- 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)
Greta Thunberg To Skip U.N. Climate Change Conference, Citing Vaccine Inequality
- Young environmental activist Greta Thunberg will not attend the U.N.’s climate change conference set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland this November.
- “Inequality and climate injustice is already the heart of the climate crisis. If people can’t be vaccinated and travel to be represented equally that’s undemocratic and would worsen the problem,” the 18-year-old tweeted Friday, adding, “Vaccine nationalism won’t solve the pandemic. Global problems need global solutions.”
- Since rollouts began late last year, 40% of vaccines have been administered in wealthy and Western countries, according to The Washington Post.
- Scientists have warned that the longer the virus continues to circulate widely, the more chances it will have to change and potentially develop vaccine resistance.
Thunberg Points To Vaccine Inequality
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has said she is skipping the UN’s climate change conference.
The COP26 summit is set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland in November, but 18-year-old Thunberg told BBC she won’t attend because she’s concerned about the impact COVID-19 will have on attendance.
In a Twitter thread Friday, she responded to a headline about her plans to miss the summit.
“Of course I would love to attend…But not unless everyone can take part on the same terms. Right now many countries are vaccinating healthy young people, often at the expense of risk groups and front line workers (mainly from global south, as usual…),” she wrote.
“Inequality and climate injustice is already the heart of the climate crisis. If people can’t be vaccinated and travel to be represented equally that’s undemocratic and would worsen the problem.”
“Vaccine nationalism won’t solve the pandemic. Global problems need global solutions,” the teen continued.
Thunberg went on to say that if the summit is delayed, it doesn’t mean urgent action should too.
“We don’t have to wait for conferences nor anyone or anything else to dramatically start reducing our emissions. Solidarity and action can start today,” she added before noting that digital alternatives for the conference would also be insufficient.
“High speed internet connection and access to computers is extremely unequal in the world. In that case we would lack representation from those whose voices need to be heard the most when it comes to the climate crisis,” she wrote.
Data on Global Vaccine Distribution Efforts
According to The Washington Post, nearly 20% of people in the United States are now vaccinated, but many other countries are unlikely to hit that same metric by the end of the year, even with international assistance through the Covax program.
Current projections predict it could be years before developing countries distribute enough doses to come close to herd immunity, which scientists say requires inoculating around 70-80% of a population.
Since rollouts began late last year, enough shots have been distributed to fully vaccinate about 5% of the world’s population, but The Post reported that the vast majority have been administered in wealthy and Western countries.
Around 40% of vaccines have been given in 27 wealthy nations that include only 11% of the world’s population, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.
That’s pretty concerning because scientists also warn that the longer the virus continues to circulate widely, the more chances it will have to change and potentially develop vaccine resistance.
Thunberg’s comments are a blow for U.K. organizers, who have already postponed the conference once from last November because of the pandemic. Even now, there has been speculation that it could be delayed again this year.
Thunberg would not play a formal role at the conference but her decision not to attend is a significant symbolic moment.
At COP25, the young climate change activist gave a headline speech and she typically attends major climate events of this nature. On top of that, reports say this summit was slated to be one of the most consequential climate conferences since the 2015 Paris accord.
On the agenda for this year’s conference discussions were country-level plans for cutting carbon emissions, along with progress on the Paris agreement and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
See what others are saying: (Insider) (CNBC) (The Washington Post)
Japan To Explore Plans for Releasing Fukushima Power Plant Water Into Ocean
- Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide is reportedly planning to meet with officials and agencies soon to discuss how to dispose of about a million gallons of radioactive water from the Fukushima power plant.
- The supply of water used to cool down fuel rods is stored on-site, and the government has spent a decade decontaminating it, only leaving a naturally occurring isotope in it that scientists recognize as safe for people and the environment.
- Local businesses, particularly fisheries, are still concerned about the release of the water because of ensuing headlines that might lead to public distrust in their products, but Suga insists the water needs to go to make way for safely storing the far more dangerous nuclear fuel rods.
Editor’s Note: The Japanese government has asked Western outlets to adhere to Japanese naming conventions. To that end, Japanese names will be written as Family Name followed by Given Name.
Dangerous Water or Scary Headlines?
As early as next week, Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide will hold a ministerial meeting to discuss the likely release of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.
The decision to release the water isn’t sudden, as the recommendation to do so has been around for over a year by various government agencies. Regardless, the decision has consistently faced backlash from local groups, particularly fisheries, over how the move will affect their livelihoods, not because the water is radioactive but because the headlines would look bad and cause fear that their products aren’t safe.
