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Reconstruction following the Great East Japan Earthquake

Message to our friends affected by the nuclear component of the earthquake/tsunami event of March 2011 (August 26, 2013)

Werner Burkart, Vienna
Professor for Radiation Biology at the Faculty of Medicine of the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich
Former Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

Nearly two and a half years since the earthquake/tsunami event of March 2011, it is time to reflect on the suffering but also on the resilience of the affected and Japan as a whole, and to develop visions for a future without fears and restrictions.

The huge efforts of local communities and Japan as a whole to understand and mitigate the fall-out of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant have to be highly commended. The international community is greatly impressed by the results achieved so far by Japanese society; it stands ready to accompany the local actors as much as can be done from the outside. On a sober/unemotional technical and scientific level, main radiological facts, the base for constructive response, were asserted. Many of these facts are a cause for relieve; the most important ones can be summarized:

First, despite of the large radioactivity inventories present at the time of the tsunami, populations which experienced Fukushima-related radiation exposures above the fluctuation of annual natural exposures are fortunately limited in size. This is not only due to generally favorably weather conditions during the releases, but also the disciplined action of authorities and affected populations. Potentially dangerous infant and child thyroid exposures by radio-iodine, the biggest health impact after Chernobyl, were prevented.

Secondly, restrictions on human activities and the flow of food stuff can be partially eased thanks to better knowledge and control, but also thanks to active interventions and natural radioecological mechanisms which reduce the hazards from radionuclides beyond the decrease expected from physical half-lives alone.

Thirdly, radiological mitigation and restoration activities proceed together with coastal responses to damage caused by the brute force of the tsunami. Huge efforts have created important first results towards the reestablishment of the socioeconomic conditions present before March 2011.

Challenges remain. Some of them not easily understood by science and specialists, but with strong implications on the social fabric in the near field and beyond. Risks from radioactivity and ionizing radiation as a genotoxic agent have to be taken seriously and assessed with utmost care. Media and political actors often lack the necessary prudence and appropriate knowledge. This results in improper comparisons and the creation of fear from simplistic concepts like the LNT-hypothesis taken out of its radiation protection context. Ensuing negative perceptions are dangerously undermining trust, and counteract many of the positive developments achieved in the near field and the region of Fukushima. Stigmatization of products or even persons has to be prevented by renewed efforts. Only an open information policy on the level of the affected, the media and the science community will create the trust needed to heal on the societal level and prevent negative socio-economic effects from unwarranted anxiety and fear. In this context, not complex science but sound comparisons with natural levels of radiation, its fluctuations and ensuing health risks might help to create a common understanding of the challenges and to give confidence for the future. I trust Japanese society to progress further in this complex task. Initiatives like "Japan as One" Work Project show first results. They give secure employment to those fine men and women in the Fukushima region who stood up to overcome the many challenges of the tsunami and the radioactive fallout. The strong support shown by the emperor down to the local authorities will instill renewed pride and hope for all of North-Eastern Japan and beyond.

Japanese ingenuity and perseverance have created impressive results in overcoming the radiological effects of March 2011. Much work remains to be done in the coming years. The empowerment of local affected people and continued support on the material and political level will hopefully heal the wounds to society, and finally make Fukushima a historic event.

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