Irish Chernobyl campaigner shares lessons with people of Fukushima

by Maya Kaneko

Kyodo

During a fact-finding trip to Fukushima Prefecture, an Irish supporter of children affected by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster discovered “many mirror images” between the crisis here and the world’s worst nuclear accident, which still haunts people in contaminated zones.

Adi Roche, 56, chief executive officer of the charity group Chernobyl Children International, based in Cork, Ireland, offered encouragement for people living near the stricken Fukushima No. 1 power station, saying at a meeting in Koriyama in early March that Chernobyl survivors “want you to know that their hearts are also with you.”

In a demonstration of solidarity, Roche told local residents that Chernobyl survivors “understand the loss of community, the loss of culture, the loss of lives that you know and the loss of health and the loss of even life itself” and are “shedding tears for the people of Fukushima whose lives are so dramatically altered by this terrible event.”

The award-winning antinuclear campaigner, who in 1991 established a support group for children in what is now Ukraine, met with politicians, municipal officials and regular people impacted by the Fukushima crisis. Her visit to Japan was timed to coincide with the first anniversary of the March 11 triple disasters.

In Koriyama, some 60 km west of the troubled plant, Roche shared her experience of providing medical and humanitarian assistance to Chernobyl children with Sachiko Sato, 53, a representative of the 600-member Fukushima Network for Saving Children from Radiation.

Sato, from the Fukushima town of Kawamata, some 40 km northwest of the plant, said she gave up organic farming due to high levels of soil radiation she detected on her own after the nuclear accident, and sent four of her five children to live in neighboring Yamagata Prefecture.

Hearing Sato’s account of the situation faced by Fukushima residents right after the outbreak of the crisis, Roche expressed concerns that distribution of antiradiation iodine tablets was slow and that conflicts arose among citizens in the prefecture because of differing levels of anxiety about radiation.

Roche, whose group has brought more than 22,000 children from Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia to Ireland for rest and recuperation, backed Sato’s argument that Fukushima children under postdisaster stress need a similar program and that efforts to protect kids from adverse effects of radiation require public funding.

In Koriyama, children are advised not to play outside for lengthy periods. An indoor playground that the municipal government opened in December has drawn more than 80,000 visitors, according to the city.

At a news conference in Tokyo following her visit to Fukushima, Roche said mothers in the prefecture “clamored for my attention to ask questions about the effects of radiation” on their children.

The activist said those mothers share with Chernobyl survivors “fear, paralysis, depression and uncertainty about their future, a deep sense of loss and confusion as a result of misinformation or sometimes no information.”

“In Chernobyl, I know the first casualty was truth,” said Roche, who ran for president of Ireland in 1997.

“I know that there must be some balance in telling the truth that doesn’t panic and doesn’t immobilize the citizens. But also there must be some reality, some hard information given that must offer people choices before things go critical.”

During a meeting with Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the Social Democratic Party and a longtime nuclear opponent, Roche agreed that people who voluntarily evacuated and those who decided to remain in the area should both receive public support.

She said people should be given the right information to “make an educated decision to stay or not to stay.”

“Information is power and I think information gives us freedom, psychologically and emotionally,” she said.

Having supported many Chernobyl children who suffered from diseases such as thyroid cancer and heart problems, Roche said inhabitants of radiation-contaminated zones should have access to information on the long-term effects of low-level radiation exposure through the food chain, because the latency period for such exposure lasts for a few decades.

Roche said in an interview that to address daily fears of people over radiation, it is necessary to be honest and provide “the whole truth . . . not watered down, not monitored, not edited, not interpreted but told directly.”

When authorities don’t know for sure about the health risks, they should honestly say so, suggest the possibilities with data on radiation levels and give an alternative to eating potentially contaminated food as a precautionary measure, she said.

The activist also said “a multifaceted approach” is needed in providing information to the public, so that “a mixture of people who don’t have vested interests” are involved and recipients of the information will have trust in it.

She accused Tokyo Electric Power Co. of managing news on the crisis in a manner that caused a “complete lack of trust” among people.

“Tepco was like playing a poker game with the lives of Japanese people. They have only shown arrogance and disrespect and a complete disregard for the lives of the people,” she said.