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Reconstruction following the Great East Japan Earthquake

A note of support from Germany (August 26, 2013)

Hajo Zeeb, Professor of Epidemiology, Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology, and University of Bremen, Germany.

In March 2011, the Great Tohoku Earthquake and the subsequent tsunami waves caused great damage to large parts of the Eastern Japanese coast, including the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. The events at Fukushima have caused great concern about health consequences in the Japanese public overall and have been particularly severe for the residents in Fukushima prefecture. Family members and livelihoods have been lost. Many people, and certainly not only in Japan, are concerned about the health and overall future of the following generations, given the environmental contamination.

I have visited Fukushima prefecture twice, and each time I prepared my trip, I received surprised comments from many people around me, wondering whether I did not care for the radiation risk I was going to expose myself to. My usual response was: yes, there is some increased radiation, but it will be far too low to affect my health, especially seeing that I am a short-time visitor only. Some would then go on to ask about the population living permanently in the Fukushima area: what about their long term health outlook?

Two major international reports (from WHO and UNSCEAR) assess the future health risks after the accident at Fukushima. Although these reports used somewhat different data and methods, they both come to similar conclusions: the health risks linked to radiation exposure due to the events at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant will remain low (though probably not zero for some groups including young people living in areas near the plant). Other organizations and individuals have come to very different conclusions, but it seems hard (if not impossible) to follow their line of argument. Of note, current data show that the doses received were markedly lower than the doses after Chernobyl, but sound scientific assessment of radiation doses needs to continue.

Some two and a half years after the combined disaster, it becomes clear that the measures taken in the context of disaster management were essential for the prevention of radiation-related health consequences in the affected population living in Fukushima prefecture. This relates in particular to quickly restricting the food supply from the contaminated regions and further lowering the already low radiation limits for food (compared to Europe) to minimize the potential health risks. However, there is also evidence that lives were lost in the evacuation process, especially among old persons. Many people took their own choices in moving away from the area, and this is very understandable. It is likely that they will consider returning home only if they have sufficient confidence that this is safe. Decontamination and continued dose monitoring are essential tasks in this context.

Thus, the big task at hand will be to further manage and monitor the situation in Fukushima and the affected regions. The local communities will play a big role in this, and they should get all the support they need, including impartial and trustworthy information on the situation as well as on planned activities and their alternatives. The Japanese people have been going to great lengths, both financially and in terms of solidarity, to address the post-disaster situation. We, the international advisors, continue to be willing to contribute our (small) share to these efforts and to provide support to any activities where this is feasible and asked for.

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