by Akio Matsumura
This article is now available in German.
Japan’s Lack of Concern for Fukushima’s Children
The children of Fukushima need greater medical attention and assistance. After the Chernobyl accident, concerns grew in that region as to whether higher rates of cancer, especially in the thyroid gland, would be found in children due to exposure to radioactive iodine. With this in mind, to alleviate concern after TEPCO’s nuclear accident, the Fukushima prefecture has been conducting a “Prefecture Health Management Survey.” According to the survey (as translated by Fukushima Voice), there is a high rate of thyroid cysts appearing in the children tested. The appearance of cysts, fluid-filled sacs, does not translate to cancer, but something extraordinary is happening in cell development. Their abnormally high prevalence shows that they were caused by environmental factors and are cause for concern. In the same vein, worries exist about decreased pulmonary function and bone marrow abnormalities.
The study concludes that “There is a strong concern that waiting for further analysis of above data and the completion of follow-up examinations will lead to irreversible health damages in these children. Consequently, it is strongly desired that small children living in Nakadori (adjacent to the coastal region) and Hamadori (the coastal region) in Fukushima receive immediate implementation of preventive measures such as evacuation and more frequent screening examinations.” Shunichi Yamashita, vice president of Fukushima University Medical School, has urged thyroid specialists across Japan to not give second opinions to concerned families. The survey denounces his “repressive conduct” and considers it a violation of human rights for the affected children and their families. At the very least, why wouldn’t the government err on the side of caution and provide as much help as they can for these children?
Scientists will always offer different opinions, swayed first by uncertainty, but also, sadly, by politics, money, and ambition. Some will claim that the evidence has been exaggerated, underestimated, or that perhaps we’re at too early a stage to be certain. Or that we need more time to clarify the results. I have seen many instances of these arguments at the United Nations and international science conferences. In March 2011 we heard TEPCO and the Japanese government equivocate as to whether there was a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima power plants after the earthquake and tsunami. It is ironic and frustrating that the certainty necessary to science allows for so much ambiguity and obfuscation.
TEPCO later admitted that a reactor meltdown had indeed occurred within the first few hours of the quake and tsunami. As Toshio Nishi, a researcher at Stanford’s Hoover Institute, told us, “This admission of a triple meltdown popped up two months after the accident, and their confession came too late for those people who had stayed but a little distance away from the reactors, and they were unknowingly rained upon by radioactive dust and vapor day after day. Tens of thousands of children lived nearby.” Japanese experts reassured us that the levels of radiation would not present immediate health risks, even while independent experts shouted otherwise from afar. The Japanese experts sent to ameliorate local concerns were nuclear scientists, not medical doctors. Their false reassurances could possibly result in the loss of thousands of lives. We didn’t need rocket science calculations, just a concern for the long term health of our children.
Looking for an International Response
Perhaps out of old habit, I look to the United Nations for solutions to international problems. In the case of Fukushima’s children, the major problem is health issues caused by a nuclear accident. Which UN agencies can help, and what challenges do they face in taking on such a complicated and inter-disciplinary issue?
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and to inhibit its use for any military purpose, including nuclear weapons. It stands with the nuclear power plant policy of its member states and so to some degree is a defender for the nuclear industry.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is responsible for providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends. I have visited more than one hundred countries, and wherever I visited, among the UN specialized agencies, UNICEF and the WHO are regarded by people as their defender.
We all learned from Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents that transparency, accountability, and health take a back seat to national security. When the nuclear accident occurs, it is of critical importance that the WHO, as a defender of public health, should be allowed immediately to make its own assessment.
In 1959, the WHO and IAEA signed an agreement wherein the WHO recognizes the IAEA as having responsibility for peaceful nuclear energy without prejudice to the roles of the WHO of promoting health, and whenever either organization proposes to initiate a program or activity on a subject in which the other organization has or may have a substantial interests, the first party shall consult the other with a view to adjusting the matter by mutual agreement.
It is clear to me from my time in the UN that the political, nuclear agenda will always take priority over the public health agenda. The WHO’s ability to investigate health effects of radiation from a nuclear accident is restricted by the IAEA’s superior political position. Any assessment will be conducted under and overshadowed by the IAEA’s watch.
Stepping back and reflecting upon over a year’s activity addressing the challenges of the Fukushima tragedy, it is inescapable to conclude that pride, power, profit and politics have blocked a critical step that had potential to ameliorate the slow moving catastrophe at Fukushima Daiichi. Lessons learned from Chernobyl and Fukushima failed to result in international understanding and agreement that massive uncontrolled release of radioactivity is a global event and must be viewed as such with appropriate international response. And we fail to see that there is little difference between radiation from a bomb and radiation from a nuclear power plant accident. With over 400 aging nuclear power plants online, increasing levels of seismic events and violent weather patterns, the nuclear power community must become a full partner in institutionalizing a responsible response to the next nuclear power plant crises. That would be a wise, self-serving decision on their part.
What I propose is a UN initiative to create an international agreement that establishes a protocol detailing emergency response to a nuclear power plant accident that has the potential of uncontrolled radioactive release. This protocol would include the use of an international quick response team of situation-related expert scientists and engineers that would be welcomed by the host country of the accident to provide and independent assessment of the situation.
Finally, the international system is only one part of addressing responses to nuclear accidents. Governments and media cannot shirk their important roles, and should focus on putting human security before national security and political survival. The bottom line is that our children should not be lost in the clamor of the political circus or forgotten in the debates of headstrong scientists.