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
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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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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