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Japan Marks 10th Anniversary of Fukushima Disaster, UN Confirms No Long-Term Health Effects

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  • Prayers, memorials, and moments of silence were held across Japan on Thursday to recognize the 10 year anniversary of the tsunami that killed 18,000 people and led to a nuclear meltdown at Fukushima.
  • In a report released Thursday, Greenpeace accused the Japanese government of rushing efforts to clean up the nuclear disaster zone to have residents return sooner, potentially exposing them to dangerous radiation levels.
  • However, a different report by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation found that the Fukushima disaster has led to no adverse health issues.

Ten Years Later, Still Evacuated

Thursday marked the 10th anniversary of the Fukushima disaster in Japan, which was marked by mourning for the loss of 18,000 people who died as a result of a 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

Prayers and memorials were held across Japan, and Emperor Naruhito led a national moment of silence at 2:46 p.m. – the exact time the earthquake struck. Locals of northeastern Honshu commemorated the tragedy by visiting the Akiba shrine. That shrine has been viewed as a local symbol of resilience since it was barely damaged in the tsunami when whole villages and towns around it were wiped off the map.

Beyond the staggering death toll caused by the tsunami, the disaster is also remembered for the nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant. Damage to the power plant forced tens of thousands to evacuate the area over concerns of nuclear radiation. Many who fled have yet to return and 40,000 people are still considered displaced. Since the nuclear meltdown, the town has been abandoned and marked as off-limits, with the government spending $300 billion so far to rebuild and clean up the disaster zone.

The Fukushima disaster is the second worse nuclear accident after Chernobyl, the infamous reactor explosion that shot radiation across much of Eastern Europe. Over the years, the two have been increasingly compared and spoken-of in popular culture as if they were on the same scale. This has caused concerns about the long-term health effects Fukushima may have caused locals, especially since Chernobyl has been linked to many cases of cancer and other radiation-related illnesses.

Adding to the concerns are accusations by Greenpeace East Asia. On Thursday, the environmental group released a report accusing the Japanese government of rushing cleanup and decontamination efforts in the disaster zone in order to put the issue behind them.

“Successive governments during the last 10 years … have attempted to perpetuate a myth about the nuclear disaster,” Shaun Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace East Asia said. “They have sought to deceive the Japanese people by misrepresenting the effectiveness of the decontamination program and ignoring radiological risks.”

UN Report Rebukes Concerns

Such cleanup efforts are central to reducing the number of adverse health effects from such nuclear disasters, but the fears of Greenpeace East Asia seem to be overblown. A U.N. report also released on Thursday by the Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (Unscear) found that the Fukushima nuclear meltdown and subsequent radiation have not damaged the health of locals. The findings support a 2013 UN health report that also concluded that Fukushima, fortunately, didn’t directly cause health issues.

The 2013 report was actually doubted for some time, as another report in 2016 found that cases of thyroid cancer among local kids seemed to be on the rise. Between 2011 and 2015, health officials discovered 113 cases of thyroid cancer among more than 300,000 people aged 18. Unscear’s report put those concerns to rest, writing, “On the balance of available evidence, the large increase … in the number of thyroid cancers detected among exposed children is not the result of radiation exposure.”

“Rather, they are the result of ultrasensitive screening procedures that have revealed the prevalence of thyroid abnormalities in the population not previously detected,” it added.

When talking about Unscear’s findings, Gerry Thomas, director of the Chernobyl Tissue Bank and chair of molecular pathology at Imperial College London, was not surprised they ruled out a link between thyroid cancers and Fukushima. “The thyroid radiation doses post-Fukushima were about 100 times lower than after Chernobyl due to a number of factors,” she told Reuters.

Thomas added that “all the evidence we have on levels of exposure and the data from the health screening program in Fukushima suggests that it is very unlikely that we will see any increase in thyroid cancer in these children, who are now adolescents and young adults.”

Realities of Nuclear Disasters

Thyroid issues are often the target for focus by experts, as they’re among the first vectors for serious radiation absorption in humans.

