25 years of experience since Chernobyl to be utilized for Fukushima

by Yumi Kanazaki, Kohei Okata, and Tatsuhiro Ono, Staff Writers

April 26, 2011 marked the 25th anniversary of the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which occurred in 1986 in the former Soviet Union (today's Ukraine). Hiroshima residents, including doctors, scientists, and citizens, have long been engaged in a range of efforts to deliver support to the people who have suffered from the worst nuclear disaster in history, particularly those in the nations of Ukraine and Belarus. Looking back on these efforts to aid the victims of Chernobyl, the Chugoku Shimbun explores how the expertise that has developed over the years can now be utilized to address the continuing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which has tested our own nation in this milestone year.

Survey shows victims of Chernobyl yearning to return home, anxious about health

For 25 years, the victims of Chernobyl have been plagued by anxiety over their health and by a deep yearning to return home. Noriyuki Kawano, 44, an associate professor at Hiroshima University’s Institute for Peace Science, and his colleagues have conducted a year-long survey involving the former residents of the Chernobyl area. The survey, which was conducted from June 2009 to May 2010 in Kiev, the Ukraine capital, revealed that even after a quarter of a century, the consequences of the accident have lingered among this population.

The survey team interviewed 10 former residents of Pripyat, ranging in age from 7 to 48 at the time of the accident, and asked about their health and living conditions after they evacuated from the city. Located about three kilometers west of the nuclear power plant, the city of Pripyat was constructed expressly for the workers at the plant and their families.

With regard to health issues, many of the people interviewed have suffered from disorders of the thyroid. As examples, they said: “I get headaches, probably due to the nuclear accident” and “I'm concerned about my health in the future.” All of them pointed out, nevertheless, that they are envied by others, who feel that the victims of the accident have received preferential treatment in terms of housing.

The day after the accident, the former residents were told to leave their homes “for just three days.” After departing from the city, as one of the interviewees explained, “We were told, a week later, that we would never be able to return home. When we heard that, we were hysterical.”

Mr. Kawano has also studied the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Reflecting on his findings, he said: “The survivors lost their property and their employment. Their communities were decimated. In many ways, the formers residents of Chernobyl and the survivors of the atomic bombings share similar experiences.” He explained that the purpose of the survey was to shed light on the dark side of nuclear energy by listening to the voices of nuclear sufferers. In this way, useful information could be gleaned for discussing the subject of nuclear energy and making sound judgments.

In the case of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, too, many residents of the surrounding area have been forced to evacuate. “Although we can't make simple comparisons between the two because there are differences with respect to the society and other aspects,” Mr. Kawano said, “in both cases, solid support must be provided to alleviate the victims' physical and psychological pain.”

Medical cooperation enhances diagnostic abilities

The city of Hiroshima, which was devastated by a nuclear bomb, has accumulated medical expertise on the treatment of A-bomb survivors and has offered this knowledge to the people suffering from the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. To further this purpose, the Hiroshima International Council for Health Care of the Radiation-exposed (HICARE) was established in April 1991. Many other Hiroshima citizens have been in active in offering medical support to the sufferers of Chernobyl, too. Today, though, with improvements in the medical and living standards of the affected areas, some argue that the customary means of providing support must be reconsidered.

This month, HICARE marked the 20th anniversary of its founding. HICARE is composed of various organizations, including the Hiroshima Prefectural Medical Association, the Hiroshima City Medical Association, the Hiroshima University Research Institute for Radiation Biology and Medicine, Hiroshima University Hospital, and Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital & Atomic-bomb Survivors Hospital. Hiroshima Prefecture and Hiroshima City provide funds for its maintenance, and the HICARE secretariat is located within the prefectural government building.

HICARE's main activities include training physicians and medical personnel and dispatching experts. To date, HICARE has invited a total of 1,253 physicians and specialists to Japan from 15 countries, including Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Brazil. The training these physicians and specialists undertake involves physical examinations, cancer diagnosis, and related medical practices.

In terms of citizens' initiatives, Nobuo Takeichi, 67, a physician who specializes in thyroid disorders, has made repeated visits to Ukraine and Belarus since August 1991. Recently, he took part in efforts to conduct physical examinations in Belarus, mainly in Brest State in the western part of the country. He taught local physicians various techniques, such as diagnosing cancer by using syringe needles to take thyroid cells from patients.

Hideo Yamada, 63, an interpreter of Russian in the field of medicine, holds a medical license issued by the former Soviet Union. In addition to his work with Dr. Takeichi, he is endeavoring to establish a system to facilitate support in these countries. With an extensive network, Mr. Yamada serves as a go-between for the physicians and researchers invited to Hiroshima by HICARE.

