3.11(Fukushima) and Hiroshima

Gray area: Effects of exposure to low-level radiation, Part 7 [2]

Path to the future for sufferers of the Fukushima nuclear accident

by Yumi Kanazaki and Yota Baba, Staff Writers

Five and a half years have passed since the nuclear accident at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant, operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). Fukushima residents who returned to their hometowns after the evacuation orders were lifted and those who remained behind in their towns because no evacuation orders were ever issued for their area are both working hard to rebuild their communities and their lives through a process of trial and error. At the same time, there are people who are reluctant to go back to their hometowns due to anxiety over living in an environment where the level of radiation has risen as a result of the nuclear disaster. Such fears have made them subject to criticism and a cold shoulder from others. Is there any way in which the choice of each person can be respected? Part 2 of this series explores the path to the future based on the annual level of radiation exposure of 20 mSv that the Japanese government is using as a numerical standard for making judgments about the return of residents.

Discussing problems with experts at international seminars

In early October, dozens of people, including residents of Kawauchi Town and its neighboring cities and towns and local government employees, met at a community facility in Kawauchi, located deep in the area of Fukushima Prefecture’s Mt. Abukuma. The participants were divided into two groups and, for two days, talked about the problems they have faced in their daily lives since the nuclear accident and the issue involving the disposal of radioactive waste.

One resident said, “Government staff in charge of Fukushima-related matters are usually replaced every two or three years and this makes it difficult to effect policies that are oriented for residents.” Another person said, “Our lives won’t be returning to what they were before the nuclear accident, so I’m thinking about how to cope with this dilemma.” The participants of the meeting spoke about their mixed emotions and their demands for the government.

Since the evacuation order made in 2011, designating the town an emergency evacuation prepared zone, has been lifted, Kawauchi has called for its residents to return to their homes. The remaining evacuation zone designations were then lifted this past June. But a man who grows blueberries to help the residents of Fukushima rebuild their lives and hometowns, said, “Although the radiation levels in the blueberries have been measured at less than one tenth of the government’s food standard, we are told that the blueberries produced in Fukushima are not edible, and so we have to work hard to steadily minimize the destructive effects caused by harmful rumors.”

The meeting was held under the title of “Dialogue Seminar in Futaba: Continuing the Dialogue in Cooperation with International Committee on Radiological Protection (ICRP).” It was a bit surprising to see that the discussion was conducted not only in Japanese, in the Fukushima dialect, but also in French and English. This is because the participants included French experts on radiation protection.

Jacques Lochard, the vice chair of the ICRP, said that the participants learned how to reduce their exposure to radiation as they measure radiation levels, and they shared their challenges and problems through dialogue. He calls this program a form of indirect support for a “practical radiation protection culture” by residents. Following the nuclear accident in Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union in 1986, Mr. Lochard led a project called “Ethos” in Belarus and assisted the residents there. He has visited Fukushima as many as 25 times.

The October seminar was administered by Nagasaki University. Nagasaki University has had nurses permanently stationed in Kawauchi and has been assisting residents and working on reconstruction research as well. Shigeru Katamine, the president of Nagasaki University, attended the seminar and concluded an academic exchange agreement with the Nuclear Protection Evaluation Center (CEPN) in France. Mr. Lochard is also the director of CEPN, which is comprised of the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy (CEA) and various power companies.

Shunichi Yamashita, who is the vice president of Nagasaki University and also attended the seminar, said, “France is a big user of nuclear energy so they would probably like to learn things from the Fukushima accident. At the same time, we’d like to learn from them. As the Japanese government has been trying to move forward with restarting the nation’s idled nuclear power plants following the Fukushima disaster, the possibility of another nuclear accident taking place can never be ruled out. We want to learn more from the Fukushima accident and create deep trusting relationships with both experts on radiation protection and the residents of Fukushima.”

The first dialogue seminar, held under the auspices of the ICRP, took place in Fukushima City eight months after the Fukushima nuclear accident. Since then, such meetings have been held 12 times in Fukushima Prefecture, with Mr. Lochard and Otsura Niwa, then a ICRP committee member (now the chairman of the Radiation Effects Research Foundation), playing leading roles. This year the seminar was held three times and the ICRP has simply assisted the seminar as a partner.

The participation of local residents is vital. Ryoko Ando, 40, a resident of Iwaki City but originally from Asaminami Ward, Hiroshima, was so impressed by the Ethos activities in Belarus that she formed a citizens’ group called “Ethos in Fukushima” to help the residents of Fukushima rebuild their lives. She has been working with Mr. Lochard and other organizations.

