Is it or isn’t it?
Is it a non-issue for all but those living around the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, as governments and obliging media have been saying; or are the meltdowns spreading invisible tentacles of radioactive death around the world, as some are insisting and others are wondering, a sense of unease at our prospects for the future. How, then, would these tentacles impact hotels and tourist destinations as news radiated into the consumer consciousness and people changed their eating and travel habits?
Well, sorry to disappoint those who like a good drama to chew on, but the government and officials happen to be right on this one, once the science is understood.
PR mishandlings have resulted in (mostly unnecessary) loss of hospitality business in Fukushima and surrounding areas, including Tokyo; but no impact has been felt in other countries (with one exception, which has seen a big pick- up in business); and no future impact is to be expected from the feared-by-some collapse of all living systems.
If you had doubts about which way it would go, read on, put them to rest: There are enough real issues in life without being distracted by invented ones.
Slaying the Fukushima Dragon, PR 101
Atomic science and nuclear power are not the easiest nuts to crack, leaving must people scratching their heads; much panic and worry has been generated over the years on the subject with Nagasaki, Cold War propaganda, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island as high points; nuclear radiation is invisible, which makes it spooky; it is doubly mysterious because governments tend to stamp “secret” on files relating to the subject and threaten to drop bombs on countries dabbling in the stuff. The whole subject sums up to “You have no future, you might as well lie down and die,” which attitude can be self-fulfilling.
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” said Franklin Roosevelt. Governments learned long ago that fear created by an incident invariably resulted in more damage than the incident itself.
Case in point: The days immediately following the March 11 earthquake off the coast of Japan saw mass hoarding of essentials as well as an exodus of thousands of non-Japanese and Japanese alike, especially from Tokyo. This was before the public even knew anything about the three reactors melting.
Tokyo residents had been spooked by a 30-fold increase in radiation levels to 0.00011 mSv/hr* after radiation plumes headed to Tokyo on March 15 (and again on March 21). Properly briefed, and listening, they would have stayed at home, because Hong Kong residents typically experience, every day, 0.00014 mSv/hr, Londoners 0.00025 mSv/hr, and Chennai residents in southern India 0.00342 mSv/hr (or over 30 times higher than Tokyo spiked).
* the amount of radiation that has been absorbed by a body—the dose and its projected biological effect: “m/Sv” (milliSieverts) with a notation made of the time frame during which that dose was received— mSv/d—per day; mSv/yr—per year.
Then a sample of Tokyo tap water on March 22 revealed levels of radiation at 210 Bq/l,** more than double Japan’s recommended limit for infants. The government said the health risks were minimal, yet the people of Tokyo began bulk-buying bottled water. The radiation dropped below the maximum recommended level the next day.
** the amount of radioactivity that has fallen on an inanimate object or area:
“Bq” (Becquerels), which is then qualified by the area being measured:
Bq/sm —per square meter for surfaces;
Bk/kg —per kilogram of weight of a solid substance, such as soil;
Bq/cm—per cubic meter dispersed in air;
Bq/l —per liter dispersed in liquids.
A Bq is equivalent to one radioactive disintegration per second, indicating how rapidly radioactive material is undergoing disintegration and how intensely radioactive a substance or location is.
Governments, following poor advice from their Communication Advisors, have stoked the fires of disbelief and panic by their ineptitude and lack of public relations application: issuing half-truths and opinions instead of understanding the concerns of their constituents and communicating the facts at a level they can understand. When the FDA decided to revert to quarterly reporting of their radiation testing (quite correctly, based on the low radiation numbers), some radiation vigilantes toting Geiger counters were still finding elevated (non-dangerous) levels. The public mood was expressed by one individual: “The EPA says eating fish caught in Japan with radiation levels 2,400% above Federal limits (170 Bq/kg) does not pose any health risks, and rainwater at 18,100% the drinking water maximum allowed does not pose any concern. What I would really like to know at this point is, what levels qualify as ‘levels of concern?’”
It didn’t help that the EPA admitted 37 of its 200+ RADNET monitoring stations were in-operational and did not consider it a priority to fix them. Several units showed an uncharacteristic and unrealistic pattern and lowered rate starting exactly on March 11. “The broken system left us all unprotected; the confusion, apprehension, and fear witnessed as people try to wade through the incomplete and inaccurate data online” was how one person expressed his frustrations.
It didn’t help that distrust of government statements is high among many, given the past track of government ineptitude and forwarding monied interests over the public good, pushing harmful solutions and suppressing good ones: for instance, the FDA in the US stated drinking milk with some radionuclides in it is safe, while earlier falsely stating drinking raw milk to be dangerous and the subject of pre-dawn raids, guns drawn, on such as Amish communities.
