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Communication for the recovery of Fukushima

Geraldine Anne ThomasGeraldine Anne ThomasBSc PhD
Professor of Molecular Pathology, Imperial College, London
Director of Chernobyl Tissue Bank
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Revisiting Fukushima

Since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident occurred in 2011, I have been actively involved in public communication of the health risks of radiation. I have spoken to a wide range of audiences, from school children to environmental groups to government officials, in the UK and internationally. I have also had a number of opportunities to visit Japan following the Fukushima accident.

Most of this time, however, has been spent in Tokyo. It was therefore a great pleasure to have visited Fukushima this summer, a place where the beautiful countryside is matched by the kindness and generosity of its people. During my time there, I was very grateful for the opportunity to speak directly to the local people, to answer their questions and address their concerns about radiation, and to understand how their lives had changed since my first and previous visit in September 2011.

The real consequences of the nuclear accident

I have spent most of my working life studying the consequences of the Chernobyl accident. I started researching the health effects of the Chernobyl accident in 1992, with researchers in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Building on this research, I established the Chernobyl Tissue Bank in 1998. This has given me a good understanding of the medical consequences of exposure to radiation from a nuclear power plant accident.

One of the most important consequences is not due to the effect of radiation itself on the human body, but the effect of having to deal with the changes in the community that occur when a population is forced to move from its home and live away from an area where many generations of the same family have lived. The uncertainty of not knowing when, if ever, you can return to your home, and whether or not your own, or your family’s, health may be affected by exposure to radiation can make normal life very difficult.

We now have good evidence from Chernobyl that the main consequence of exposure to radioiodine from a nuclear power plant accident is thyroid cancer in those who were very young at exposure. The number of thyroid cancers is related to the amount of radiation received by people, and we know that if we reduce the exposure to radioactive iodine by avoiding inhalation and by providing food that is uncontaminated by radioiodine to eat, we can reduce the dose of radiation to individuals.

This was done very successfully post Fukushima, and the doses of radioiodine received, on average, were very small when compared to those following the Chernobyl accident. In addition, the Japanese diet which contains lots of stable iodine, will have played a role in reducing uptake of radioactive iodine into people’s bodies. Moreover, contamination by radioactive iodine is very short-lived - within 3 months all the radioactive iodine released has gone from the environment.

Some people worry more about contamination by other elements released from the nuclear power plant that survive for longer in the environment, for example radioactive caesium.

However, in contrast to radioactive iodine, there is no evidence of any health effects of exposure to radioactive Caesium following Chernobyl ? probably because the dose of radiation received by the majority of people was equivalent to less than that of a single CT scan. As was the case with radioiodine, much less radioactive caesium was released from Fukushima than Chernobyl.

The importance of information and of dialogue

I had the opportunity to meet with three groups during my time in Fukushima. The first was ETHOS IN FUKUSHIMA and people living in the Suetsugi district in the City of Iwaki. Suetsugi district is a small area with around 150 households, about 25km south of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

The people in Suetsugi were regularly monitoring their level of radiation ? external radiation, whole body counter and food radiation ? and then holding dialogue sessions to discuss what the readings actually mean and how their diet and life style can affect the dosage. The group that I met included old couples as well as young families with children. They spoke of how they had overcome their fears, confusion, and anxieties of radiation by actively monitoring the levels and seeking better information.

I was especially impressed by the story of one woman who herself had overcome her fears, but was facing difficulty with her own mother who was living far away and was extremely worried about the health of her daughter. The woman spoke of how she was trying to relieve the anxiety of her mother by sharing and discussing the information that she had on radiation. Being a mother myself, I wholeheartedly sympathise with her mother. I also fully agree with the daughter that information and dialogue are crucial to relieve concerns about radiation.

Concerns about thyroid cancer

I also had the opportunity to join an open dialogue about the thyroid gland tests that are now being rolled out in Fukushima. The dialogue took place in a community centre, Ryozen Satoyama Gakko, up in the mountains of Date city. Along with the panellists comprising medical experts, many local residents also joined the discussion.

The consensus of the session was that there was a severe lack of communication around the thyroid gland tests: what the tests are for and what the results mean. To me it was a big surprise that the residents were not made aware that the thyroid gland tests that are happening now are a “screening” ? there seemed to be a wide-spread misunderstanding that the tests were being conducted to identify the impact of radiation from the accidents in 2011.

It seemed that the thyroid gland tests, although they were originally designed to reduce the concerns of people living in Fukushima, have resulted in increasing confusion and anxiety amongst the residents. The discussions we had were very lively, and while it highlighted the challenges ahead, I was also delighted to see how engaged the local residents were and how keen they were to use the information we were able to give them.

Informing the messengers

The last group that I visited in Fukushima was the local mid-wives association. They were supporting mothers and expecting mothers in Fukushima, and as any mother will tell you, this is the group that worries most about the health effects of radiation. The group was actively studying the effects of radiation to the human body and especially to infants. The levels of understanding and anxiety towards radiation varied within the group. Some of the midwives were themselves evacuees; it was touching to see how they were all standing strong and keen to learn more in order to support young mothers.

After the accident at Fukushima, the Japanese authorities acted very promptly, evacuated the area very quickly, and immediately cut the supply of food grown on land that may have been contaminated. In Japan, the acceptable limits for radiation in food are lower than they are in Europe, and following the accident, the Japanese authorities lowered this limit still further to reassure the public that they were trying to minimize risk. These actions were taken to ensure that the dose of radiation was reduced even further, which minimizes the health risk still further.

Two recent reports ? the WHO report and the UNSCEAR report ? have shown that it will be very unlikely that there will be any health effects from exposure to radiation following the Fukushima accident. This is because the dose received by any one individual was very much lower than the doses measured after Chernobyl.

Not a health problem but a communication problem

UNSCEAR, in its recent report on the Chernobyl accident, stated that in contrast to what many people believe, the worst health effect of the accident came from the fear of what the radiation might do, rather than what the effects the radiation actually caused. Worrying about what might happen can have a very bad effect on quality of life, and can lead to stress-related illnesses.

All the scientific evidence suggests that no-one is likely to suffer damage from the radiation from Fukushima itself, but concern over what it might do could cause significant psychological problems. It is therefore important to understand that the risk to health from radiation from Fukushima is negligible, and that undue concern over any possible effects could be much worse than the radiation itself. Although we have learnt a lot about the medical effects of radiation from Chernobyl, unfortunately we have not learnt enough about how to deal with the mental stress of some of the things that we do to limit exposure, for example, moving people from their homes.

Through my discussions in Fukushima, I also found that people are being overwhelmed with conflicting information being provided from a variety of sources, and information that is full of scientific jargon and hard to understand. This was making the local residents in Fukushima even more anxious and concerned about the situation.

What we are seeing now is not a health issue but a communication issue. People living in Fukushima are not concerned about the safety of radiation in Fukushima but are aware of how the disconnect with people who firmly believe otherwise may hinder the recovery of Fukushima. Visiting Fukushima made me realize even more keenly the importance of risk communications.

Recent discussions have focused on how to close this gap in perception of risk and avoid breakdowns in communication. This is crucial in order to start having a truly constructive discussion about Fukushima. Developing mechanisms to overcome this gap where "facts" have different interpretations by different groups in society will be a very challenging issue. It will only be by our continued dialogue that we can reach a common understanding, that facts in relation to radiation are understood from a scientific perspective rather than being left open to interpretation. I believe in this dialogue and stand ready to lend my expertise to the process.

(Published Nobember 4, 2014)


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