Ms. Ando measures radiation levels contained in foodstuffs with residents of Iwaki, a city neighboring Kawauchi, and conducts the Ethos activities. She said, “Even those who have decided to remain and live in Fukushima have mixed feelings about the choice they’ve made and are reluctant to talk about radiation openly. Collecting data that has been measured objectively and talking about their concerns and worries will help to create an environment where residents can understand and make judgments themselves when it comes to their own safety. So we put priority on resident-oriented activities.”

Even though the residents are determined to live in Fukushima, the reality of life in areas badly affected by the nuclear accident is not easy. In Kawauchi, only 60 percent of the original residents have returned to their homes. Neighboring cities and towns share the same problems. However, around the time when the seminars first began, the residents’ opinions were widely divided and it was sometimes difficult to run the meetings.

The perception of what is safe and what is not safe differs widely from person to person. Is it possible to present a policy which clarifies who is responsible for that policy and to which everyone can agree, at least to some extent?

Criticism that the impact of the nuclear accident is being downplayed

The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), an academic association comprised of radiation protection experts, releases its concept and numerical standards for reducing radiation exposure in the form of “recommendations.” The ICRP regards the accumulation of data on A-bomb survivors’ investigations to be vitally important, and uses that as base data. The ICRP’s recommendations are used by all ICRP member countries to establish their radiation protection standards.

In particular, “ICRP Publication 111,” its 2009 recommendations, focuses on the long-term human challenges of people living in contaminated areas after nuclear accidents or radiation emergencies, including such challenges as managing local residents’ exposure to radiation and rebuilding their lives. The publication also incorporates the “Ethos” activities that were pursued in Belarus by the ICRP’s Jacques Lochard. The “Ethos” activities were introduced to Fukushima after the nuclear accident.

The “annual radiation dose of 20 mSv,” which is used by the Japanese government as a rough guide for deciding whether or not to lift the evacuation orders, is also based on the ICRP recommendations. For the period of the post-accident reconstruction work after emergency measures are taken for an accident, the ICRP states in its recommendations that radiation exposure levels should be “selected in the lower part of the 1 - 20 mSv/year band.” The ICRP also states that the radiation level target in “long-term post-accident situations is 1 mSv/year.”

With regard to the annual exposure dose of 20 mSv, Mr. Lochard emphasizes that this is a symbolic value which the Japanese government uses when planning a process to reduce the exposure dose and that it is merely a reference value and therefore does not represent a dividing line indicating that the radiation levels above the line are dangerous. He continued by saying that the annual levels of radiation exposure faced by the people of Fukushima are only a few millisieverts at their highest and that steady efforts to reduce the radiation dose are being made.

From the point of view of radiation protection, the ICRP upholds the non-threshold theory in which the impact of radiation on human health increases linearly in proportion to the amount of radiation exposure as it rises from zero. On the other hand, the organization also focuses on the principle “Keep radiation exposure as low as is reasonably achievable.” The ICRP takes into consideration both the strictness of the standard as well as social and economic factors. The balance between maintaining a good quality of life and the battle against radiation is important, Mr. Lochard said, and living in an environment where people cling to the idea of “zero radiation,” without compromise, is not a good life.

However, there is deeply rooted criticism and rejection of the ICRP notion that local residents should continue to live in contaminated areas while, at the same time, they should assume responsibility for protecting themselves against radiation exposure.

Katsumi Furitsu, a doctor and a part-time assistant professor at the Hyogo College of Medicine, said, “The ICRP has downplayed the effects of the nuclear accident in Fukushima. It seems as though it’s being left up to the people who live in contaminated areas to protect themselves from radiation. The ICRP’s recommendations, which were prepared based on the use of nuclear energy (from the perspective of supporting the continuing use of nuclear energy), are forcing the residents to live in contaminated areas. If the residents don’t return to their homes after the radiation drops to a safe level, it would become impossible to sustain the idea of continuing to use nuclear energy.”

Ms. Furitsu has persisted in her work in both Chernobyl and Fukushima, conducting surveys in the field and providing health counseling to residents, and has also gained a specialist’s knowledge of the investigations involving A-bomb survivors. She points out that Mr. Lochard’s opinion is contradictory to the ICRP’s stance of supporting the non-threshold model. “Unlike radiation that exists in nature, the increase in radiation levels in Fukushima was caused by a nuclear accident. This additional radiation exposure should not be permitted.”

