Many residents of Fukushima prefecture still lack basic information and clear answers about the level of radiation in their food and environment, Human Rights Watch said today, releasing a slide show of individuals affected by the Fukushima nuclear plant explosion in advance of the one-year anniversary on March 11, 2012.
Although the explosion at the Daiichi plant is considered the most severe radiation crisis worldwide since Chernobyl, many residents of Fukushima prefecture report that they have not been able to have their children tested for radiation exposure. They also told Human Rights Watch that the government provides contradictory information about the impact of radiation on human health.
“In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster the Japanese government struggled to respond, as any government would in such a crisis,” said Kanae Doi, Japan director at Human Rights Watch. “But one year later Fukushima residents have a right to know if the food they are eating is safe and if their children continue to be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.”
Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with individuals in four cities around the mandatory evacuation zone, looking at their access to healthcare and information, living conditions, and impact on their livelihood. Human Rights Watch also took portraits of individuals presented as a slide show paired with their testimony. Many of those portrayed were struggling to access information about the health of their children, and the safety of the food and water supply.
One father told Human Rights Watch, “When I think about my children, I want to get these tests over with as soon as possible so that I can tell them they are fine and healthy, but there’s only so much one person can do on his own. I just wish the authorities would act decisively.”
The 9.0 level earthquake struck on March 11, 2011, off the coast of northeastern Japan and created a tsunami that traveled 10 kilometers inland. The tsunami cut electrical power to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and flooded rooms containing emergency backup generators, leading to the overheating of reactors. A meltdown of three reactors led to the release of radiation into the surrounding community.
The Japanese government created a 20-kilometer mandatory evacuation zone and urged residents of an additional zone where radiation had been measured at levels of 20 mSv/year or more to evacuate as well. Although the government announced that all areas outside of the evacuation zone were safe, officials in Tokyo have documented elevated levels of cesium-137 more than 200 km from the plant that were equal to those within the 20 km exclusion zone.
A particular source of concern for families living in Fukushima prefecture is food safety. The prefecture government has assured residents that food is tested before it is brought to markets. But the government has yet to set up a systematic process for measuring radiation levels in food from the area and communicating the results to the public, Human Rights Watch said.
Fukushima residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that citizens have begun to conduct their own radiation testing.
“Neither the central government nor the prefecturalgovernment is giving people enough information to be able to understand the risks that they face,” Doi said. “On the one hand the government will announce that tap water is safe for everyone to drink, and on the other it will suggest that children drink only bottled water. Parents can’t get a clear answer on what the level of risk really is.”
Parents told Human Rights Watch that although many schools provide radiation monitors to measure ongoing exposure, it has been very hard to get health tests for their children to determine past exposure. The prefecture government has announced plans to offer thyroid gland tests for 360,000 prefectural residents ages 18 and under, but the details of how the testing will be implemented across the prefecture are still unclear. In lieu of developing a plan to test all children for radiation, the government sent out health questionnaires to Fukushima prefecture residents asking questions about their activities after the earthquake to determine the level of risk for each child. The ability of parents to recall meals and specific actions that took place months earlier, and the validity of these reports, is questionable, Human Rights Watch said.
Plans to decontaminate affected zones are estimated to cost 1 trillion yen (US$13 billion), but the government has not created a detailedplan to show where, when, and how decontamination will take place. These steps have been seen as inadequate by many Fukushima residents, who are also asking for compensation for lost homes and livelihoods, and for damage to their health.
Parents are demanding a more straightforward method of assessing the effects of radiation exposure on their children’s health, starting with actual health checks, like urine and whole body counts, which will provide clear information on levels of exposure.
Japan is party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Both treaties obligate Japan to protect the health of its children, to provide health information, and to ensure access to healthcare. Under international law, while the delivery of healthcare may be dependent upon available resources, health information may not be arbitrarily censored or withheld.
“The government of Japan should put the health and safety of children at its top priority. Yet the details of its current plans for cleanup and health testing are never adequately explained to concerned residents,” Doi said. “Greater accountability and transparency are needed to restore trust and faith in the government, and the government should start by providing clearer information on past and on-going health risks.”