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Reconstruction following the Great East Japan Earthquake

Message to the People in Fukushima Prefecture as well as People in Japan about the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster (July 30, 2013)

Abel J. Gonzalez

Academician at the Argentine Academies of Environmental Sciences and of the Sea
Vice-Chairman of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP)
Representative in the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR)
Member of the Commission of Safety Standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
Senior advisor to the Argentine Nuclear Regulatory Authority

I am an Argentine expert in radiation protection and wish to convey a personal message to the Japanese people, in particular to those in the Fuksuhima Prefecture, who were affected by the nuclear disaster that followed the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

In spite of the geographical distance that separates us (my home-place in Buenos Aires is in the antipodes of Fukushima!), we Argentineans feel very near the Japanese people. Many Japanese have immigrated to Argentina since the end of the XIX century and consolidated a very much appreciated community in my country. I myself have enjoyed the friendship and camaraderie of many people of Japanese origin, at school, university and in my professional activities.

I am an Academician, at the Argentine Academies of Environmental Sciences and of the Sea, who specialized in radiation protection. Currently, I am representative at the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), vice-president of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), member of the Commission of Safety Standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and I am a senior advisor to the Argentine Nuclear Regulatory Authority. During my career I have lead many international projects to protect people against radiation, including the international assessment of the Chernobyl accident, and published hundreds of scientific papers. I have been honoured with several international awards in the field of radiation protection, including: the Morgan Award twice in 2000 and 2003, the Sievert Prize in 2004, the Lauriston S. Taylor Lecturer Award in 2005 and the Marie Curie Prize in 2008 and I have shared with my colleagues at IAEA the Nobel Peace Prize.

My profession and my links to the Japanese community in Argentina made it natural for me to get involved in the Fukushima tragedy from the very beginning. I have travelled to the Fukushima prefecture and to its most affected areas (such as Iitate) many times; I have joined the efforts of the Sasakawa Foundation to help the affected people; I have chaired an ICRP task group to learn lessons from what has happened; I have participated in the recent UNSCEAR estimates on the levels and effects of radiation due to the accident; I am currently chairing an IAEA international group to definitively assess the radiological consequences from this tragedy; finally, I have been honoured to advise the Nuclear Disaster Expert Group of the Office of Japan's Prime Minister and his Cabinet.

It is under the above framework that I wish to address you, the people affected by radiation exposure from the accident and convey to you a reassuring message about the radiological consequences of the accident for you, as follows:

1. The international assessments made until now of the situation in your homeland are very encouraging. UNSCEAR is just in this moment reporting to the General Assembly of the United Nations that the radiation doses to the general public, both those incurred during the first year and estimated for their lifetimes, are generally low or very low. No discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public and their descendants. The most important health effect is on mental and social well-being, related to the enormous impact of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident, and the fear and stigma related to radiation exposure.

2. The experts who participated in the ICRP Task Group have recently published their estimates in the prestigious Journal of Radiological Protection. Their report on radiological protection issues arising during and after the Fukushima accident advises that, notwithstanding this consequential radiological event, people were mostly protected against radiation exposure and nobody received a lethal dose of radiation or a dose that resulted in acute radiation sickness of any type, and, referring to evaluations by the World Health Organization (WHO), estimated that even people near the damaged power plant received such low doses of radiation that no discernible health effect could be expected.

3. While the IAEA study is still in preparation, the preliminary findings are even more positive. The reason is that the previous estimates were conservatively founded on model estimates based on high-sided assumptions of exposure. The IAEA study can now be based on factually measured data on the affected population and unsurprisingly, it is finding that the real doses incurred are even much lower that the previous conservative estimates.

In summary, the international experts have concluded that this catastrophic accident has providentially resulted in very small radiation doses in general and therefore in no discernible health effects.

I should finally add that, the most of affected areas are experiencing radiation doses that are smaller than natural radiation doses in many areas of the world which have been inhabited since prehistoric times by healthy people. You can therefore reinitiate your normal lives.

Notwithstanding the above, the community of radiation protection experts have a lot to learn from this tragedy. Because, while re-affirming that the affected people were largely protected against radiation exposure, the experts of the ICRP Task Group have identified many radiological protection issues that have been properly raised by the affected people, the authorities and many experts, which request proper answers. They include the following: inferring radiation risks (and the misunderstanding of nominal risk coefficients); attributing radiation effects from low dose exposures; quantifying radiation exposure; assessing the importance of internal exposures; managing emergency crises; protecting rescuers and volunteers; responding with medical aid; justifying necessary but disruptive protective actions; transiting from an emergency to an existing situation; rehabilitating evacuated areas; restricting individual doses of members of the public; caring for infants and children; categorising public exposures due to an accident; considering pregnant women and their foetuses and embryos; monitoring public protection; dealing with 'contamination' of territories, rubble and residues and consumer products; recognising the importance of psychological consequences; and fostering the sharing of information. It was concluded that the radiological protection community has an ethical duty to learn from the lessons of Fukushima and resolve the identified challenges. Before another large accident occurs, it should be ensured that inter alia: radiation risk coefficients of potential health effects are properly interpreted; the limitations of epidemiological studies for attributing radiation effects following low exposures are understood; any confusion on protection quantities and units is resolved; the potential hazard from the intake of radionuclides into the body is elucidated; rescuers and volunteers are protected with an ad hoc system; clear recommendations on crisis management and medical care and on recovery and rehabilitation are available; recommendations on public protection levels (including infant, children and pregnant women and their expected offspring) and associated issues are consistent and understandable; updated recommendations on public monitoring policy are available; acceptable (or tolerable) 'contamination' levels are clearly stated and defined; strategies for mitigating the serious psychological consequences arising from radiological accidents are sought; and, last but not least, failures in fostering information sharing on radiological protection policy after an accident need to be addressed with recommendations to minimise such lapses in communication.

It has been an honour for me to have this opportunity to communicate with you, the people affected by the Fukushima tragedy.

Yours faithfully

Abel J. Gonzalez
Buenos Aires, June 2013

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