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Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012

Chernobyl experts see hope for Fukushima


Ukrainian nuclear experts say Japanese evacuated from around the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant should be able to return to their homes — unlike near the Chernobyl plant, which is still off-limits a quarter-century after the meltdown accident.

News photo
Twisted metal: Gray smoke rises from the ruins of the building that housed reactor 3 at the stricken Fukushima No. 1 power plant in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, on March 21, 2011. AP

The public may eventually be able to visit the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, where three reactor cores melted after the tsunami March 11 last year knocked out their cooling systems, said Oleg Nasvit, a nuclear physicist and radiation expert at Kiev's National Institute for Strategic Studies.

Ukrainian government officials Nasvit and Dmytro Bobro said a crucial lesson from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster is that the government needs to tell the people the truth so they can make informed decisions about their future.

"Residents can understand the consequences and make realistic decisions only based on accurate information," Bobro said on a visit to Japan to attend a seminar on the Fukushima crisis sponsored by the central government.

Japanese authorities and regulators have been repeatedly criticized for how they handled information during the unfolding nuclear crisis.

Officials initially denied that the reactors had melted down, and have been accused of playing down the health risks of exposure to radiation. An outside panel investigating the government response to the nuclear crisis has also called for more transparency in relaying information to the public.

After declaring that the Fukushima plant was stable in December, Japan has set guidelines that allow residents to return to areas with contamination levels below 20 millisieverts per year — about three CAT scans — which it says is safe, although a further reduction is required.

More than 100,000 people were displaced from a 20-km radius no-entry zone.

Any decision on whether to allow residents to return should be based on radiation dose levels rather than distance from the plant, Nasvit said.

"If people like to return and they will have a dose of less than 20 millisieverts per year, according to international standards this is possible," Nasvit said. "This is not about this circle of 20 km but it is about the radiological situation. If this is from the radiological point of view permissible, why not return part of this territory to people?"

But further decontamination efforts are a must, he said.

This week, the chief of the village of Kawauchi, which straddles the exclusion zone around the Fukushima plant, told more than 2,500 residents that returning to areas of the town outside the no-go zone would be safe during the decontamination process. Mayor Yuko Endo said offices, schools and other public facilities will reopen in April.

About one-third of Kawauchi lies within the exclusion zone and remains off-limits. Many residents whose homes were outside the exclusion zone chose to move out.

They showed mixed reactions, split between their desire to return home and fear of how the radiation will affect their health, especially that of the children.

The Chernobyl disaster on April 26, 1986, spewed a cloud of radioactive fallout over much of Europe and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes in heavily hit areas of Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia. It left forests and farmland contaminated even today — a warning to Japan of the potential long-term effects of their own disaster at Fukushima.

Chernobyl fostered deep mistrust among many in the affected areas because Soviet leaders waited for days to tell people about the accident, evacuate them from contaminated areas and warn them how to reduce health risks.

The Chernobyl explosion released about 400 times more radiation than the U.S. atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima. The U.N. World Health Organization said among the 600,000 people most heavily exposed to radiation at Chernobyl, 4,000 more cancer deaths than average are expected.

Japan's government has said that it will take up to 40 years to fully decommission the Fukushima plant, but it is unknown how long it will take to decontaminate the vicinity or how much longer soil, water, air and food sampling must continue.

It may be a long process, but Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the government should tackle the problem quickly based on science, not emotion, the Ukrainian experts said.

"We should not pass the problem on to the next generation," Bobro said.

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