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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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U.K. Court Rules Julian Assange Can Be Extradited to U.S.

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The judgment overrules a lower court decision that blocked the WikiLeaks founder’s extradition on the grounds that his mental health was not stable enough to weather harsh conditions in the American prison system if convicted.


New Developments in Assange Extradition Battle

A British court ruled Friday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States to face charges of violating the Espionage Act that could land him in prison for decades.

Prosecutors in the U.S. have accused Assange of conspiring with former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010 to hack into a Department of Defense computer network and access thousands of military and diplomatic records on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The information obtained in the hack was later published by WikiLeaks in 2010 and 2011, a move U.S. authorities allege put lives in danger.

In addition to a charge of computer misuse, Assange has also been indicted on 17 espionage charges. Collectively, the charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 175 years.

The Friday decision from the High Court overturns a lower court ruling in January, which found that Assange’s mental health was too fragile for the harsh environment he could face in the U.S. prison system if convicted.

Notably, the January ruling did not determine whether or not Assange was guilty. In fact, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser explicitly rejected the defense’s arguments that the charges against him were politically motivated and that he should be protected under freedom of press.

However, she agreed that the defense had provided compelling evidence that Assange suffers from severe depression and that the conditions he could face in the U.S. prison system were “such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America.”

The U.S. appealed the ruling, arguing that Assange’s mental health should not be a barrier to extradition and that the psychiatrist who examined him had been biased. 

In October, the Biden administration vowed that if Assange were to be convicted, he would not be placed in the highest-security U.S. prison or immediately sent to solitary confinement. Officials also said that the native Australian would be eligible to serve his sentence in his home country.

High Court Ruling

The High Court agreed with the administration’s arguments in its ruling, arguing that the American’s assurances regarding the conditions of Assange’s potential incarceration were “sufficient.” 

“There is no reason why this court should not accept the assurances as meaning what they say,” the ruling stated. “There is no basis for assuming that the USA has not given the assurances in good faith.”

Assange’s fiancé, Stella Moris, said in a statement that his legal team would appeal the decision to the British Supreme Court at the “earliest possible moment,” referring to the judgment as a “grave miscarriage of justice.”

The Supreme Court will now decide whether or not to hear the case based on if it believes the matter involves a point of law “of general public importance.” That decision may take weeks or even months.

If the U.K. Supreme Court court objects to hearing Assange’s appeal, he could ask the European Court of Human Rights to stay the extradition — a move that could set in motion another lengthy legal battle in the already drawn-out process.

Assange and his supporters claim he was acting as an investigative journalist when he published the classified military cables. They argue that the possibility of his extradition and prosecution represent serious threats to press freedoms in the U.S.

U.S. prosecutors dispute that Assange acted as a journalist, claiming that he encouraged illegal hacking for personal reasons.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (The Washington Post)

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Early Data Indicates Omicron is More Transmissible But Less Severe

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The studies come as Pfizer and BioNTech claim that preliminary research shows a third shot of their COVID vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the new variant, but two doses alone may not.


More Information About Omicron

Several preliminary studies published in recent days appear to show that the new omicron COVID-19 variant may be more transmissible but less severe than previous strains.

One recent, un-peer-reviewed study by a Japanese scientist who advises the country’s health ministry found that omicron is four times more transmissible in its initial stage than delta was.

Preliminary information in countries hit hard by omicron also indicates high transmissibility. In South Africa —  where the variant was first detected and is already the dominant strain — new COVID cases have more than doubled over the last week.

Health officials in the U.K. said omicron cases are doubling every two or three days, and they expect the strain to become dominant in the country in a matter of weeks.

In a statement Wednesday, World Health Organization Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that while early data does seem to show high transmissibility, it also indicates that omicron causes more mild cases than delta.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevent Director Rochelle Walensky echoed that sentiment, telling reporters that of the 40 known omicron cases in the U.S. as of Wednesday, nearly all of them were mild. One person has been hospitalized so far and none have died.

Studies on Vaccine Efficacy 

Other recent studies have shown that current COVID vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness and death in omicron patients, and boosters provide at least some added protection.

On Wednesday, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that laboratory tests have shown a third dose of their COVID-19 vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the omicron variant, though two doses may not.

According to the companies, researchers saw a 25-fold reduction in neutralizing antibodies for omicron compared to other strains of the virus for people who had just two Pfizer doses. 

By contrast, samples from people one month after they had received a Pfizer booster presented neutralizing antibodies against omicron that were comparable to those seen against previous variants after two doses.

Still, Pfizer’s chief executive also told reporters later in the day that omicron could increase the likelihood that people might need a fourth dose earlier than previously expected, which he had initially said was 12 months after the third shot.

Notably, the Pfizer research has not yet been peer-reviewed, and it remains unclear how omicron will operate outside a lab, but other studies have had similar findings.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Bloomberg) (NBC News)

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40 Camels Disqualified From Beauty Contest After Breeders Inject Their Faces With Botox

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The animals were barred from competing for $66 million in prizes at this year’s King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Saudi Arabia.


Camels Booted From Beauty Contest

More than 40 camels were disqualified from a beauty contest in Saudi Arabia this week after judges found artificial enhancements in their faces, marking the biggest crackdown on contestants in the competition to date.

The animals were competing for $66 million in prizes at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, a month-long event that is estimated to include around 33,000 camels.

However, according to The Guardian, they were forced out of the contest when authorities found that breeders had “stretched out the lips and noses of the camels, used hormones to boost the animals’ muscles, injected heads and lips with Botox to make them bigger, inflated body parts with rubber bands, and used fillers to relax their faces.”

Those types of alterations are banned since judges look at the contestant’s heads, necks, humps, posture, and other features when evaluating them.

An announcement from the state-linked Saudi Press Agency said officials used “specialized and advanced” technology to detect tampering.

“The club is keen to halt all acts of tampering and deception in the beautification of camels,” the SPA report added before warning that organizers would “impose strict penalties on manipulators.”

While it’s unclear what that actually entails, this isn’t the first time people have tried to cheat in this way.

In 2018, 12 camels were similarly disqualified from the competition for injections in their noses, lips, and jaw.

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

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