Twenty-five years have passed since the accident, and grant funding from companies and foundations for these support activities has been reduced or discontinued, one after the other. Mr. Yamada said, “In the future, our activities should no longer be Japan-led initiatives but mainly activities to provide mutual support and to promote exchange on an equal footing. At this point, we need to seek the sustainability of the projects through the initiative of our counterparts.” Dr. Takeichi added that the expertise and experience gained from the accident at Chernobyl can now be of help to the people affected by the disaster at Fukushima.

Addressing the crisis in Fukushima

Interview with Professor Masaharu Hoshi, Research Institute for Radiation Biology and Medicine

The Chugoku Shimbun interviewed Masaharu Hoshi, 63, a professor at Hiroshima University’s Research Institute for Radiation Biology and Medicine (RIRBM). Over many years, Professor Hoshi has been studying the radiation contamination in Belarus, one of the nations that has been seriously affected by the Chernobyl accident. We asked him about current conditions in Belarus and how the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant must be handled.

By 2009 I had visited the affected areas more than 30 times and I studied a variety of issues, such as cesium-137 in the soil and radiation levels in children's thyroids, particularly in the seriously contaminated states of Gomel and Brest in Belarus and Kiev and Zhitomir in Ukraine.

As a result, we identified the existence of “hot spots” which showed significantly higher levels of radiation than in the surrounding areas. These hot spots were created by uneven amounts of rainfall which contained high doses of radiation, and many were found outside the 30-kilometer zone from the nuclear power plant. In some cases, the level of cesium at one house was different from that of the next house. Radioactive materials were not scattered in a concentric pattern.

In the case of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the damaging effects to health were caused by direct exposure to the bomb and/or by indirect exposure to radiation, such as the “black rain.” In the case of Chernobyl, the latter accounts for nearly all such effects. The actual effects to health of internal exposure to radiation is not yet clearly known. While an increase has not been noted in the incidences of leukemia and cancer, we have found that the risk of thyroid cancer in children is clearly dependent on the dose of radiation.

In regard to the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, people are referring to the disaster in Chernobyl, but I don’t think thyroid cancer will increase that much among children in Japan because they eat iodine-rich seaweed as part of their daily diet.

Taking our cue from Chernobyl, we must create, as quickly as possible, a detailed map that shows the levels of radiation in the soil around the nuclear plant, including the areas outside the 30-kilometer zone as well. The half-life of iodine-131 is eight days. As time passes, it will therefore become increasingly difficult to conduct this investigation.

A delay in the investigation will prove to be the biggest obstacle to knowing what has actually taken place. As 65 years have passed since the atomic bombing, estimating the exact areas where the black rain fell has become extremely problematic. Learning from the lessons of Hiroshima and Chernobyl, I would like to do my utmost to provide support to the people suffering in Fukushima. As a researcher in Hiroshima, I believe this is my deepest duty.

The reality of Chernobyl and international cooperation

Interview with Pavel Vdovichenko, representing an NGO providing medical support

Pavel Vdovichenko, 59, is a victim of the Chernobyl accident. He is visiting Japan from Novozybkov, Russia, which is located at about 180 kilometers northeast of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and was contaminated with radiation. Since the accident, he has been engaged in medical support and other activities through a non-governmental organization. The Chugoku Shimbun interviewed him on the current situation involving the lingering radiation damage and on providing support to the victims of Fukushima.

What was the situation in the wake of the accident?
Novozybkov was within the evacuation zone designated by the national government. Contamination levels in the city varied. Even after the highly contaminated soil was removed, dust blew in, carried by the wind from other contaminated areas. We can never be sure if the mushrooms growing in the forests are safe to eat.

You say the level of medicine and education has deteriorated badly.
After the accident, doctors and teachers fled the city. There are few pediatricians even in the most populated areas and so, in some cases, ophthalmologists are seeing children. We have established a clinic to check thyroid disorders. We are also teaching children why we cannot eat mushrooms from the forests. Citizens must take the initiative.

What advice would you give for the people suffering from the accident in Fukushima?
The people living near the nuclear plant must continue to be given information on how to avoid radiation exposure in their daily lives. Support for elderly people is particularly important. The government must also make efforts to keep companies from abandoning the affected areas.