While the water is radioactive, the government has spent the last decade decontaminating it, and now it only contains a trace amount of the isotope tritium. That isotope is common in nature and is already found in trace amounts in groundwater throughout the world. Some scientists, like geological disposal of nuclear waste expert James Conca, have pointed out that “no harm has ever come to humans or the environment from tritium, no matter what the concentration or the dose.”
Delay, Delay, Delay
The issue of the contaminated water has been kicked down the road for years, and Suga wants to resolve it because space is running out on the grounds of the plant. The water storage facilities house over a million gallons of water, which is constantly being added to as some of the stores have rainwater and groundwater seep into them.
The water is considered safe to people but takes a huge amount of space that the government wants to use to store damaged radioactive fuel rods that still need to be extracted from the plant. Unlike the water, the rods are dangerous if not properly stored.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said the plan to get rid of the water is sound and meets global standards. Dumping treated water into the sea is completely normal for a nuclear power plant, even in non-emergency situations.
Regardless, Suga reportedly recognizes that it’s a lose-lose situation, with Kishi reporting that he said, “It is inevitable that there would be reputational damage regardless of how the water will be disposed of, whether into the sea or into the air.”
The sentiment that the headlines would hurt local industries is likely right because even to this day, eleven countries and regions still ban many products from the Fukushima prefecture, despite massive clean-up efforts that have seen people returning to live in the area.
See what others are saying: (Kyodo News) (The Mainichi) (Japan Today)
Chile’s Government Gave Out Faulty Birth Control. Now At Least 150 Women Are Pregnant
- At least 150 women across Chile became pregnant after taking faulty birth control manufactured by local subsidiaries of the German pharmaceutical company Grünenthal.
- In many cases, mismarked packaging made consumers unclear of when to take the medication. In other instances, pills were put in the wrong spots or contained insufficient active ingredients.
- The country’s public health agency acknowledged the problem, issuing some recalls and guidelines for how to properly take the medication, though it’s still facing backlash for leaving widespread information campaigns to local clinics.
- Many women claim they never received any information about their faulty birth control until they went back to the clinic weeks later for routine checkups.
Defective Birth Control, Real Consequences
Family planning centers in Chile gave out faulty birth control medications to women across the country, resulting in at least 150 pregnancies, though many experts believe the number of pregnancies caused by the issue could be higher.
At the center of the controversy are two subsidiary plants of the German pharmaceutical company Grünenthal, which designed multiple birth control pills. Both Chilean subsidiaries, Labortorios Silesia and Andrómaco, have a history of messing up their pills.
In 2018, Silesia mismarked the packaging on their contraceptive Tinelle, which made it confusing for patients to know when to take certain pills. That caused the product being taken off the market and then re-added once the packaging was fixed.
2020 saw a huge spike in production issues from both Silesia and Andrómaco. On August 24, 139,000 packs of the contraceptive Anulette CD were recalled after a family planning clinic found that multiple packets from the same batch had their active and placebo pills switched. Then on September 3, another 137,000 packs of Anulette CD were recalled after the same issue was found in another batch of the product.
In response, the ISP (Chile’s public health authority) suspended Silesia’s license to manufacture drugs. Only four days later, it reversed that decision after it claimed that the issue was easily noticeable on the packaging and that clinics should contact their patients to let them know. A month later, Andrómaco had to issue a recall after its two contraceptives, Minigest-15 & 20, were both found to not contain enough of the active ingredients to actually work. Andrómaco maintains that the products would work fine under normal shelf-life circumstances and only failed tests because conditions at the laboratory were unideal. It’s currently unknown just how much of it was recalled.
In November 2020, Silesia got their license to produce contraceptives back, followed by a roughly $92,000 fine in February 2021.
The government is facing widespread criticism over how it handled the situation, particularly because the only public information given out about the faulty birth control came when the ISP sent out a tweet that led to more information on August 29, just days after the first recall of Anulette. Beyond that, there were few efforts to make the public more aware of the recalls.
Additionally, the agency’s decision to allow the faultily marked packets to stay on the market was even more controversial. It left the job of disseminating information about how to properly take the mismarked pills to local clinics, which failed in their own right to inform the public. Many women didn’t even know about the issue until they went in for checkups and had been taking the medications incorrectly for weeks or months.
ISP is also facing scrutiny for only recalling two batches of Anulette, even though they received 26 complaints about 15 different batches. The ISP has pushed back against the claims, saying that not every complaint needs a recall to resolve the issue.
In the end, the federal government has blamed local clinics and the manufacturers for not disseminating information abut the recalls and new guidelines for the vaccine, while others blame the national government for failing to properly release the information and engage in long-term awareness campaigns.