The lack of any adverse health issues near Fukushima isn’t completely shocking. Theoretically, long-term radiation exposure can lead to widespread cancers or worse. However, in real-world situations, governments have been able to mitigate the dangers of radiation through a variety of means, such as evacuations and decontamination efforts. Even Chernobyl has yet to lead to wide scale death. In 2019, the UN estimated that only 50 deaths can be directly attributed to the disaster, including the 31 that died immediately following its explosion. It added that in total, 4,000 people may eventually die as a result of radiation exposure.

Fukushima is unlikely to approach those numbers for a variety of reasons. The most notable is that the amount of radiation leaked by the Japanese plant was an order of magnitude less than Chernobyl, which had a completely exposed core shooting radiation directly into the atmosphere to be spread across a massive area. Fukushima’s cores, while still experiencing meltdowns, never exploded nor were exposed. This lead to a more gradual release of radiation, much of which was contained within the plant itself.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Guardian) (Reuters)

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Israel Relaxes Abortion Restrictions in Response to U.S. Supreme Court Ruling

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The reforms follow similar moves by France and Germany as leaders across the political spectrum denounce the court’s decision.


Health Minister Makes Announcement

Israel is easing access to abortion in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v. Wade, Nitzan Horowitz, the country’s health minister and head of the small left-wing Meretz party, announced Monday.

“The U.S. Supreme Court’s move to deny a woman the right to abortion is a dark move,” he said in the announcement, “oppressing women and returning the leader of the free and liberal world a hundred years backward.”

The new rules, approved by a majority in the parliamentary committee, grant women access to abortion pills through the universal health system. Women will be able to obtain the pills at local health centers rather than only hospitals and surgical clinics.

The new policy also removes the decades-old requirement for women to physically appear before a special committee that must grant approval to terminate a pregnancy.

While women will still need to get approval, the process will become digitized, the application form will be simplified, and the requirement to meet a social worker will become optional.

The committee will only conduct hearings in the rare case it initially denies the abortion procedure.

Israel’s 1977 abortion law stipulates four criteria for termination of pregnancy: If the woman is under 18 or over 40, if the fetus is in danger, if the pregnancy is the result of rape, incest, or an “illicit union,” including extramarital affairs, and if the woman’s mental or physical health is at risk.

All of the changes will take effect over the next three months.

The World Reacts

Politicians across the political spectrum from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have denounced the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision since it was announced Friday.

On Saturday, French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne expressed support for a bill proposed by parliament that would enshrine the right to an abortion in the country’s constitution.

“For all women, for human rights, we must set this gain in stone,” she wrote on Twitter. “Parliament must be able to unite overwhelmingly over this text.”

Germany scrapped a Nazi-era law prohibiting the promotion of abortion Friday, just hours before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

In Israel, abortion is a far less controversial issue than it is for Americans. Around 98% of people who apply for an abortion get one, according to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Part of the reason for Israel’s relatively easy access to abortion is that many residents interpret Jewish law to condone, or at least not prohibit, the procedure.

In the United States, several Jewish organizations including the American Jewish Committee, Hillel International, and the Women’s Rabbinic Network have expressed opposition to the court ruling, and some Jews have protested it as a violation of their religious freedom.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (ABC News) (The Guardian)

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Flight Deporting Refugees From U.K. to Rwanda Canceled at Last Hour

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said the U.K.’s asylum policy sets a “catastrophic” precedent.


Saved By The Bell

The inaugural flight in the U.K. government’s plan to deport some asylum seekers to Rwanda was canceled about an hour and a half before it was supposed to take off Tuesday evening.

A last-minute legal intervention by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) halted the flight. Tuesday’s flight originally included 37 people, but after a string of legal challenges that number dwindled to just seven.

In its ruling for one of the seven passengers, a 54-year-old Iraqi man, the court said he cannot be deported until three weeks after the delivery of the final domestic decision in his ongoing judicial review proceedings.

Another asylum seeker, a 26-year-old Albanian man, told The Guardian he was in a “very bad mental state” and did not want to go to Rwanda, a country he knows nothing about.

“I was exploited by traffickers in Albania for six months,” he said. “They trafficked me to France. I did not know which country I was being taken to.”

A final domestic effort to block the flight in the Court of Appeals failed on Monday. The High Court will make a ruling on the asylum policy next month.

