Unwelcome Science: Japan Ignores UN Rapporteur’s Call for Better Fukushima Health Measures

français | 日本語訳

Akio Matsumura

“Why don’t we have a urine analysis, why don’t we have a blood analysis? Let’s err on the side of caution.”

UN Special Rapporteur Anand Grover, who visited Fukushima in 2012, spoke in Tokyo this month about the continued lack of appropriate health research surrounding Fukushima and related health issues.

Since shortly after the Fukushima accident three years ago, doctors throughout Fukushima prefecture have been looking for unusual cysts, nodes, and other bumps that might indicate thyroid cancer, one possible effect of radiation. The numbers of irregularities the doctors have been finding is alarming, but also puzzling: By most counts, thyroid cancers should only begin to show up five years or so after radiation exposure.

What, then, should Japanese doctors and health officials do with this information?

Information and caution, it turns out, are unwelcome in Japan. The country plans to restart its nuclear reactors and move Fukushima’s refugees back into the former evacuation zones. Any studies pointing to negative effects of radiation exposure will hinder this move toward economic progress.

So, Japan has taken subtle measures to slow any proof that these moves aren’t in its citizens’ best interest. Japan can hamper scientific studies that can lead to new information and evidence in two ways: by cutting funding and by imposing a culture of secrecy and an unwillingness to talk to the press among researchers. A March 16 article by David McNeill in the New York Times chronicled this process. Timothy Mosseau, a researcher from the University of South Carolina, has found his three trips to the Fukushima area “difficult.” He told the Times:

“It’s pretty clear that there is self-censorship or professors have been warned by their superiors that they must be very, very careful,” he said.
The “more insidious censorship” is the lack of funding at a national level for these kinds of studies, he added. “They’re putting trillions of yen into moving dirt around and almost nothing into environmental assessment.”

Ken Buessler, another American scientist who has made several trips to the water outside Japan, also spoke with the Times:

“Researchers are told not to talk to the press, or they don’t feel comfortable about talking to the press without permission,” Mr. Buesseler said. A veteran of three post-earthquake research trips to Japan, he wants the authorities to put more money into investigating the impact on the food chain of Fukushima’s release of cesium and strontium. “Why isn’t the Japanese government paying for this, since they have most to gain?”

If researchers are financially hamstrung and stifled within Japan, another option is another country or institution with enough clout with or power over the Japanese government to order an effective and independent assessment of the country’s health risks from Fukushima.

Tokyo will host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. A main concern of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the body that organizes and oversees the Olympics, in awarding Tokyo the games was the state of Fukushima and its ongoing issues. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe personally stepped in and assured IOC’s then-president Jacques Rogge that Fukushima was “in safe hands”.

As the New York Times Editorial Board made clear on March 21, the current state of cleanup is “shameful” – definitely not in safe hands. And as scientists in and outside of Japan tell us, there are not enough experiments underway to give us a clear picture of the environmental, scientific, or health situation in Japan, never mind assure us it is safe.

Earlier this year, Helen Caldicott, MD, sent a letter to Thomas Bach, the IOC’s current president (bio), outlining eight concerns  for the health of our Olympic athletes sent to Tokyo in 2020. She concludes:

"It is for these reasons that I strongly recommend that you urge the International Olympic Committee to assemble an independent assessment team of biomedical experts, who have no financial or other relationship with the nuclear power industry or its regulators, to carry out a diligent investigation of all relevant areas to determine the extent of radiogenic health concerns before the ambitious plans for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are allowed to proceed too far. Furthermore it is imperative that the assessment team understand and report on the perilous current state of the reactors, their surrounding buildings, the subterranean groundwater flow problems, and the multitudinous storage tanks on the surface filled with millions of gallons of contaminated water." 

The full text of the letter is printed below and available in PDF.  As I printed previously, the best way to address Fukushima as a safety threat to the Olympic Games will be when the “safe hands” include those of Japan, the IOC, and international scientific and engineering experts.   It will be this concerned consortium that will assess and confirm that everything that can be done to mitigate the threat from Fukushima has been identified and that appropriate and timely action has been taken. That will be the most respected Gold Medal of the games.

