Saturday, May 21, 2011

18/05 THE COLUMN/ Fumihiko Yoshida: Lessons of A-bomb should be applied to Fukushima disaster

photoFumihiko Yoshida (The Asahi Shimbun)

On Aug. 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, black raindrops began falling on communities distant from ground zero. The rain contained not only the soot and dust that was swept up in the aftermath of the bomb, but also radiation.

The novelist Masuji Ibuse (1898-1993) wrote about the tragedy of the atomic bombing in a work that has been translated into English as "Black Rain." In the novel, a young woman reveals her inner feelings in her diary entries.

"The rain looked like thick sticks the size of fountain pens."

"I went to the pond a number of times to wash my clothes but I could not remove the black spots from the rain."

The woman also walked in the ashes of a burnt-out Hiroshima. She would eventually develop symptoms of radiation poisoning.

On the other hand, in the real world, modern medicine has not yet clearly demonstrated all of the effects on human health from the black rain. All that time has passed without even an accurate measurement of the amount of black rain that fell and the radiation that it contained.

Last year, however, 65 years after the dropping of the atomic bomb, a report on the results of a study into what hibakusha survivors went through was compiled by the Hiroshima city government. The study showed that the black rain had definite psychological effects on many people.

A team of specialists, including Kenji Kamiya, who heads Hiroshima University's Research Institute for Radiation Biology and Medicine, who conducted the study for the city carried out questionnaires of hibakusha as well as those who experienced the black rain. Interviews were also conducted with those surveyed.

The study found that many of those who experienced the black rain felt the same psychological pain of those who lived near ground zero when the atomic bomb fell.

The study results showed the depths of the psychological exposure to radiation that emerged on that tragic day.

A major question for today is how to respond to the effects from the major accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The shock on human beings from the atomic bomb is much greater and there were no reports of any "black rain" as a result of the Fukushima accident.

However, both events are linked by a common fear of radiation.

Government officials have emphasized that radiation levels in the areas near the Fukushima plant will not immediately lead to adverse health effects on local residents.

Be that as it may, the release of radiation from a crippled nuclear plant for an extended period is an unprecedented development.

Moreover, depending on future conditions at the plant and the movement of any radiation plume, there still is the possibility that radiation exposure levels could increase in certain areas.

If that is the case, the experience of those who lived in areas hit by the atomic bomb will provide an important clue in how to proceed with psychological care for those who lived near the Fukushima plant.

According to the Hiroshima study, the major cause of psychological pain felt by those who experienced the black rain was concern for their future health.

They became worried about late-onset symptoms emerging even with minimal amounts of radiation exposure. Any health problem was suspected of being connected to the radiation.

Kamiya said, "The psychological burden was undoubtedly very large."

One practice being tested by those in the medical profession is what has been called risk communication.

Doctors explain the risks of radiation in a simple way. Individuals who raise any concerns during consultations with doctors are encouraged to seek further treatment. Even in cases where the risk is low based on the circumstances surrounding the individual's exposure to radiation, doctors do not simply say, "There will be no immediate health damage," and leave it at that.

Doctors try to respond to questions and explain in a manner that will convince those who come in for consultations.

While it may not have been all encompassing, such efforts have continued in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"If doctors from those two cities explained that there were no problems in cases where there are no problems, residents in Fukushima should be more assured," said Kamiya, who now also serves as a radiation health risk control adviser to the Fukushima prefectural government.

He plans to dispatch doctors to Fukushima from Hiroshima as well as Nagasaki after gaining cooperation in that city.

There was also a second cause of the psychological pain felt by those who experienced the black rain.

According to Nozomu Asukai, a deputy head of the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Medical Science who was part of the team of experts for the Hiroshima study, the second cause was "discrimination and prejudice."

In Ibuse's novel, a man who experienced discrimination as a hibakusha is depicted as worried about the effect of the black rain on his niece. In actual society, many individuals felt the stabs of pain caused by discrimination and prejudice.

Similar reports have surfaced in Fukushima.

Prefectural government officials have heard from local residents who have been denied service at restaurants and hotels just because they came from Fukushima.

While such discrimination and prejudice may be the actions of a small number of insensitive individuals, each such act leaves behind scars among disaster victims.

The damage from negative publicity to agricultural produce and manufactured goods is another form of prejudice and discrimination. Such negative publicity is not restricted to Japan and has led to import restrictions on items from Japan. Left as is, such actions could widen the psychological pain felt.

A strategy is necessary for immediate and effective risk control that prevents anything not deemed safe from reaching the market, but also proudly selling anything that does reach the market because that means it is undoubtedly safe.

Yoshibumi Nakane, a professor emeritus at Nagasaki University, has for many years studied the psychological aftereffects in Nagasaki of the atomic bombing.

"People should be afraid of radiation," Nakane said. "However, people should never overreact. They should be properly afraid after properly understanding the dangers. That is fundamentally how people should deal with radiation."

In the wake of a huge sacrifice, Japan has accumulated a large volume of experiences and information in the two cities hit by the atomic bomb.

It can even be called Japan's mission to use that legacy, which can be considered lessons from the atomic age, to deal with the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11.

The actual circumstances at those two ground zero points should not be forgotten. There are still many people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki who are even now worried about the effects from the black rain.

Without facing up to this reality, no proper response can be made to the situation in Fukushima.

History has not yet ended.

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Fumihiko Yoshida is an Asahi Shimbun editorial writer.

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