Nor did it help that the FDA appeared to be working behind closed doors on how to raise the allowable radiation rates: latest version leaked is allowing a single glass of water to contain what today is considered the permissible exposure for a whole lifetime; and allowing long-term clean-up limits thousands of times more lax than anything EPA has allowed up to now. Is this a problem? Maybe not when all the facts and figures are looked at, but it doesn’t sit well in terms of motive during a nuclear crisis, and is pretty poor PR management, considering that the EPA had been working on this standardization for the past decade and were not actually engaged in an effort to fudge the numbers in response to Fukushima.
The Japanese government swung too far in the direction of keeping their cards close to their chest to avoid panic—perhaps mixed with the cultural need to save face—by cracking down on “irresponsible rumors” about radiation releases in the news media and web sites that criticized or scrutinized the official Japanese government position. As a result, the weather bureau failed to alert those living in the path of radioactive cloud so they could take precautions; and reports of children with signs of radiation sickness were reclassified as “rumors,” to the detriment of the children.
The Internet was (and is) abuzz with even doctors and scientists fanning the flames of panic by reporting (for instance) 72,000 times the radiation of Hiroshima being in the atmosphere based on the false datum that three spent-fuel pools had burned, whereas only the housing of one had burned for two hours; and that infants were dying from radiation poisoning on the West and East Coasts.
Instead of expressing opinions such as President Obama’s pronunciamentos, or throwing out random scientific facts, or suppressing information, the governments would have been far better off perceiving the level of understanding on the subject in the populace, and then explaining the basic scientific truths at a level that the public could understand. Understanding = calm. No understanding = panic and distrust. It’s pretty simple, really.
What are the Facts of the Matter?
In terms of accumulated radiation, by early May, after major emissions had ceased from Japan, Northern US states showed accumulations of 1-10 Bq/sm and Southern States less than 1 Bq/sm—inconsequential amounts. By comparison, the level of radioactive fallout currently from the 2,000-plus bombs exploded in the 1940-60s (more than 50% by the US), is 0.037 to 3.7 Bk/kg just of Plutonium each year.
In terms of what on earth is all this stuff about atoms and nuclear power and bombs, the truth is basically simple, too.
Matter is made up of atoms which have a dense center (nucleus) surrounded by a cloud of minute particles called “electrons.” Most of these atoms are stable and do not change their basic characteristics. Some atoms, however, are not stable, spontaneously changing into other atom types by releasing energy. The process of these atoms changing is called “radioactivity.” The energy released is referred to as “radiation.” The simple concept of radiation is “matter that shoots out energy, rather than just sitting there looking pretty or ugly.”
Radionuclides (literally meaning “a ray coming from the center”) emit two things:
1. gamma rays (pure energy with very short wavelengths and high frequency) and/or
2. subatomic particles (the protons, neutrons, and electrons that make up an atom —and 25 other really, really small and sometimes extremely short-lived parts that scientists have identified within atoms).
When sub-atomic particles start flying around, they can affect the electronic state of nearby stable atoms, causing them in turn to chemically enter highly energetic and unstable states. Known as “free radicals,” these unbalanced atoms are bad news in living organisms because in sufficiently high concentration, they damage cells and tissues, potentially resulting in mutation, radiation sickness, cancer, and even death according a) to acute and total exposure and b) the physical, mental, and spiritual health/resilience of the life form.
In low doses, however, radiation is not particularly hazardous. Radiation is all around us and harmless to humans on Earth right now (this wasn’t the case earlier), as it occurs naturally at low levels from the radioactive matter remaining in the environment (70% of the dose the average human receives, of which 55% is gamma rays from space and radon gas from the rocks/earth), and such as potassium, bananas, Brazil nuts, granite and uranium-laced stone used in some buildings, and x-rays. Over time, the body has evolved robust defense mechanisms to deal with any potential radiation damage. Radiation harm occurs when radiation reaches elevated levels that interfere with or overwhelm these natural bodily defenses.
Basic confusions are common concerning the dangers of radiation, which, if dispelled, could bring a lot of relief to many. Some very competent and well-meaning experts consider any dose of radiation unsafe, increasing the risk of cancer incrementally. Yet certain facts contradict this.
