International Expert Symposium in Fukushima: “Radiation an Health Risks”

Fukushima, Japan

First, I wish to express my deep appreciation to the participants and everyone whose efforts have enabled this symposium to take place.

On March eleventh at two forty six in the afternoon, a powerful earthquake of magnitude nine hit northeastern Japan. The earthquake caused terrible destruction and the tsunami that followed swallowed up people, homes and large buildings in a matter of seconds. In some cases, it utterly leveled entire villages. Thirty nine meter waves, equal to the height of a ten story building hit a town at the speed of one hundred fifteen kilometers per hour. During my numerous visits to the disaster areas for relief work, I was shocked to see towns destroyed beyond recognition. I saw countless numbers of large ships that had washed ashore and were left stranded on the streets and in the rice patties. The experience reconfirmed how powerless we are against the force of nature. The March eleven earthquake claimed sixteen thousand lives. Even after six months, close to forty five thousand people are still missing. My heart aches to think of all those who fled for their lives. Of those who managed to survive, most lost their families, friends, homes and assets. They are now struggling to tackle the harsh realities they face.

As you all know, the March eleven earthquake caused another major crisis that stirred the people of Japan and overseas. The earthquake caused massive waves to hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant which led to a series of equipment failures and an eventual nuclear meltdown. The footage was immediately broadcasted worldwide, causing panic among the people of Japan and neighboring countries. The people of Fukushima who were caught up in this turmoil suffered the most. Eighty thousand residents living in the vicinity of the nuclear power plant were ordered to evacuate. With no time to pack, many were forced to abandon their homes empty-handed. Farmers who had taken great care to raise their cows and pigs had to leave them all behind with great reluctance. Even for those living outside the evacuation zone, the fear of health risks made many mothers with small children to choose voluntary evacuation; families were forced to separate as the mothers and children evacuated and the fathers stayed behind for work.

Six months has passed since the nuclear disaster but the people of Fukushima are still living in deep distress. Radioactive contamination in the ocean, soil and air remains a problem with no solution in sight. Anxiety concerning potential long-term health risks from exposure to low dose radiation is mounting, especially for those who continue to live in Fukushima. The emotional wear from fears of radiation and lack of future prospects are taking a toll on the people. We decided to hold this international expert symposium here in Fukushima because we thought that taking up one of the most important issues for the people of Fukushima -“radiation and health risks” –would help to take away even a bit of their emotional wear and mounting fears.

After March eleven, there has been a mass of conflicting information both in Japan and abroad, concerning the Fukushima nuclear accident. Much of the confusion has been on information concerning health risks. Various reasons are conceivable but I believe one cause can be attributed to irresponsible comments made by television commentators and some scientists in the media. Statements concerning radiation effects and health risks by these supposedly “better informed” individuals lack sufficient scientific evidence. I heard many stories where people no longer knew what to believe because some scientists were assuring that twenty millisieverts per hour was harmless, while others were warning that it was dangerous.

The other reason may be that information is not available in a way that a layman can understand or be satisfied with. Scientific explanations that are filled with unfamiliar terms such as sierverts and bequerels make it difficult for people to grasp the real meaning. Explanations that are not given in plain terms only lead to misinterpretation and false speculation, causing unnecessary anxiety and harmful rumors. This came out clearly in the way the public reacted to farm products from Fukushima. Fruits and vegetables were thought to be dangerous despite the fact that they had passed government inspections. The vicious rumors extended beyond products to even people, as reports were given that evacuated children who were attending school outside of Fukushima were bullied by their new classmates. Public reactions such as these only make matters worse for the people of Fukushima.
The experts who are attending this symposium hail from 14 countries, representing various international organizations such as UNSCEAR, ICRP, IAEA and WHO; all of whom are working at the forefront of their specializations. These experts have built up interdisciplinary research in the area of radiation hazard and treatment of radiation-related injury. During the 2 days, they will try to gain a good understanding of the situation in Fukushima and discuss how to deal with the health risks resulting from the accident. At the end, the content of the discussions and recommendations for future countermeasures will be communicated in as easy to understand terms as possible.

The Japanese people and in particular, the people of Fukushima are in deep distrust after the way the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company handled the nuclear accident. The delayed responses, ex post facto reports and countless cover-ups have only strengthened the people’s views that the two parties had been dishonest, unqualified and nontransparent. It is no surprise that the people have become unable to trust anything.

In these circumstances, we thought securing transparency would be an important element. For this reason, although I was aware that international symposiums of experts are generally done behind closed doors, we decided to make this entire symposium open to the public. It would have been ideal to have everyone attend but because of the limited seating, we decided to disseminate the information worldwide by broadcasting the event live on U-stream.

However, knowing how deep and strong this feeling of distrust is rooted in the hearts of the people of Fukushima, I do not believe that transparency alone will be enough to get everyone to accept the content and final recommendations of this symposium. At the same time, I also believe that doing nothing will achieve nothing. In these difficult times, I believe the only way we will move forward is if each person made honest effort to do their part the best way they can.

In the ten years following 1991, The Nippon Foundation and the Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation worked together in conducting health examinations of approximately 200,000 children living in the region affected by the Chernobyl accident. The scientific data collected in the process are utilized by world leading research institutions such as the WHO and the IAEA. Furthermore, The Nippon Foundation in collaboration with international organizations such as the European Commission (EC) and WHO as well as the NCI and the governments of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus established The Chernobyl Tissue Bank (CTB) where a collection of biological samples from tumors and normal tissues of those who were exposed to radioiodine in childhood are kept for research. Our support for the operation of this unique initiative continues today.

As an organization with vast experience and a worldwide network of scientific experts, we felt it was our part to hold this international symposium of experts to solve the issues at hand. My hope is for everyone to gain a real sense and understanding of what is happening here in Fukushima. For this reason, I am making sure that all experts get an opportunity to visit the disaster areas during their time here in Fukushima.

To the experts who are gathered here, your collective wisdom will be vital in tackling to solve the important issue that continues to frighten and torment the people of Fukushima. Please lend us your support in helping this beautiful prefecture to get on the path to recovery.

Lastly, to the people of Fukushima who are making every effort to overcome this difficult time, I convey my utmost respect. It pains me to see however, that despite the relentless efforts, future prospects remain to be murky, with no countermeasures in sight. If circumstances do not improve, I am afraid that your hopes for recovery may slowly start to weaken. The Nippon Foundation will continue to do our utmost to support the people of Fukushima, so please keep your faith for recovery alive and strong.