKF, and my heart leaped up when I beheld the original website featuring a fearless yet comical Ultraman as its

mascot. The humor was bracing, the bilingual information a lifeline.

The Ex-SKF blogger does paste-ins of Japanese-language articles, often in their entirety, and provides links to the original sites of these articles along with translations into English, rendered in near native fluency. Besides textual information, this blog's archive includes videos, photographs, data in graph or chart form, and coverage from English-language newspapers and websites around the globe. (There is also a Japanese-language version of the blog.) In sum, the English version of the Ex-SKF blog is a bilingual database with extensive coverage, and these two features have several important consequences.

First, readers who are fl enough in both Japanese and English are enabled and practically invited to crosscheck the blogger's rendering of Japanese-language information into English. Second, English-dependent readers like GKS1350021 gain access to a huge amount of information not available anywhere else, and impossible to locate on a daily basis short of devoting oneself, like the blogger, to such a project. Third, transparency is a guiding principle for re/presentation of information: Links to original sources as well as other relevant material are provided, and when necessary, tips on how to access and read the information at these sites are also given, based on the blogger's own prior experience in navigating those sites. Transparency means that little or no energy need be wasted on wondering how reliable or partisan the presentation of the information might be. I myself have never bothered to do a crosscheck, not because I trust this blog completely but because I've always known that I can check up on things whenever I want to. The archival trail followed by the blogger is clearly marked for others to follow. This blog is not motivated by a desire to get the journalistic scoop, although it does take (justifi pride in pointing out when it fi took notice of something that others did not begin to discuss widely until much later. Such transparency in reporting creates a deep sense of reliability and trust. I read this blog because it is dedicated to delivering accurate, comprehensive, constantly updated, comprehensible information to readers, all of which becomes instantly accessible for future reference in the blog's archive.

In addition to culling articles on the same topic from different media sources, and in addition to a continuous flow of English translations of Japanese-language sources of information, Ex-SKF also provides personal analysis of the information culled. When the blogger offers opinions or speculations, they are clearly presented as such. The line is always clearly marked between what constitutes the blogger's commentary or analysis and what constitutes the information gathered and re-presented from a variety of media.

Finally, the Ex-SKF blog contextualizes the nuclear accident within global politics and economics. Events from around the globe are not ignored just because they are intrinsically unrelated to things nuclear. Quite the contrary: posting news about the Arab Spring, Obama's reelection, or Tokyo's winning bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics in a blog called “Covering Fukushima I (Daiichi) Nuclear Accident since March 11, 2011” [3], with the accompanying November 2013 photo of the spent fuel pool in Reactor 4 (which eventually replaced Ultraman as the blog's mascot), makes the point that a nuclear accident cannot be understood in isolation from the flow of global history. Further, this flow of “external” news includes, from time to time, events that will never be news anywhere except on this blog—things like the Ex-SKF blogger's personal selection of music to celebrate Christmas or a birthday. Such apparently “unnecessary” contextualization of information about Fukushima Daiichi NPP is also part and parcel of Ex-SKF's policy of transparency. We are asked to take notice of this blogger's existence as an individual, although we are always aware of it in the personal voice that infuses the blog while not compromising its commitment to transparency. In the Ex-SKF blog, we receive our information from one individual human being, not a disembodied voice that covers over the speaker's stakes in the matters being spoken of.

Over the past 18 months, Ex-SKF's rate of posting new material has declined noticeably.[3] Perhaps personal circumstances might be partly responsible (on January 26, 2014, Ex-SKF mentions being in bed for a week with the flu), but I think the decrease is largely the result of less and less information generated about Fukushima Daiichi NPP 3 years and 4 months after the start of the accident. A certain stability has been achieved, even despite the fact that (a) on-site contamination is still extremely high and far from being fully ascertained or mapped, (b) a number of dire problems remain unresolved even if they are no longer regularly reported on in mainstream media (e.g. where to put the continuously generated radioactive water that cools the broken reactors; likewise where and how to dispose of contaminated dirt, leaves, and other debris that have been collected throughout Tohoku and presumably will continue to be gathered up for disposal at future dates), and (c) we have no idea how much knowledge about the nuclear meltdowns was and still is being withheld from us by Government, TEPCO,[4] the nuclear industry, or the media. To repeat: despite the immensity of the unknowns alluded to in (a), (b), and (c), a certain stability seems to have been achieved at Fukushima Daiichi NPP, which would explain the sharp decrease in postings by Ex-SKF. But this is not to suggest that Ex-SKF has become obsolete as a source of information or that its value has peaked. No, precisely because the current stability at Fukushima Daiichi NPP (or any other nuclear power plant anywhere in Japan) is quite fragile given the uncontrollable probability of a large earthquake occurring too close, and precisely because of Government's unconscionable disregard of (a), (b), and (c) in its push to restart idled reactors and keep Japan dependent on nuclear energy without allowing the public a say in decision-making, the Ex-SKF blog remains indispensable as a bilingual, open-access, comprehensive, unfoldingin-real-time archive of events at Fukushima Daiichi NPP, that prioritizes transparency.

For all these reasons, then, the Ex-SKF blog models what I think ought to be the key elements of an online “library” of information on Fukushima Daiichi NPP set up and run by nuclear engineers, who would also be dedicated to truthfulness, political neutrality, and transparency, and not averse to adding the occasional touch of Christmas music or other expressions of the human being of the library's creators and operators. I envision this “library” as a necessary point of reference for both pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear groups, such that both groups can be enabled to see what they currently do not see, admit, or accept.

  • [1] When I wrote these sentences, it had been almost 48 h since a man set himself on fire near Shinjuku station, Tokyo (29 June 2014) to protest PM Shinzō Abe's determination, despite widespread opposition from the public, to enable Japan's Self-Defense Forces to engage in combat overseas by simply changing a longstanding interpretation of war-renouncing Article 9 of the constitution. The day after the attempted self-immolation, Abe's “re-reading” became a fait accompli when it was passed by his cabinet. Abe's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga's response to the incident captures the irony of political leaders proclaiming sincere efforts to protect the country's citizens while dismissing the importance of their individual identities or the injury done to their individual bodies. Suga declared, “The government should protect people's lives and property as well as the country's safety,” but as for the self-immolation, he brushed it aside by saying that while he was “aware of the incident” he was “not in a position to comment on an individual case” [1].
  • [2] The first post about the triple disaster reports that the blogger was able to make phone contact with family in Tokyo soon after the earthquake struck at 2:46 pm on 11 March 2011 [2].
  • [3] Archive information at the blog site indicates more than 1,300 posts between 13 March 2011 and 1 January 2012; 1,160 posts in 2012; 601 posts in 2013; and 127 posts in 2014 up through July 28 [3].
  • [4] A recent example of not being told what happened when it happened is TEPCO's belated announcement on 23 July 2014 that on 19 August 2013, more than 1 trillion becquerels of radioactive substances were released over the course of four hours during a cleanup procedure at the No. 3 reactor of Fukushima Daiichi NPP [4]. As early as March 2014, the Ministry of Agriculture informed TEPCO that its decontamination work on 19 August 2013 had contaminated rice harvested from Minami-Soma during the same month, but the Ministry did not inform the people of Minami-Soma about the contamination [5].
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