1) Americans receive an average dose of about 3.6 mSv/yr, or 0.01 mSv/d from all sources of background radiation. Those in high altitudes receive more cosmic radiation: La Paz, the highest city in the world, dishes it out at 2.19 mSv/yr whereas sea level averages 0.26 mSv/yr. Those who smoke cigarettes can add 2.8 mSv/yr on average, as cigarettes contain radioactive Lead-210 and Polonium-210. The highest known level of background radiation is in a 77-square mile section of Kerala in Southern India, where inhabitants average 70 mSv/yr because the ground has high levels of radioactive Thorium, Uranium, and Monazite. As a note, cancer levels there are no higher there than anywhere else in the world with lower background radiation levels.
2) Man-made sources of radiation over the last seven decades add to the exposure, but not significantly, unless one happens to be close to a source.
i. Microwave exposure from cell phones and tower transmitters cause nuclei in human blood cells to splinter, with DNA single- and double-strand breaks at radiation levels well below the current federal safe standards. In the future, WiMAX promises coverage of 3,000 square miles from a single tower.
ii. Over 2,000 atomic and hydrogen bombs set off and tested, the radioactive particles of which are still falling on the world—at approximately 10 mSv/yr of exposure for an individual.
- iii. Millions of pounds of depleted Uranium in US missiles, bombs, and bullets have been used over the last two decades with devastating effects locally (in Fallujah, 80% of the babies are born grossly deformed—without brains, eyes and limbs—and the children are suffering from a 12-fold increase in cancers), but the dust and sands blowing from the Middle East to Europe, the Caribbean, and even the US are so dispersed that little ends up in people’s lungs.
iv. Multiple nuclear accidents, discharges, and burials at sea.
v. Irradiation: The FDA-recommended use of nuclear reactor waste as a form of “electronic pasteurization” is applied to US-produced non-organic food at levels between 333 and 10,000 times the lethal dose for a human.
3) Radiation does not invariably cause cancer.
i. As with any toxin, if radiation is delivered rapidly in large volume, it will overwhelm the body’s defenses, causing illness and possible death. So at high doses, radiation can result in cell death, organ failure, and death.
However, at lower doses received over time, the body is more likely to be able to repair the damage before it can become too severe. Specifically, radiation disrupts the natural process of regeneration and growth of cells. At low doses, the body is capable of repairing this damage, or such damage from any other source; and that failing, destroying the injured cell so that it will not affect neighboring cells. When it fails in both of these goals, cancer can result.
Low-level radiation can slightly increase one’s chances of developing cancer, but far less so than smoking and chemical exposures.
ii. An equal amount of radiation received by different people will, as with any toxin, affect each differently, from having no effect at all to making them ill or even killing them. Not surprisingly, the factors influencing this variation are the strength of the person’s immune system, their ability to handle physical, emotional, and spiritual stress, and existing levels of radiation in, and damage to, the body.
Malnutrition and demoralization in Japan in 1945, for instance, contributed significantly to the severity of the symptoms experienced by victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet even then, the violent delivery of overwhelming amounts of radiation resulted in 160,000 people being injured or killed…but 260,000 surviving, including one gentleman in his twenties who was just under two miles from both blasts. He suffered burns and died finally of cancer—in his mid-nineties.
As Michio Kushi, a leading nutrition teacher and philosopher, points out: “Radiation and pollution can accelerate the accumulation and spread of cancer, but only if the body is already in a weakened state.”
iii. Radiation can be detoxified from the body using various products/supplements, and regimens like the Purification Rundown offered by various outlets; so once a person is exposed, it does not mean he has been handed a death sentence.
iv. Even where a person does contract cancer, it can be cured quite easily, despite statements to the contrary from the $1 trillion cancer industry and efforts by the FDA: See http://www.burzynskimovie.com/ for a documentary on just one example of the FDA and cancer industry in action.
4. Inhaling, and to a lesser degree ingesting, radioactive particles is much more dangerous than having it land on the skin (where it can be washed off) or being exposed to a radioactive particle at a distance. The reason being that the closer one is to a radiation source, the greater the harm it can render to the cells. A radioactive apple one meter away is twice as dangerous as when it is four meters away, although it does not represent much threat in either case. Eating that apple, however, places radiation in direct contact with the body, thereby increasing the radiation intensity by a million times compared with the apple when it is one meter distant.
i. Having said this, though, it is almost impossible, in the normal course of events, to inhale or ingest fatal levels of radiation. Take man-made Plutonium, which is two-million times more toxic than naturally occurring radioactive material. The largest speck of Plutonium that can be readily inhaled and absorbed deep in the lungs is about 3 micrometers in diameter and 0.14 millionths of a mg in weight. It would take inhaling 0.08 mg to be fatal, or 570,000 inhalable particles.
ii. Even being 300 yards directly downwind from a nuclear bomb detonation would only result in inhaling 0.0001 mg of Plutonium, an amount that would increase the risk of death by cancer by 0.12%. Obviously, being that close to a nuclear blast would bring about more pressing issues for a person, such as being vaporized, flung a mile or two, or burned beyond recognition.
