SEOUL -- In Japan this past year, there has been a passionate argument about the effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster that has played out on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites.
Anti-nuclear activists have joined skeptics of the government's safety pledges in alleging a conspiracy of lies and cover-ups about the danger posed by radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant.
Environmental group Greenpeace International says Japanese authorities have “consistently appeared to underestimate both the risks and extent of radioactive contamination.” But the group has not reported any cases of radiation poisoning.
This week one American family in Japan became caught up in the controversy after its appeal on an online fundraising site raised $7,500 in funds for their evacuation.
Carol Swift, of Overland Park, Kansas, the mother of Joshua Swift of Inzai, Japan, on YouCaring.com had set a goal of raising $25,000 by August 31
because her three grandchildren "are sick from radiation poisoning and the food source has been compromised" as a result of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident.
The online appeal listed various medical ailments affecting the family including autoimmune diseases affecting all three children.
The family's evacuation plea sparked a flurry of comments on social media sites. While some sympathized with the Swifts, other were less charitable calling them naïve alarmists or con artists.
"It was probably a mistake putting that on the Internet," says Joshua Swift, who now is appealing to the online detractors to "just leave us alone and let us go."
The appeal on YouCaring.com was delisted Monday following the criticism on social media and other online sites, although the appeal remains archived
Swift says the Internet appeal was not intended to be public and claims that all of the money raised came solely from "family and friends." He said it was not possible for the family to immediately evacuate because he wanted to continue to make mortgage payments on his home in Inzai, a city of 90,000 people, in Chiba Prefecture.
Physicist-turned historian Spencer Weart is not surprised by heightened fears about low-level radiation.
Weart, whose latest book “The Rise of Nuclear Fear” was published in March, blames the Japanese government’s flawed assurances of the safety of its nuclear plants and denial of problems by regulators for creating a situation “where most Japanese distrust anything they [officials] say.”
The Swifts' claim of radiation poisoning quickly triggered a flurry of comments on Twitter after it was noted and analyzed on a blog site, Japan Probe
Swift acknowledges no physician has diagnosed the children as being sickened by radiation. He said no doctor in Japan "would be allowed to," alluding to a supposed cover-up of the health effects resulting from one of the world's worst nuclear accidents.
Another American living in Inzai is not worried.
“I've had independent [radiation] readings taken by Safecast and Hakette.jp. There is no danger in Inzai with radiation sickness,” says Mark Alan Williams, an international business coordinator with a Japanese corporation. “There are new homes being built in my neighborhood and a Costco [warehouse store] is planned for Inzai too. I have no immediate sense of danger at all.”
Chiba Prefecture ordered the halt of shipments of shiitake mushrooms grown in Inzai on February 23 of this year, a day after 993 becquerels/kg of radioactive cesium, exceeding the national provisional limit of 500 becquerels/kg, was detected on the mushrooms.
Weart, the former director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics, says extensive measurements by both governmental and independent entities show that except for a small region in Fukushima Prefecture, living in Japan and eating Japanese food “do not pose big health problems. The medical problems the (Swift) family has are not the kind that is usually traced to radiation."
There has been no credible scientific evidence presented that any humans have been sickened by radiation in Japan following the March 2011 reactor meltdowns. Japan's government also says no one has been harmed by radiation exposure because of the accident.
Japan on Saturday took the last of its 50 commercial working reactors offline for routine maintenance amid a safety drive following last year's disaster triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami. It is the first time the country is without nuclear power since 1970.
VOA Correspondent Steve Herman has reported extensively from Fukushima since the nuclear disaster in March, 2011.