Interview with Yuko Yoshida, secretary-general of the Japan Women’s Network for Chernobyl Health Survey and Health Care Support for the Victims

The basic policy that the Japanese government has adopted for the victims of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima is to have the displaced residents return to their homes and stay there with no further evacuations, if evacuation orders have not been issued. However, some residents are vehement about not returning. What sort of policy would be oriented to residents? It is said that the policies and measures pursued after the Chernobyl accident could be used. The Chugoku Shimbun interviewed Yuko Yoshida, the secretary-general of the Tokyo-based citizens’ group Japan Women’s Network for Chernobyl Health Survey and Health Care Support for the Victims, who has detailed knowledge of Chernobyl.

In the former Soviet Union, the Chernobyl Law was established in 1991, five years after the nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power station. The law stipulates that the government shall take responsibility for providing assistance for all nuclear disaster victims and that the residents living in contaminated areas have the right to relocate.

According to the law, residents are not permitted to live in an area with an annual radiation exposure level of 5 mSv or higher, but can move to areas with an annual radiation exposure level of 1 to 5 mSv. In this way, they feel justified in relocating, if they so choose. Whether residents decide to stay or relocate, their choices are respected. The feelings of residents, and their relationships with other locals, vary from person to person.

Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chernobyl Law has remained in effect in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. But because it set the annual radiation dose as high as 100 mSv in the wake of the accident, and it could not be fully administered due to financial difficulties, the law was subject to substantial criticism. Still, there is a lot that can be learned from the Chernobyl Law.

The Chernobyl Law defines such words as “victim” and “contaminated area,” and also states that the government shall take responsibility for providing assistance and compensation for the victims. In the case of Fukushima, however, no clear definitions currently exist for “victim” and “contaminated area.” Furthermore, the assistance provided to those affected by the accident is being gradually reduced, and the health surveys for the residents of Fukushima Prefecture, for which the central government is responsible, were eventually pushed into the lap of the Fukushima prefectural government.

Considering the fact that the long-term effects of exposure to low levels of radiation on human health remain undetermined scientifically, the Chernobyl Law compensates for the health risks themselves that have been posed by the accident, regardless of the development of disease.

On this point, the Chernobyl Law holds similarities to Japan’s Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law. Even if the level of radiation exposure at the time of the atomic bombing is very low, an A-bomb survivor can apply for the A-bomb Survivor’s Certificate. This passbook effectively exempts the survivors from paying medical expenses and also ensures that they are provided with medical checkups. This assistance was designed with the idea that any damage to health resulting from radiation is specific and different from other kinds of damage resulting from war. Such assistance should also be provided for the victims of Fukushima.

I have been working with doctors and various research institutes in the Chernobyl disaster-stricken areas since 1990, and therefore I have some knowledge about the systems and measures used to aid the victims. However, I haven’t paid as much attention to the laws on which these systems and measures are based. After the accident at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, I have come to the conclusion that the support systems and measures stipulated by the Chernobyl Law should be introduced to Japan by researchers with a view to adopting them. The Chernobyl Law, in a sense, seems to incorporate socialist values in which the state takes responsibility for the growth of children.

When I visit Russia and other countries and mention that the annual radiation dose limit of Fukushima is 20 mSv, people respond by saying that such a limit is unbelievable or by asking whether or not 20 mSv was the level applied to radiation workers linked to the nuclear accident in Fukushima. I think that the ICRP recommendations stating that “the radiation exposure level should be selected in the lower part of the 1 - 20 mSv/year band” itself is defective. But the Japanese government has interpreted the recommendations in a way that is convenient for itself and adopted the upper limit of the 1 - 20 mSv band. Moreover, the ICRP’s Japanese members are also cooperating with the government in its policies, which I think is dangerous.

In 2012, when the Nuclear Accident Child Victims’ Support Law was enacted in Japan, I expected that there would have been some progress in supporting the victims of the Fukushima nuclear accident, including children. However, in the revision of the law’s basic policy, the return of the residents to their homes was emphasized because it was judged that the radiation dose had dropped to levels that didn’t require any further evacuations, and as a result, the law was watered down. The Japanese government should learn from the Chernobyl Law and adopt similar legislation so that the government’s responsibilities are clarified and the right of victims to relocate is established.

(Originally published on November 4, 2016)