[Viewpoint] What the professors have to say

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[Viewpoint] What the professors have to say

The Fukushima nuclear accident is the hottest topic among professors at the lunch table at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Seoul National University. The conversation is focused on how much radioactive material will reach Korea.

Their discussions are scathing and dolorous by turns. They criticize exaggerated reports on television and are appalled by the politicians who have pinned all of their anxieties on the “prevailing easterlies.” Some lament, “Maybe, we’ll all lose our job in this field.”

I ask the professors some of the questions we all want to clarify, and the following are answers from the experts at the country’s most prestigious university.

- Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Mi-kyung insisted that prevailing easterlies may blow radioactive material to the Korean Peninsula. Is it possible?

“In fact, ‘easterlies’ do exist on Earth, but they happen to exist in high and low latitudes, blowing at the South and North Poles and near the equator. Korea and Japan are in the mid-latitude region, where the prevailing westerly winds are dominant. Unless the rotation of the earth is reversed, we will never experience such a thing as ‘prevailing easterlies.’ That’s the simple fact.”

- Lawmaker Lee claimed there were 71 occurrences of easterly winds in April and May, citing data from the Korea Meteorological Administration.

“Easterly winds can blow near the surface of the Earth depending on the arrangement of atmospheric pressure. However, strong and consistent easterly winds would have to blow three days in a row for the radioactive material to travel 1,200 kilometers [746 miles] from Fukushima to the Korean Peninsula. Analysis of last year’s meteorological data showed that not a single instance of strong easterly wind blew from Fukushima to Jeju in the period between March and June.”

- Radioactive iodine has been detected all over the country.

“That is a critical piece of evidence that the radioactive material did not travel with the easterlies. If radioactive iodine flew into Korea on the winds near the surface, radioactivity should be localized, which it wasn’t. If the material was detected at 12 locations around the country, that means it was swept up by prevailing westerlies and either traveled around the world or through the Kamchatka Peninsula and the polar region.”

- Will Fukushima be an Asian version of Chernobyl?

“Chernobyl is on a plain, and the nuclear reactor exploded at the time. Located at 51 degrees north latitude, it was hard to predict the direction of the winds, and therefore the radioactivity was spread in all directions. In contrast, Fukushima is surrounded by the Ou mountain range to the west at 1,500 meters above sea level. And the nuclear reactors themselves did not explode.”

- There may be rumors and urban legends that succeed in scaring the public.

“Ungrounded stories about the Fukushima accident have spread in Japan. Some people used personal models to analyze the accident and produced irresponsible scenarios. Provocative theories were spread by a sensation-seeking media and they fanned fear. Scholars and specialists in the meteorological field in Japan are busy correcting errors and issuing refutations.”

The situation in Fukushima is becoming more aggravated each day, and plutonium, called “devil’s dust,” has been detected. The Japanese government said that only God knows what the worst situation may be in the long run. In fact, the answer to the Fukushima disaster is obvious, but Japan is not willing to admit it. Experts in other countries demand Japan pour concrete over the plant right away.

The Japanese government is reluctant to order more emergency workers to go in for fear of further casualties. As a corollary, Korea could have reduced damages if it acted promptly when foot-and-mouth disease broke out. The United States was also criticized for its delayed response to the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

Both the governments and academic institutions in Korea and Japan remain relatively calm. They try to convince the public that current levels of radioactivity will affect human health if a person drinks 1,000 tons of contaminated Tokyo tap water per year or consumes 100 tons of spinach.

But nuclear engineering professor Lee Jae-gi of Hanyang University is wary. “The Chernobyl nuclear accident resulted in some 600 victims, including those who developed cancer and died from it. Yet after Chernobyl, the number of miscarriages nearly doubled, to some 10,000 cases, in West Germany alone.”

No one knows how the radioactivity release will develop. We are increasingly hearing unfamiliar terms such as becquerels (Bq) and sieverts (Sv). Koreans are adding them to other jargon they’ve had to learn from past news stories, such as blastocyst, vCJD and bubble jet. A series of blunders by our government, from mad cow disease to the Cheonan incident to foot-and-mouth disease, have made citizens unsettled.

The Japanese recently coined a new word, edaru, after Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, who has held 109 hours of briefings since the March 11 earthquake. “Edaru” means “going through a hard time because of an incompetent boss.”

Perhaps trust is the key rather than sieverts or safety measures. Koreans, too, may be waiting for the appearance of a trustworthy leader.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Chul-ho
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