Fukushima And Chernobyl, Two Anniversaries For Measuring Damage

Thirty years after the Chernobyl catastrophe and five years after Fukushima, scientists have had a chance to quantify their impact.

Decimated pine forest near Chernobyl site
Decimated pine forest near Chernobyl site
Yann Verdo

PARIS â€" On Friday, it will be five years to the day since an earthquake-triggered tsunami caused the explosion of three reactors at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Then next month, on April 26, the world will also mark the 30th anniversary of the catastrophic nuclear accident at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine.

In hindsight, what can we say about the impact on health, society and the environment of these major nuclear accidents? Here's a review of the primary conclusions from a host of researchers.

Animal populations wiped out

Two short videos by Anders Moller, from Paris-Sud University's Systematic Ecology and Evolution laboratory, are gripping. Each shows a patch of countryside in the Fukushima region. In fact, the images are almost identical. Only the soundtracks differ: In the video shot in the non-contaminated region, you can hear birds singing. In the other video, there is a deafening, deadly silence.

In fact, a study of birds at Fukushima showed that the roughly 15 species present in one contaminated area had a survival rate of only 30% â€" far lower than the birds in an unaffected area. Even when radiation doesn't directly cause fatal illnesses, the populations of many different species of animals (birds and others) can diminish to the point of disappearing entirely after a nuclear disaster. For instance, a small rodent suffering from cataract problems, one of the afflictions noticed in Chernobyl, has fewer chances of finding a mate and reproducing.

That said, the impact of a nuclear accident on flora and fauna remains difficult to evaluate, and one issue in particular has been controversial. On-site studies at Chernobyl revealed five to 10 times greater sensitivity to radiation than what lab tests had indicated. Why the difference?

According to Jean-Christophe Gariel, director of the environment at France’s Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), the reason is probably that the on-site studies underestimate the dose actually absorbed. Typically, only external contamination, tied to exposure to ionizing rays, is taken into consideration, while internal contamination from inhalation or ingestion of contaminated substances is ignored.

Last year IRSN and Anders Moller's lab conducted a new Fukushima study to evaluate total radiation exposure (internal and external). Again focusing on birds, the tests showed that 90% of the 57 species analyzed had been exposed to enough radiation that their ability to reproduce was compromised.

An increase in thyroid cancer

Of all radiation-induced illnesses (endocrine cancer, leukemia, cardiovascular problems and cataracts, to name a few), thyroid cancer in children has been the focus of study for Elisabeth Cardis, from Barcelona's Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology, and IRSN's Jean-René Jourdain. The thyroid, especially in the very young, is one of the most radiation-sensitive human organs.

Ghost town: the 22,000 residents of Namie near the Fukushima plant were permanently evacuated. â€" Photo: Steve Herman

In the case of Chernobyl, their conclusions left no room for doubt. Placing a map of the geographic distribution of radiation exposure over a map of individual cases of thyroid cancer demonstrates that the 1986 explosion caused a spike in the number of tumors. Between 1986 and 2005, more than 6,800 cases of thyroid cancer were reported in the three former Soviet republics (Belarus, Ukraine and Russia) that were most affected by the accident. Because thyroid cancer has a relatively good survival rate, the majority of these 6,800 cases were fortunately not fatal.

But Chernobyl's lasting impact on public health is still sobering. The situation certainly deteriorated under the dysfunctional, incompetent Soviet leadership of the time. No systematic screening was developed, and worse, no one went distributed iodine pills to young Belarusians and Ukrainians to saturate their thyroids and prevent poisoning. In fact, in many cases children developed cancer after consuming milk containing radioactive iodine.

Japan in 2011 was a far cry from the Soviet Union of the 1980s, and the long-term health consequences of Fukushima will no doubt be less serious. For starters, Japan took all the necessary precautions (trade restrictions, for instance) to eliminate as many sources of internal contamination as possible. It also installed a systematic screening process in the Fukushima prefecture, with 360,000 children â€" from newborns to age 18 â€" required to undergo regular check-up X-rays. Because thyroid cancer has a lengthy latency period (at least three years), it's too early to know whether the screening will reveal an increase in incidence.

Unequal treatment for the displaced

The "triple catastrophe" of March 11, 2011 â€" the earthquake, the tsunami and then the nuclear accident â€" displaced 340,000 people, including 160,000 from the nuclear accident alone. The spill contaminated nearly 1,800 square kilometers of land and took a far greater toll than the tsunami in terms of displacing people, according to Reiko Hasegawa, a researcher at the Sciences Po Medialab in Paris.

This imbalance is apparent in the number of indirect deaths (suicides, or illnesses exacerbated by a lack of care, for example) attributable to the tsunami or to the nuclear disaster: The figure is 1.5 times higher for the latter. Of the nearly 2,000 indirect deaths connected to Fukushima, 90% were people over age 65. These same people were among those who agreed to return to three cities that had been evacuated once the order was lifted. For the senior citizens who returned home, it is likely to be a short-lived stay, as they will soon need the care of a younger generation of doctors and nurses who did not want to go back.

Hasegawa believes that the Japanese government is responsible for this difference in impact. Whereas tsunami victims were able to choose between rebuilding their homes on the ruins of their former dwellings or making a new life elsewhere, those affected by the Fukushima nuclear accident were offered no choice but to go home once the area had been decontaminated.

The efficiency and degree of the decontamination process is the subject of heated controversy, which in turn has divided public opinion and compounded the breakdown of family and community relations that so often occurs in the wake of catastrophes.

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Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]


What it means when the Jews of Germany no longer feel safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond writes Eva Marie Kogel in Berlin-based daily Die Welt.

If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Eva Marie Kogel / Die Welt


• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.


"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.



A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.


How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.

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"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."

— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.


Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.


The "running of the bulls" event returns to the small village of Tafalla, northern Spain, for the first time since the pandemic started, after restrictions were eased. — Photo: Jesus Diges/EFE/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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