Here is Dr. Caldicott’s letter:

January 23, 2014

Dear Mr Bach:

I write to you as a physician and pediatrician who is well-versed in the medical effects of atomic radiation and the radioactive pollutants that have been released into the environment from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants. (My CV can be found at helencaldicott.com)

I have a deep concern for the health and well-being of the athletes who have trained so hard and so long to be eligible to compete in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

TEPCO has identified over 60 varieties of man-made radioactive pollutants from samples of contaminated water that are collected on a daily basis. Many of these pollutants -- for example, radioactive varieties of caesium (Cs-137), strontium (SR-90), and iodine (I-129) -- did not exist in the natural environment before the advent of nuclear fission. Thus the natural background levels of such radioactive pollutants is zero, yet once released into the environment they will remain potentially dangerous for centuries.

My concerns are listed below:

1.   Parts of Tokyo itself are radioactively contaminated as a result of the fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi accident almost three years ago. Samples collected randomly from apartments, moss growing on roofs and soil from streets has been tested for various radioactive elements and has found to be very radioactive. References can be provided on request.

2.   This means that the athletes will be subjected to inhaling or ingesting radioactive dust emitting alpha, beta and/or gamma radiation, as well as being exposed to gamma radiation (like X rays) emanating from contamination in the soil and on the streets. 

3.   Much of the food sold in Tokyo is contaminated with radioactive pollutants, having been grown in the Fukushima prefecture at the encouragement of the Japanese government. (It is impossible to taste or smell radioactive elements in food, and monitoring every item to be consumed is not practical.)

4.   Many of the fish caught on the east coast of Japan carry some burden of radioactive elements, indeed some are quite severely contaminated. This is an ongoing problem; for almost three years 300 to 400 tons of radioactively contaminated groundwater has been pouring into the Pacific Ocean every day from beneath the damaged reactors.

5.  If the athletes eat radioactively contaminated food or drink radioactively contaminated tea or other liquids, some of them are likely years later to develop cancer or leukemia. The incubation time for these diseases is five to eighty years depending on the particular radionuclides and the affected organs.

6.  The Japanese government is incinerating radioactive waste and some of the resulting radioactive ashes are being dumped into Tokyo Bay where the athletes are expected to row and exercise.

7.  Another major worry is that between now and 2020, additional releases of radioactive pollutants could occur from the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. The buildings of Units 3 and 4 are severely damaged from the original earthquake and subsequent explosions; they could well collapse if they suffer another earthquake greater than 7 on the Richter scale. Should that happen, up to 10 times more radioactive cesium than was released at Chernobyl could be released into the air. Such an event could greatly exacerbate existing contamination problems in Tokyo and pose great dangers to the athletes.  

8.  At the Fukushima Daiichi site, there are more than 1000 huge hastily built metal tanks holding millions of gallons of extremely radioactive water, with an additional 400 tons being pumped out from the damaged reactors on a daily basis. Some of these tanks were put together by inexperienced workers and they are held together with corroding bolts, rubber sealants, plastic pipes and duct tape. Another large earthquake would likely rupture many of these tanks thus releasing additional volumes of highly contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean just north of Tokyo.

It is for these reasons that I strongly recommend that you urge the International Olympic Committee to assemble an independent assessment team of biomedical experts, who have no financial or other relationship with the nuclear power industry or its regulators, to carry out a diligent investigation of all relevant areas to determine the extent of radiogenic health concerns before the ambitious plans for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are allowed to proceed too far. Furthermore it is imperative that the assessment team understand and report on the perilous current state of the reactors, their surrounding buildings, the subterranean groundwater flow problems, and the multitudinous storage tanks on the surface filled with millions of gallons of contaminated water. 


            Helen Caldicott MBBS, FRACP

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