Editorial: Radiation Effects Research Foundation must enhance transparency of its work

Today marks the 70th year since the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC), the predecessor to the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF, located in Minami Ward, Hiroshima), was established by the United States. The data from A-bomb survivors that has been analyzed over many years has come to serve as the basis for radiation protection standards internationally. Behind this, though, A-bomb survivors have felt conflicted about cooperating in this research by undergoing examinations and giving samples, including blood. This fact must not be disregarded with respect to RERF’s research.

The research originally began with a military intent. The United States was preparing for a nuclear war during the Cold War era, a notion that was incompatible with the desire of the A-bomb survivors to abolish nuclear weapons. A-bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki who became targets of the organization’s health surveys voiced criticism of the research, saying, “ABCC is only pursuing health checks. They don’t provide us with any medical treatment.” It was only natural, then, that the survivors were opposed to these methods, arguing that they were being used like guinea pigs.

Subsequently, in 1975 ABCC was reorganized into its current incarnation, RERF, an organization that has been jointly managed by the Japanese and U.S. governments. There is no doubt that RERF has made substantial efforts to take the feelings of the local people into account, including the introduction of a system in which RERF listens to the opinions of not only Hiroshima’s A-bomb survivors but also people from medical institutions, universities, and other bodies.

The findings amassed by RERF are of great significance. RERF has been able to clarify the effects of radiation on human health, including the fact that radiation exposure increases the risk of dying from cancer over a period of decades. The most notable example is RERF’s Life Span Study, in which RERF has tracked the cause of death and the incidence of cancer in around 120,000 A-bomb survivors. This long-term study of A-bomb survivors, the only one of its kind, has justly earned worldwide recognition.

On the other hand, the limitations to this research have also been debated for many years. For instance, A-bomb survivors who died within five years of the atomic bombing were not included in the survey. If the data has excluded those who had been sensitive to the effects of radiation, the effects on human health may appear of lesser impact than the actual level. RERF says that it has made revisions to its calculations, but whether or not this can fully compensate for the discrepancy is a point of concern.

Since the accident that occurred at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant, the public has shown more interest in the issues involving low-level radiation exposure. According to RERF, if exposure to radiation doses is 100 millisieverts or less, it is hard to confirm that the effects to human health are due to radiation or from other factors, including smoking.

However, a health survey of workers at nuclear facilities in the United States and Europe demonstrates a slight increase in the risk of developing leukemia and cancer in line with the level of exposure to radiation. We hope that RERF will move quickly to clarify the effects of low-level radiation exposure, exchanging views with researchers and promoting international cooperation.

Toward this end, it is essential that RERF’s “assets” be made known to outside experts. RERF not only holds biological specimens from A-bomb survivors, including blood samples, but their data as well, including the amount of radiation to which they were exposed. The use of these items and information, in more open ways, must be carefully discussed. Efforts to enhance the transparency of this research should be made while respecting the personal information of A-bomb victims and the feelings of bereaved family members.

The possibility of genetic effects on second-generation A-bomb survivors is an issue not yet clarified and it is important to carry out a health survey on this group. Last month, the first class-action lawsuit against the government, seeking relief measures for second-generation A-bomb survivors, was filed at the Hiroshima District Court. This is a matter of public concern, and the government must make a resolute effort to determine the possible effects of radiation while avoiding any hasty decisions.

After the accident at the Fukushima plant, RERF launched other new projects. It has been pursuing research on 20,000 workers who were involved in efforts to address the troubled conditions after the accident. The research has just begun, but the know-how that has been acquired in Hiroshima must be used for the workers who were exposed to radiation.

The plan to relocate RERF to a city-owned facility in Senda-machi, Naka Ward, which the City of Hiroshima has proposed, is now being considered. If RERF comes down from Hijiyama Hill to the city center, with that move as a start, the organization should be reborn as a research institute more open to the public.

(Originally published on March 10, 2017)