5. Life recovers a lot faster than has been appreciated generally after radiation exposure. This is not to say that those immediately exposed do not and have not experienced horrific injuries and death. However, the 19-mile Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl that was too heavily radiated to allow human occupation and work in 1986 is now so lush with flora and fauna (including rare species not seen there for centuries) that the Ukrainian government designated it a wildlife sanctuary in 2007. It was discovered that plants have an unexpected ability to adapt to radiation with certain changes in their proteins. Cows and horses within a few miles had recovered by the second generation. Radiation levels have dropped to the extent that the land lost to agriculture and forestry (roughly the size of Connecticut) is mostly back in production (although operational costs are higher as a result of the cultivation techniques, fertilizers, and additives needed). Bio-accumulation of radioactivity in fish was high initially, but back to safe levels in most places; in animals, for instance, 1-in-440 wild boar in Germany in 2010 had radiation levels exceeding the safe limit.
The Fukishima Daiichi disaster was contained by the Japanese engineers and while the situation is not resolved fully yet, it is under control in terms of there being no more significant radioactive emissions and a long-term, if unproven, strategy being evolved to close down the plant and render it safe—the challenges are still huge, but the immediate peril is passed. What emissions did occur were distributed very thinly throughout the Northern hemisphere at doses slightly more than normal background radiation—or sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, rather than being consumed continually by fish that would then be eaten by humans.
By mid-July, radiation from Fukushima Daiichi had spread over 370 square miles in sufficient quantity to render it uninhabitable—the same area approximately as Chernobyl. But outside that area, radiation levels and exposure rates were essentially back to normal background exposure, and at the source, Fukushima Daiichi itself, there was very little leakage while hosting extremely high levels of contamination.
The upshot: unless you live near Fukushima Daiichi, you have absolutely no need to be concerned about radiation in your food, water, the air you breathe, your body—or worrying if our days are numbered.
If governments had run an educational campaign, and Tourist Boards run an advertising campaign, we wouldn’t be seeing the dramatic drop in tourism in Fukushima, or an exodus of people from Tokyo, and the world given yet one more reason to hunker down.
At least the Japanese government has agreed to reimburse hoteliers for lost business in the area, but that is reactive, as opposed to proactive.
Proactive is the Ukrainian government working to increase visitors to Chernobyl to 1 million from 60,000. Business has been booming since Fukushima Daiichi hit the headlines: in Chernobyl, tourists are loaned Geiger counters and enjoy (one hopes) lunch in the Chernobyl canteen, as well as tours of the plant and land. Fukushima could one day take advantage of this newly developed niche: Radioactive Tourism. But they don’t need to wait that long. During the crisis, tourists arrived just because Fukushima is a beautiful place and they understood that, apart from specific pockets of radiation that should be avoided (generally out to 50 miles North and West of the plant) and certain sources of food that should be watched, there was nothing to fear.
The take-home lesson from Fukushima for the rest of the hospitality industry is: don’t let the government and hysterical media mess up the public’s perception of your area if it suffers some calamity. Take responsibility for educating the public so they remain calm and don’t cancel their reservations or decide to go somewhere else for their vacation or business convention.
If some newscaster intones gleefully yet somberly, ‘The Japanese government reported (some disastrous datum),” then make sure it is followed (in the case of Fukushima) with a piece from the Fukushima Tourist Board that the sun is still shining and that, despite the ongoing tragedy, 70% of Fukushima is unaffected, and here are some simple facts concerning nuclear radiation….”
Not to minimize the seriousness of the situation—heroic effort was required of TEPCO workers to bring the situation under control, and many in governments and other organizations around the world overheated their brain cells and worked their fingers to the bone on the issue. But they need to go back and study PR 101: it would have taken them where they wanted to go a lot faster and more smoothly, and would not have cast a pall over tourism and life in general, wondering if the sky was going to fall, laden with radioactivity.
Steven Ferry, a multi-published author in a number of genres and industries, is also Chairman of the US-based International Institute of Modern Butlers, providing advocacy, training, and consulting on the superior service style of the British butler.
Republished with permission of hotelexecutive.com, all rights reserved
About the Author (Author Profile)Steven Ferry is chairman of the International Institute of Modern Butlers and the author of bestsellers "Butlers & Household Managers 21st Century Professionals" and "Hotel Butlers, The Great Service Differentiators." He also trains and consults for the profession around the world.
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