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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 (December 27, 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)

 

At the end of 2013, nearly three years since the earthquake/tsunami event of March 2011, important milestones in the mitigation of the radiological effects of the releases from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant have been reached. The tasks ahead are numerous and will need the long-term commitments of society beyond the affected population and of specialists alike. On the positive side, a much improved understanding of the present radiological situation helps to move ahead and to create better living conditions. The reappraisal of the complex situation may hopefully in 2014 result in the transposition of unnecessary fears.

As touched upon in my earlier message, the potential risks from ionizing radiation, an invisible agent charged with many emotions from its military past and major disasters like Chernobyl are still poorly reflected by the media and the public. Unnecessary emotional stress and suffering may result in those affected or believing to be affected from the fallout from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Albeit by definition of the World Health Organization (WHO, IARC), ionizing radiation is a genotoxic agent which needs a proper regulatory framework, it is also part of our natural environment, and of no health concern at these natural level which are in the range of 2 mSv per year in most of Japan and the World. In some natural hot spots these exposures may be several fold higher, leading to lifetime doses of more than a few hundred mSv. From the way we build energy-efficient homes, radiation exposures to radon progeny - high energy alpha emitters - may multiply; the screening, diagnosis and cure of disease also leads to radiation exposures we are used to accept as part of modern life and its benefits. Despite careful epidemiological studies on such populations receiving dozens of additional mSv's over a lifetime, no consistent and significant detrimental effects are reported so far; uncertainties from statistical noise being interpreted by some groups as slightly beneficial or slightly detrimental by others. The main conclusion for Japan after Fukushima is reassuring. Potential health effects - be it cancer, genetic or others - are negligible for a single individual or a family, and should not affect quality of life in the future. Given these reassuring realities, it would be sad indeed if psychological detriment from unfounded negative perceptions would overwhelm radiological facts.

The largely positive professional assessments, based on the work of many Japanese and foreign specialists are sometimes distrusted, especially if organizations close to nuclear power are involved. Those who doubt the impartiality of results from Vienna, the seat of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and UNSCEAR, may take relief from the fact that the WHO, the UN organization in charge of health issues in Geneva, and its health specialists come to similar conclusions.

What are important tasks ahead? Some radionuclides dominating the radiation fields in the environments of Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant like 137cesium decay physically at a slow pace, halving every 30 years. Ecological processes may accelerate this process somehow, but active decontamination and shielding efforts will be needed to restore the livelihood of citizens of the affected areas of Fukushima Prefecture in the next few years. Japanese society and the government have the resources and have shown the determination to achieve this goal. The international community is greatly impressed by the results achieved so far; it stands ready to accompany the local actors as much as can be done from the outside.

Challenges remain to restore the social fabric in the near field and beyond. Misjudgments have been made before February 2011. Trust can only be rebuilt by learning all the technical and managerial lessons from the mistakes at the root of loss of control of four units of Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power. Modesty, openness, professionalism and a genuine effort to involve all stakeholders hopefully will bring the media to play a constructive role in creating a common understanding of where to head in the years to come.

Japanese ingenuity and perseverance will be needed for many additional years to overcome the radiological heritage of March 2011. Results beyond technical achievements will strongly depend on the empowerment of local affected people. With their involvement, sound living conditions will be recreated for almost all until the end of this decade.

My best wishes and support to Japan for showing the World that a future for Fukushima Prefecture free of radiological restrictions is an achievable goal.

Werner Burkart is a professor of radiation biology focused on radiation epidemiology and ecology. For more than 10 years he was Deputy Director General of IAEA in charge of Nuclear Sciences and Applications

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