How can the victims of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima work together? Nuclear disasters are not separate issues. These disasters force us all to face the critical issue of how we should handle nuclear energy so that the human species can survive. I would like to join hands with you in continuing to convey the dangers of nuclear energy so that further nuclear disasters can be prevented.

HICARE’s 20 years of achievements

Interview with Hiroo Dohy, president of HICARE

The Chugoku Shimbun interviewed Hiroo Dohy, 65, president of HICARE and president of the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital & Atomic-bomb Survivors Hospital, asking him about HICARE's 20 years of achievements and its future work.

HICARE was established in the wake of the Chernobyl accident and has since brought medical specialists from Ukraine, Belarus, and other nations to Japan for training. What sort of feedback have you received from the trainees?
The former trainees have come to play leading roles in providing medical care to radiation sufferers in their own countries. They are now adept at conducting their own medical examinations of these patients. In many ways, HICARE's technical assistance has been a success.

These outcomes are unique to HICARE, which encompasses medical institutes, research institutes, and the city and prefectural administrations of Hiroshima under one umbrella. Utilizing the experience gained at the cost of the precious lives of A-bomb survivors, HICARE has been able to devise a highly unique training program.

What results have been seen in the target countries?
The method involving a cytological diagnosis of thyroid tumors has become widely-used in Belarus and other countries. In order to diagnose thyroid cancer, this method, in which cells are extracted from the tissue using needles and syringes, is a very important technique.

There are, however, differences among the countries in terms of the extent to which they have developed their human resources. In Belarus, their efforts have been successful, particularly in Minsk and Brest. On the other hand, in Ukraine, the know-how acquired in Hiroshima has not been widely shared among doctors there.

What issues are pending for HICARE?
Trainees have been sent to Hiroshima from the same medical and research institutes for many years. We would like the trainees to come from a broader selection of institutions. We would also like to offer support to the trainees, after they finish their training in Hiroshima, in order to build networks of physicians and researchers back in their own countries.

We must also develop human resources in our own city. Last year, HICARE signed a memorandum with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with the aim of promoting people-to-people exchange and other collaborative activities. We would like to nurture personnel who will be active on the international stage in the field of medical care for the radiation-exposed. Sending medical students to the IAEA from Hiroshima would be one way to further this purpose.

What sort of support is important in the future for those affected by the Chernobyl disaster?
Twenty-five years have passed since the accident, but we must maintain our support for the victims of the radiation released by Chernobyl. We must also continue to provide support to the liquidators in the three Baltic countries that have dealt with the stricken plant. In terms of our trainees, I believe the most important thing is heart-to-heart communication.

Profile: Hiroo Dohy
Dr. Dohy is a graduate of the Faculty of Medicine at Hiroshima University. In 1984, he became a physician at Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital. In 2004, he was appointed president of the hospital. In the same year, he became president of HICARE. His specialty is hematology.

The Junod Society, a citizens’ group delivering support to radiation sufferers

The Junod Society, a citizens’ group in Fuchu, Hiroshima Prefecture, was established in 1988 to provide support to the victims of Chernobyl. The group is headed by Hitoshi Kai, the chairman, and has a membership of about 500. The name of the group comes from a Swiss doctor, Marcel Junod (1904-61), who was an active supporter of the survivors of Hiroshima in the aftermath of the atomic bombing.

Since 1991, the Junod Society has dispatched about 40 missions to Ukraine, sending about 200 physicians and A-bomb survivors. More than 1,000 patients with thyroid cancer and other disorders have been examined and provided medical records. The group has also promoted exchange between Japan and Ukraine, inviting a total of some 70 physicians, teachers, and children from Ukraine on approximately 30 occasions.

Based on these experiences, the Junod Society has been sending relief supplies, including brown rice and pickled plums, to those affected by the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Mr. Kai says, “We are providing support to the people of Fukushima in line with what have learned in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Chernobyl.”

Major nuclear incidents

August 1945: Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
March 1954: The United States conducted a hydrogen bomb test at the Bikini Atoll. The Daigo Fukuryu Maru (The Lucky Dragon No. 5), a Japanese fishing boat, was exposed to radiation and one of the 23 crew members died in September.
March 1979: In the United States, a severe core meltdown occurred in a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. Radioactive materials leaked into the environment.
April 1986: At the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the former Soviet Union (today’s Ukraine), there was an explosion and fire in one of the reactors.
September 1999: At Tokaimura, Ibaraki Prefecture, a criticality accident occurred at the JCO Tokai plant. Of the three workers exposed to radiation, two died.
March 2011: Following the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, an accident occurred at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company.

(Originally published on April 26, 2011)