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Japan makes a start on sharing lessons from nuclear crisis

When professional boxer and model Tomomi Takano heard that children in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture were becoming unfit and overweight as the 2011 nuclear crisis there limited the time they could play outside, she decided to use her skills to help.

Early this month, the glamorous 27-year-old taught some 200 junior high school students in the village of Otama an indoor workout based on boxing moves.

“They really concentrated on the boxing and tried hard,” she said at a recent UN conference on disasters in the north-eastern city of Sendai. The boxer hopes to run more sessions in Fukushima to improve children’s agility and provide an outlet for their emotions.

Takano and civil society activists in Sendai said they wanted to communicate to the rest of the world the human impacts of the crisis sparked when a huge earthquake and tsunami caused nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant to melt down four years ago.

The nuclear disaster was a sensitive subject at the UN summit, where 187 governments adopted a new 15-year plan to reduce the risk of disasters around the world.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made only passing reference to it in his opening speech at the conference. But groups representing citizens hit by the nuclear emergency acknowledged that tentative progress was being made in Sendai.

Masaaki Ohashi, the co-chair of JCC2015, a coalition of humanitarian NGOs formed ahead of the summit, praised the new Sendai disaster reduction framework for stating clearly that it applies to man-made and technological hazards – which covers nuclear power – as well as natural hazards.

He and others also noted the importance of an official presentation made at the conference about the lessons learned from the Fukushima crisis.

“The Japanese government, represented by the Cabinet Office, has clearly indicated that they are breaking away from the ‘safety’ myth around nuclear power plants, so we’re seeing a step forward,” said Takeshi Komino, general secretary of aid agency CWS Japan.

At a session on technological hazards, which also covered the Chernobyl nuclear accident, Tetsuya Yamamoto, deputy director general of Japan’s Nuclear Disaster Management Bureau, said the government was strengthening plans both to prevent and to respond to nuclear emergencies.

“Our preparedness (for Fukushima) was totally inefficient – we assumed the incident would affect a 10 km radius from the plant, but it was more than 30 km,” he said.

The operation to evacuate people living in the danger zone was confused and not enough support was provided, he said. Failings meant that some hospital patients died at evacuation centres, he noted.

A disaster prevention and evacuation plan has since been drawn up for 550,000 people, Yamamoto said. The government is continuing with its decontamination work, and is monitoring health in Fukushima, offering tests for thyroid cancer to those aged 18 and under, he added.

Civil society groups supporting Fukushima residents still struggling with the aftermath of the crisis launched a booklet at the Sendai conference containing 10 key lessons from the disaster, available in several languages including English.

It provides information on the effects of exposure to radiation, and how at-risk people can better protect their health, homes and livelihoods in the event of a nuclear crisis.

The booklet also describes how nuclear power was promoted through advertising and other methods by the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Co in the 1960s and beyond, as a safe, clean form of energy that would benefit local economies.

Komino of CWS Japan said it should be up to countries and communities to decide whether they want nuclear power, but “we are against the creation of the safety myth”.

“Pro-active risk identification and risk disclosure to the communities prior to the installation of such facilities is critical,” he emphasised.

JCC2015’s Ohashi said that, as the Japanese government aims to export nuclear energy technology to developing countries, it bears a “producer’s responsibility” to share its knowledge about the risks and how to deal with them.

“Japan has the ability to help us to learn as an international community what some of the critical issues are,” said Marcus Oxley, executive director of the Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction (GNDR).

This is particularly important as climate change increases the pressure to move from fossil fuel use to alternative sources of energy, including nuclear power, he added.

Toshiyuki Takeuchi of the Fukushima Beacon for Global Citizens Network (FUKUDEN), a small organisation that wrote much of the booklet launched in Sendai and led study tours of the affected areas, pointed to the need to adapt Japan’s experience to different contexts.

For example, in some countries that have shown interest in nuclear power, such as Bangladesh and Thailand, it may be difficult for people to shut themselves inside concrete buildings in the event of an accident. And in others, low literacy levels make written public education materials less useful than comic strip versions.

Takeuchi questioned the legitimacy of suggesting that nuclear emergencies could really be prevented.

“Even if you can put risk reduction measures in place, it would cost a ridiculous amount,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Fukushima.

The “10 Lessons from Fukushima” booklet highlights the longer-term social and economic consequences of the crisis, such as families splitting apart.

It tells the story of a 29-year-old mother who decided to take her young daughter to live in a neighbouring prefecture due to health fears, while her husband stayed behind to work.

Of the 160,000 people who left their homes after the nuclear accident, around 120,000 are still classified as evacuees. Some remain in cramped temporary accommodation, in prefabricated buildings erected on parks and other public land.

In places like Iwaki City, south of the evacuation zone, the influx of displaced people seeking new homes and jobs has stirred resentment among residents, according to FUKUDEN.

Even though local officials have made preparations to revitalise empty towns and villages once they are decreed safe, there is concern that only older generations will want to return, raising questions about their future viability.

“When you have these long-term persistent shocks… resilience starts to break down within a society,” GNDR’s Oxley said.

Both activists and UN officials said the memory of disasters must be preserved, so that the knowledge they generate can be shared and used to improve protection.

“People are reluctant to talk about the nuclear issue… so gradually we are going to forget about it,” said JCC2015’s Ohashi.

Initiatives by Japanese groups, including their booklet, are aimed at ensuring “people know the reality” of a nuclear crisis, he said. “Maybe Fukushima could become a mecca for (learning about) nuclear disasters in the future.”

Megan Rowling, "Japan makes a start on sharing lessons from nuclear crisis," Business recorder. 2015-03-28.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Social needs , Social problems , Social development , Nuclear crisis , UN summit , Technological hazards , Natural hazards , Nuclear emergencies , Disaster prevention , Japan