Britains Divided by Controversial Policy

U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel spoke to lawmakers after the flight was canceled, defending the asylum policy and saying preparations for the next flight will begin immediately.

“We cannot keep on spending nearly £5 million a day on accommodation including that of hotels,” she said. “We cannot accept this intolerable pressure on public services and local communities.”

“It makes us less safe as a nation because those who come here illegally do not have the regularized checks or even the regularized status, and because evil people-smuggling gangs use the proceeds of their ill-gotten gains to fund other appalling crimes that undermine the security of our country,” she continued.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Filippo Grandi, told CBC the policy sets a “catastrophic” precedent.

“We believe that this is all wrong,” he said. “This is all wrong. I mean, saving people from dangerous journeys is great, is absolutely great. But is that the right way to do it? Is that the right, is that the real motivation for this deal to happen? I don’t think so. I think it’s… I don’t know what it is.”

An Iranian asylum seeker in a British detention center who was told to prepare for deportation before being granted a late reprieve was asked by ABC whether he ever thought the U.K. would send him to Africa.

“I thought in the U.K. there were human rights,” he said. “But so far I haven’t seen any evidence.”

The Conservative government’s plan was announced in April, when it said it would resettle some asylum seekers 4,000 miles away in Rwanda, where they can seek permanent refugee status, apply to settle there on other grounds, or seek asylum in a safe third country.

The scheme was meant to deter migrants from illegally smuggling themselves into the country by boat or truck.

Migrants have long made the dangerous journey from Northern France across the English Channel, with over 28,000 entering the U.K. in boats last year, up from around 8,500 the year prior. Dozens of people have died making the trek, including 27 who drowned last November when a single boat capsized.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (The Guardian) (CNN)

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Ryanair Draws Outrage, Accusations of Racism After Making South Africans Take Test in Afrikaans

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Afrikaans, which is only spoken as a first language by around 13% of South Africa, has not been the country’s national language since apartheid came to an end in 1994.


Airline Won’t Explain Discrimination

Ryanair, Europe’s largest airline, has received widespread criticism and accusations of racism after it began requiring South African nationals to complete a test in Afrikaans to prove their passport isn’t fraudulent.

The airline told BBC the new policy was implemented because of “substantially increased cases of fraudulent South African passports being used to enter the U.K.”

Among other questions, the test asks passengers to name South Africa’s president, its capital city, and one national public holiday.

Ryanair has not said why it chose Afrikaans, the Dutch colonial language that many associate with white minority rule, for the test.

There are 11 official languages in South Africa, and Afrikaans ranks third for usage below Zulu and IsiXhosa. Only around 13% of South Africans speak Afrikaans as their first language.

“They’re using this in a manner that is utterly absurd,” Conrad Steenkamp, CEO of the Afrikaans Language Council, told reporters. “Afrikaans, you have roughly 20% of the population of South Africa understand Afrikaans. But the rest don’t, so you’re sitting with roughly 50 million people who do not understand Afrikaans.”

“Ryanair should be careful,” he continued. “Language is a sensitive issue. They may well end up in front of the Human Rights Commission with this.”

Ryanair’s policy only applies to South African passengers flying to the United Kingdom from within Europe, since it does not fly out of South Africa.

The British government has said in a statement that it does not require the test.

Anyone who cannot complete the test will be blocked from traveling and given a refund.

Memories of Apartheid Resurface

“The question requiring a person to name a public holiday is particularly on the nose given that SA has a whole public holiday NEXT WEEK commemorating an historic protest that started in response to language-based discrimination,” one person tweeted.

South African citizen Dinesh Joseph told the BBC that he was “seething” with anger when asked to take the test.

“It was the language of apartheid,” he said, adding that it was a trigger for him.

Officials in the country were also surprised by Ryanair’s decision.

We are taken aback by the decision of this airline because the Department regularly communicates with all airlines to update them on how to validate South African passports, including the look and feel,” South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs said in a statement.

Any airline found to have flown a passenger with a fake passport to the U.K. faces a fine of £2,000 from authorities there. Ryanair has also not said whether it requires similar tests for any other nationalities.

Many people expressed outrage at Ryanair’s policy and some told stories of being declined service because they did not pass the test.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (BBC) (Al Jazeera)

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