Vladimir Saenko, Ph.D.
Department of Health Risk Control
Atomic Bomb Disease Institute
Nagasaki University Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences
I was at the end of my institute graduation course in Moscow when the accident at Chernobyl power station happened in April 1986. In part my education included an extensive program of radiation protection allowing me to better understand how serious the situation was. Since 2000 I have been working in Nagasaki University focusing mostly on radiation-induced thyroid carcinogenesis. It was hard to believe that the second large-scale radiological accident in my life took place in Japan, in the country where I am working, like 25 years ago, and how similar the reactions on the accident could be despite the difference in time and place. Undoubtedly, from March 11, 2011 our attention was primarily riveted on the tragedies caused by tsunami but soon we realized that this was not all yet and that there is a mounting crisis at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima.
Considering Chernobyl and Fukushima, there are some obvious traits in common. Both have been accidents at the nuclear power stations accompanied by massive releases of radionuclides into the environment that caused contamination of surrounding territories. Both lead to evacuation of nearly the same number of population, losses of many households, both have raised concerns about involuntary, unnecessary exposure to radiation with uncertainty to health effects. There are however large differences between the two tragedies. First, due to timely evacuation and sheltering as well as introduction of strict radiological control for locally produced foods, radiation doses among population, especially for the thyroid, are much lower than those in Chernobyl. Furthermore, the accident in Fukushima occurred 25 years after Chernobyl; during this time technical progress and scientific understanding of radiation health effects have substantially advanced. Also, Japan is a country with well-developed infrastructure, civil society is strong which makes many social issues transparent, and people do care of and respect each other and their country. Altogether it gives us hope that consequences of radiological disaster in Fukushima and in Tohoku regions devastated by tsunami will be mitigated and overcome faster and effectively.
There are many lessons that will have to be learnt from the developments in Fukushima. One of them will probably be a need in bringing up understanding radiation and its health effects. Education is essential to give ideas about basics of radiation, its nature, related hazards and benefits. This would better be implemented at high school classes of science, to begin with. Also, special education of medical stuff that could respond to emergency situation and then communicate with patients and public during the steady state is required. This brings new challenges to the educational system at different levels. Knowledge of such basics would be of a great help in avoiding excessive rumors or posing stigma, at least in the way that exposure is not something like a “communicable disease”, that there are deterministic and stochastic effects, what is the difference between low- and high dose effects or between acute and protracted exposure, how current models evaluate risk for e.g. solid cancer after exposure during the lifespan.
Additional means to regain public confidence and faith would be involving into the evaluation and prognostication of the situation in Fukushima international experts in various fields of knowledge and tight cooperation of domestic specialists with reputable international organizations. The scope of problems that emerged is very wide, complex and changeable. Therefore, open discussion and independent professional opinions would be beneficial once delivered to the public in an evidence-based, correct, unbiased and unprejudiced way. For example, when unprecedented currently ongoing prefecture-wide ultrasound thyroid screening is accomplished and its results are published, international scientific and medical communities may come up with their understanding and comments on the findings which for sure will be very important for shaping and maturing public knowledge on the thyroid state in Japanese people. Of note, screening is undertaken shortly after the accident when no radiation effects could be expected.
People of Japan are stout, steadfast, diligent and revere their culture. I have no doubts all these merits taken together with broad national, governmental and non-governmental support, international cooperation and sympathy, and with everyone’s feasibilities will play roles in Fukushima recovery and renewal.