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What the WHO is doing in Fukushima

With Fukushima's event level now on par with Chernobyl, experts are questioning the role of the WHO in nuclear disasters.

The World Health Organization has not conducted a study on nuclear radiation, according to experts

The WHO has not conducted a study on nuclear radiation, according to experts

The world has now gone through two nuclear meltdowns: one at Chernobyl 25 years ago and now in Fukushima. One month after the disastrous earthquake, the Japanese authorities have raised the event level of Fukushima from five to seven – the highest level on the international scale for nuclear incidents, putting it on par with Chernobyl. Level 7 of the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) means: a major disaster and hazard to human health and to the environment.

Greenpeace has measured up to 48 microsieverts per hour of radiation in two villages located 60 km from the nuclear plant in Fukushima. That means every day, the people living there receive a dose as high as someone living in Germany would in a whole year. But the villagers have not been evacuated, according to radiobiologist, Katsumi Furitsu. She says, "People living in highly contaminated areas still haven’t been evacuated. The evacuation zone has a 20 kilometer radius. People living between 20 and 30 kilometers away from the plant have been advised to stay indoors."

Furitsu has done research on the victims of Hiroshima and Chernobyl. Like other American experts, she believes an evacuation zone of 80 kilometers is needed. But it is not up to the radio biologists to decide; it is up to the governor.

This 1986 aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear plant shows damage from an explosion and fire in reactor four on April 26

This 1986 aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear plant shows damage from an explosion and fire in reactor four on April 26

Hidden danger

Experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have not recommended any further evacuations. Critics spoke of an international crisis after the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in 1986. Radiologist Sebastian Pflugbeil from Berlin believes that Fukushima is also an international crisis.

He says, "the IAEA is supposed to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy throughout the world. And anything that speaks for the opposite, like health hazards after nuclear disasters and the inability to control such disasters, they do what they can to prevent information like that getting out."

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation wrote at the beginning of the year that the vast majority of people do not need to fear serious health problems resulting from the "Chernobyl accident". But that is exactly the opposite of what many doctors and experts are saying, who have treated radiation sickness and conducted studies on the effects of radiation. Pflugbeil says the statement is outright "inhumane" and believes there is a bigger story behind it: "it is more in favor of lobbies and the atomic industry and lobbies of plant operators – and behind all that are the interests of states that produce nuclear arms."

Agreement between WHO and IAEA

Pripyat, near the nuclear power plant, lies in ruins; before the nuclear disaster it had been a prospering city

Pripyat, near the nuclear power plant, lies in ruins; before the nuclear disaster it had been a prospering city

German scientist at Munich’s Helmholtz Institute, Hagen Scherb, has recently published a study on around one million "missing" births in Europe. He came to the conclusion that fewer girls have been born. He believes that is related radiation from the Chernobyl disaster 25 years ago.

Keith Baverstock believes the World Health Organization should conduct studies on the effects of radiation. He worked at the WHO in Geneva right after the Chernobyl disaster and says the organization does not bother with such studies because it does not see the routine use of nuclear power as a problem worse than the routine use of coal and oil.

According to IPPNW, or International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the WHO has not conducted any systematic research on the effects of Chernobyl radiation. Due to a contract signed between the WHO and the IAEA in the 1950s, the WHO must get permission from the IAEA to conduct and publish studies on such topics.

According to Greenpeace, more than 90,000 people are likely to die of cancers caused by radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster

According to Greenpeace, more than 90,000 people are likely to die of cancers caused by radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster

Professional standards needed

Baverstock says despite the commitment to protect the human right to health, governments do not seem to have any interest in publishing exact studies on contaminated areas. Baverstock says in Europe, conditions used to be a lot better.

He says after Chernobyl, it was one of Europe's priorities to deal with the problem of providing appropriate advice to member states and to the public. To do that, the so-called Nuclear Emergencies Project Office was set up in Helsinki, Baverstock explains, adding that he ran the office from 1998 until it was shut down in 2000. "And they didnt replace it with anything. So when it came to the Fukushima accident, it wasn’t there. So they didn’t have the expertise there to do it. It is really quite simple."

Baverstock says expert knowledge and professional standards must be reinstated. He says it is high time to start conducting studies on the effects of radiation to protect the human right to health.

Author: Ulrike Mast-Kirschning (sb)
Editor: Priya Esselborn

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