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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Lessons to learn from the Fukushima disaster


By TADATERU KONOE
Special to The Japan Times

From an early age, tiny Japanese children are taught to put cushions on their heads and burrow under their school desks in the event of an earthquake. Most coastal towns have clearly demarcated tsunami evacuation zones and early warnings saved thousands of lives last March when a tsunami swept through coastal towns in northeast Japan.

But what should people do in the event of a nuclear accident, what are the risks and what should be done if a worst-case scenario comes to pass? Triggered by the tsunami, the nuclear crisis in Fukushima must serve as a wake-up call, prompting greater action to prepare ourselves not just for natural disasters but for man-made ones too. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is committed to this goal and toward promoting more precise and comprehensive information for affected populations — especially in countries that have nuclear power plants.

People who have grown up near the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant say the only safety instructions they can remember receiving in their youth was when a teacher told them to stand in the playground where they would be given pink pills to take.

This information vacuum and widespread ignorance is not simply confined to a question of preparedness. Some people living near the plant complain that they followed the authorities' instructions to evacuate after the accident, only to find themselves in an area where radiation levels were not much lower than where they set out from.

The government claims the stricken reactors in Fukushima have reached a state of "cold shutdown." But ordinary people's anxieties about radiation levels in food, water and soil have not abated.

A flurry of different scientific opinions are confusing and worrying people, ranging from those who say pregnant women and children would be best advised to move away from many areas even well outside the government's 20-km exclusion zone, to those who say that current radiation levels are no cause for undue concern.

What is clear is that in the absence of trustworthy information people are fearful. Some mothers who were forced to evacuate and move into temporary accommodations in other areas of Fukushima are even reluctant to allow their children to play outdoors.

What we need is a new clarity and consensus on pressing for greater information, greater preparedness and greater sharing of experience. We Japanese have long thought of ourselves as one of the world's most disaster-prepared nations and we probably still are in many respects. But Japan is the only nation to have been subject both to an atomic bomb and a nuclear accident. The Fukushima nuclear disaster has revealed how exposed we are.

Governments and nuclear plant operators bear the primary and legal responsibility for ensuring the safety of populations living around the facilities. But it has become clear that the communities and organizations working with them must play an engaged role as well.

I am proud to report that in the Red Cross Red Crescent, we recently took a decision to work on the issue of nuclear disaster preparedness more vigorously. The Japanese Red Cross Society has proposed to host an international conference in May where we hope to agree on a road map for developing future guidelines that will allow Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies to see the dangers more clearly and find a role for themselves in preparing for nuclear and other similar man-made disasters.

Our greatest asset is the way in which we bring together a truly worldwide network, through which experience can be shared and knowledge pooled. That will be the beginning of the process as we consolidate what we can learn, not just from Fukushima, but also from the Red Cross Red Crescent responses to the Three Mile Island accident in the United States and, of course, Chernobyl.

It is almost 26 years since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the Red Cross is still playing a vital role in helping to care for the survivors. The consequences of the world's largest nuclear accident continue to unfold as the thyroid cancer epidemic in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia manifests its effects in slow motion. Over the past 19 years, our program has provided screening to more than three million people. But the grim reality is that more than 200 cases of cancer are still diagnosed each year. Chernobyl is not only a forgotten disaster, but also an invisible one.

A year after our own triple disaster, in which more than 19,000 people lost their lives or are still missing, the people of Japan are showing remarkable stoicism and bravery in their recovery. We owe it to them — that the lessons of this tragedy do not go unlearned.

But we also have a duty to all those in countries with nuclear power plants, who may face similar dangers in the future. If we can build a culture of preparedness and response matching up to our stance in the face of natural disasters, then we will have really made a lasting contribution.

Tadateru Konoe is president of the Japanese Red Cross Society.


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