The Lives of Two A-bomb Scientists, Part 7

by Hiromi Morita, Staff Writer

Flaws in A-bomb disease certification

Shoji Sawada held a microphone in downtown Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, in mid-April. Standing on the sidewalk, he called for the support of residents in connection with the oral proceedings of a class action lawsuit over A-bomb disease certification at the Nagoya High Court. “There’s more to the lawsuit than providing relief to atomic bomb survivors,” he said. “The lawsuit also amounts to a statement that nuclear weapons are evil.”

Referring to his own A-bomb experience, Dr. Sawada clearly explained the problems of the A-bomb disease certification procedure adopted by the Japanese government, as well as the background of the lawsuit, to Nagoya residents. The people of this city are naturally less familiar with issues involving A-bomb survivors (hibakusha) than Hiroshima citizens.

The class action lawsuit reconfirmed for Dr. Sawada that the latest scientific knowledge alone cannot explain what happened to individual hibakusha. For instance, there are some plaintiffs who experienced the atomic bombing at locations distant from the hypocenter yet suffered the same acute symptoms, including hair loss and diarrhea, as those who were near the hypocenter at the time of the bombing. The method for estimating radiation doses based on the initial radiation of the atomic bombings, which is used as a yardstick for the Japanese government’s A-bomb disease certification, cannot provide an explanation for these cases.

Dr. Sawada suspects these acute symptoms were likely caused by internal exposure to radiation taken into their bodies.

With this belief, he has been pursuing research to calculate radiation doses suffered by hibakusha not based on a survivor’s distance from the hypocenter at the time of the bombing, but on the incidence of acute symptoms. His method can be called a biological and epidemiologic assessment of radiation doses. However, some experts have noted that these acute symptoms could have been the consequence of hygiene conditions in those days or severe stress.

Dr. Sawada is still in the early stages of his work, but he presented the results of his research to date at an international academic meeting held in Greece in May 2009. The European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR), the organizer of the gathering, read an article that Dr. Sawada contributed to a British science journal and invited him to attend.

Expressing his determination to further this research, Dr. Sawada remarked, “Science has a responsibility not to abandon the issue on the grounds that it remains unresolved. Efforts must continue to illuminate the issue based on the realities suffered by hibakusha.”

Hiromi Hasai, a former classmate of Dr. Sawada, has also confronted the damage caused by the atomic bombing through his work to measure the residual radiation of the bombing. Dr. Hasai, though, holds a different view from Dr. Sawada regarding A-bomb disease certification. “Administrative decisions and science are incompatible with each other,” he suggests.

Although both Dr. Sawada and Dr. Hasai are physicists, Dr. Sawada specializes in “theories,” while Dr. Hasai focuses on “experiments.” For Dr. Hasai, actual measurement, which can back up theories, is paramount. Even if the possibility of internal exposure exists, it is extremely difficult to measure such radiation doses.

Moreover, it is believed that radiosensitivity, which indicates how susceptible one is to radiation, varies among individuals. It is also quite difficult to determine if a disease has been truly induced by the atomic bombings or not. “Under these circumstances,” Dr. Hasai contends, “the issue should be separated from science and recognized as an administrative problem. The government should carry out the A-bomb disease certification procedure based on a different standard.”

At the same time, he maintains faith in science. Networking with younger physicists who are engaged in research, he continues to hunt for the slightest trace of residual radiation. However, measuring the residual radiation is growing more difficult, partly due to the radioactive fallout produced by China’s nuclear tests.

The power of science brought about the inhumanity of the atomic bombs. The fact that science cannot adequately expose the inhumanity prompts frustration. Irritated over this injustice, the two A-bomb scientists, Dr. Sawada and Dr. Hasai, reflect on the past and future of science and pursue its constructive role. Though the two men practice different approaches to A-bomb issues, they share their wrath for the reckless development of nuclear weapons.


A-bomb disease certification
When hibakusha develop diseases, such as cancer, they can apply to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare for A-bomb disease certification by way of local governments. If their diseases are recognized to have been induced by the atomic bombings after a screening by experts, the Japanese government will certify their illnesses as A-bomb diseases and provide a special medical allowance of roughly 137,000 yen a month. Class actions lawsuits over the A-bomb disease certification system, filed successively by hibakusha whose applications for A-bomb disease certification were rejected, have led to 18 consecutive losses by the government. The review of the A-bomb disease certification criteria has now become part of the political agenda.

(Originally published on July 9, 2009)