The Prometheus Trap / Order to Suspend Radiation Monitoring

February 06, 2012

By YUMI NAKAYAMA / Staff Writer

According to Greek mythology, it was Prometheus who gave fire to humans.

The acquisition of fire allowed humankind to develop civilization. Fire derived from fossil fuels further spurred production capacity. In time, humans attained atomic fire, a feat that was also described as "superior energy." Playing with fire, however, has presented humans with a dilemma.

Humans, who achieved a civilized world through Prometheus, are now troubled by atomic fire. The series of articles contemplate the country, its citizens and electric power in light of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The third series, “Order to Suspend Radiation Monitoring,” considers the bureaucratic logic that could have discontinued the world's longest-running radiation observations at a truly critical juncture following the accident at the Fukushima plant.

The first and second series are available at and

* * *

A surprise call from Tokyo

On March 31, 2011, Michio Aoyama, a 58-year-old researcher at the Meteorological Research Institute of the Japan Meteorological Agency, was attending an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conference in Monaco when he received an e-mail from Japan.

As he read the message, Aoyama could not help but shake his head in incomprehension and disbelief.

"We're discontinuing radiation monitoring? Now? But we've been doing it for more than half a century!"

In 1954, a U.S. thermonuclear test at the Bikini atolls prompted the Meteorological Research Institute to begin nuclear research that year. Three years later, the institute began monitoring environmental radiation in the atmosphere and the oceans, which was still going on when Aoyama got the disturbing e-mail. The undertaking had already set a world record as the longest of its kind, and the institute had earned the respect of many countries for it.

The sender of the e-mail was Takashi Inoue, 47, a researcher at the institute's Office of Planning in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture. According to Inoue, he received a phone call from the meteorological agency's Planning Division in Tokyo at 6 p.m. on March 31.

The caller told Inoue, "Effective tomorrow, there will be no more budget for radiation monitoring. Please do as you see fit at your end."

Inoue could think of no reason why the budget was being pulled right when radiation level readings were at their highest since monitoring began. He demanded an explanation, but the caller merely repeated that the agency's decision was irreversible.

Inoue didn't know what to do. Only six hours remained of the fiscal year, which in Japan ends on March 31. And Inoue had never heard of a government organ freezing its budget on the eve of the new fiscal year--and after office hours, to boot.

But Tokyo's directive could not be ignored, and Inoue had to act fast. Picking up the phone, he called the temp staff agency, whose analysts the institute relied on for radiation monitoring.

"Sorry about this sudden call," Inoue began. "But I have to ask you to get the word out to your radiation analysts that they won't be working for us anymore from tomorrow."

Paychecks for these specially trained analysts and their assistants were coming from the institute's "radiation research budget." With this budget gone, the institute couldn't pay them anymore.

Pandemonium broke out in the office of planning.

"We've got to call an emergency meeting of the related staff," Inoue yelled.

"The accounting people have already left for their farewell party tonight," someone reminded him.

"Well, call them and tell them to come back."

The core members of the Meteorological Research Institute's radiation research team were Aoyama of the Geochemical Research Department and Yasuhito Igarashi, 53, of the Atmospheric Environment and Applied Meteorology Research Department.

Igarashi had already gone home when he received a phone call from a planning office staffer, who explained what had transpired: "The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology informed the meteorological agency that a budgetary adjustment is necessary to cope with the nuclear accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The situation requires urgent radiation monitoring, for which the ministry has decided to use our radiation research budget ..."

By YUMI NAKAYAMA / Staff Writer
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The Asahi Shimbun

The Asahi Shimbun

  • The Asahi Shimbun
  • Minute atmospheric particles are collected for radiation levels to be measured at the Meteorological Research Institute. (Yumi Nakayama)
  • Seawater collected from the Pacific Ocean (Yumi Nakayama)
  • Radiation-analyzed images of minute particles in the atmosphere (Yumi Nakayama)
  • A survey meter detects and measures radiation. (Yumi Nakayama)
  • Collecting minute particles in rainwater (Yumi Nakayama)
  • Nature magazine (Yumi Nakayama)
  • Radioactive substances collected from seawater (Yumi Nakayama)
  • Michio Aoyama, chief researcher at the Meteorological Research Institute (Yumi Nakayama)
  • Samples of high level radiation in the atmosphere (Yumi Nakayama)
  • A radiation detector that automatically measures radiation (Yumi Nakayama)
  • Lawmaker Yuko Mori's blog (Yumi Nakayama)
  • Yasuhito Igarashi of the Meteorological Research Institute (Yumi Nakayama)
  • Samples taken from rain collected atop Mount Haruna (Yumi Nakayama)
  • Mitsuhiko Hatori, director-general of the Japan Meteorological Agency (Yumi Nakayama)
  • The Meteorological Research Institute in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture (Yumi Nakayama)

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