2014: Protection During Nuclear Disasters

11. März 2011 - 11. März 2014 Fukushima in Nordostjapan

Public health and human rights need far greater protection during nuclear disasters

03 March 2014
By Jonathan Frerichs

Public health and human rights remain woefully unprotected from nuclear disasters. This is a key assessment of a “Human Rights and Natural Disasters” workshop, three years after the Fukushima disaster and 30 years since Chernobyl. The workshop was hosted by the World Council of Churches (WCC) on 28 February in Geneva, Switzerland.

The workshop was called to provide input to a major United Nations conference on disaster risk reduction next year in Japan. That conference will be a critical opportunity to establish much-needed standards, said Dr Michel Prieur, a French specialist on environmental law who helped organize the workshop. However, barriers raised by the nuclear industry, regulators and governments remain high, according to medical and legal researchers present at the workshop, having come from Japan, France, Switzerland and Belarus.

Tragedies like the Fukushima disaster demonstrate that risk reduction measures, emergency procedures and long-term care for the victims lag far behind health and human rights requirements, said Prieur, president of the International Center of Comparative Environmental Law in Limoges, France. Few disaster response agreements at present include human rights, and few human rights conventions include disasters, he noted.

“No immediate danger” has become the touch word of official announcements during nuclear disasters, said Dr Michel Fernex, emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Basel. “Yet now we know that genetic damage begins very early during exposure to radiation”, he said. The genetic diseases it causes may take years to show up, and in some cases not until future generations.

Health data show that infants and pregnant women are the groups most vulnerable to the ionizing radiation from nuclear disasters, Fernex noted. Yet, in Fukushima, whole communities were left in their homes, including the most vulnerable groups, until radiation had reached an official dosage which is not safe, he said.

Fetuses, babies and infants can be 100 times more vulnerable than the elderly to the same dose of radiation, said Fernex, a long-time advocate for children affected by the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine.

Threats posed by nuclear disasters

Some Fukushima evacuees were taken to areas that were more contaminated than their own communities, said Dr Yayoi Isono, a law professor at Tokyo Keizai University. The average evacuee has had to change shelters seven times. Three years on, 135,000 are still displaced. High levels of stress, family separation, unemployment and disease all add to the health and human rights burdens of the Fukushima disaster.

Speakers in the workshop stressed the need to share full information about a nuclear disaster with the public and to have public participation in prior planning. In Minamisoma, a town just outside the 20-kilometer exclusion zone around the stricken Fukushima reactors, the mayor heard nothing from the authorities until 10 days into the disaster and had to decide what to do on his own, Isono reported.

Conventions on nuclear accidents adopted since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster give more prominence to secrecy and confidentiality that to the public’s health or to human rights, said Prieur. The right to life, the right to health and the rights of future generations need to be made explicit in regulations governing disaster response, he said.

A Japanese medical school professor, Dr Eisuki Matsui of Gifu University, reported that a three-year survey of 200,000 people affected by the Fukushima disaster uncovered 74 cases of a rare cancer in children. Fernex called 74 cases of a rare cancer in children “an epidemic” in a population of that size.

A WCC speaker reviewed the emergency, health and environmental impact of a nuclear weapons disaster, reporting on a recent humanitarian conference on that topic in Mexico which more than 200 governments and civil society organizations attended.

Other speakers reviewed the nuclear disaster recommendations in the UN special rapporteur’s report on the human right to health, consumer rights and protections, and legal support to Fukushima municipalities.

Jonathan Frerichs, WCC programme executive for peace building and disarmament, is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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