Half-Life: Human Rights in Fukushima

By Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Member of the ICHRP International Council

Eight months after Japan was devastated by earthquake, tsunami and nuclear explosion, the world’s media has largely lost interest in the story. But for the people of Fukushima Prefecture, the disaster continues.

In the village of Iitate, trim farmhouses line the main road, but every house is empty. Although more than 20 kilometres away from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant (site of the explosions and meltdown), Iitate has the misfortune to lie in a spot where the coastal winds meet the mountains, and quickly became a radiation hotspot. Outside the community hall, radiation dosimeters read 15 or more microsieverts per hour – a level around one hundred times natural background radiation. Today Iitate is a ghost town, its population of over 50,000 people evacuated indefinitely.

Measuring radiation outside Iitate Community Hall:
the sign over the door Reads “Good Encounters in Lively Iitate”
Fukushima City, population 300,000, is outside the evacuation zone, and on the surface life here continues as usual. Yet the city exemplifies the terrible dilemmas of the nuclear accident. Levels of external radiation here vary, with some areas currently recording around 1.5-2 microsieverts per hour: far lower than Iitate, but up to ten times the level of natural background radiation. The Japanese government has declared that Fukushima City is safe. It is, however, undertaking removal of contaminated topsoil, although this has so far had relatively little effect on overall levels of radiation.

The roots of Fukushima’s problems lie in the limits of science. Although it is generally accepted that exposure to more than 100 millisieverts of radiation a year (equivalent to about 11 microsieverts per hour continued over a full year period) creates roughly a 1 in 200 likelihood of developing cancer, scientists are unable to provide a reliable projection of the effects below this level. There is also relatively little knowledge about the effects on human health of internal radiation – exposure caused by eating contaminated food.

The Japanese government has undertaken radiation tests on some food samples, but most of the food on sale in Fukushima City has not been tested. The predictable response is very widespread unease amongst the population, especially amongst pregnant women and families with small children – since babies and children are particularly vulnerable to the impact of radiation.

Remarkably, much of the research on the effects of the accident is being carried out, not by professional scientists, but by ordinary local people. In a small shopping arcade in downtown Fukushima City, a group of local citizens is helping to answer local concerns with an impressive battery of equipment, including a whole-body counter imported from Belarus. But the Citizen’s Radioactivity Measuring Station, funded by donations and staffed by volunteers, struggles to deal with the constant flow of requests for advice.

Citizens’ Radioactivity Measuring Station, Fukushima
Meanwhile, many families have become divided: spouses and children sent to live in other parts of Japan while the wage-earner remains in Fukushima. Even if the risk is relatively low, what parent wants to face the possibility that their child may develop cancer (or other health damage) because they failed to act in time? People from designated compulsory evacuation zones like Iitate village will receive compensation, but the Japanese government will not support the costs of those who choose to leave the “safety” of Fukushima City.

The human dimensions of the disaster are described by a volunteer from the new local NGO “Kodomo Fukushima”. The schoolchildren of Iitate village have been evacuated, many of them to Fukushima City, while their school has been moved to a campus just outside the Iitate exclusion zone. To reach their school, the children now living in Fukushima City have to board a school bus around 6am. While they are at school, they are not allowed to play out of doors for fear of radiation. When they return after school to Fukushima City, they continue to be exposed to levels of radiation up to ten times background level.

Kodomo Fukushima is campaigning to establish sanatoria in other parts of Japan and overseas, where vulnerable children can be sent for periods of two months to lower their radiation levels and restore their mental and physical health. The group’s founder Seiichi Nakate wants the government and company to acknowledge the possibility of health risks and to be much more active in all aspects of the response to the disaster, including providing compensation to voluntary evacuees from areas with elevated radiation levels. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires states to “recognize the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health”. It is time for the company responsible for the Fukushima accident, local and national governments in Japan, and the world community to fulfil their obligations to the children of Fukushima. 
About the Author:
Tessa Morris-Suzuki is a member of the ICHRP International Council and a Professor of Japanese History in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. She is co-founder of the AsiaRights network of Asia-Pacific human rights researchers and activists, and editor of the online journal AsiaRights. Tessa has written widely on issues relating to the rights of minorities, migrants and refugees in the Northeast Asian region, and on problems related to North Korean human rights

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