This open seminar, co-organized by UNU-IAS and the British Embassy Tokyo, will explore the challenges of communicating health risks from nuclear accidents, drawing on insights from Fukushima and Chernobyl. It will feature a talk by Gerry Thomas (Professor of Molecular Pathology at Imperial College London), who is a leading expert on the health risks of radiation and on the public communication of scientific research. Following this there will be an open discussion with members of the audience. After the seminar light refreshments will be available.
Since the 2011 nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi, the issue of health risks from radiation has been prominent in Japan and other countries. The consequences of the accident are complicating the recovery process for people in the affected regions, and public debates over reconstruction and energy policy have become highly polarized.
Effectively communicating real and possible health risks faces a number of challenges. Information about radiation tends to be highly technical and unfamiliar to most people, and presenting it in an understandable way can be difficult. Problems and shortcomings with how the 2011 nuclear accident was managed have left many people unsure about what information they can trust. A necessary step in Fukushima and Japan recovering from the 2011 disasters will be finding better ways of understanding and communicating risk.
Communicating risk inevitably means the ability to communicate uncertainty, as a risk is defined as being the probability of an event leading to harm. Many people find uncertainty a difficult concept to live with, so communicating risk effectively can be a particularly challenging area. Understanding uncertainty around a given hazard can be extremely important for planning strategy, or engineering design. Understanding a risk can also allow members of the public to design their own strategies to mitigate a given personal risk, such as a health risk. However, overemphasis of a risk, or miscommunication of risk relative to other risks encountered in life, can lead to significant psychological and social issues that can have a large impact on an individual’s quality of life. This is particularly true when trying to communicate risk due to exposure to radiation from a nuclear accident. Mechanisms can also be put in place to allow individuals to control their own risk—for example the use of personal dosimeters or provision of equipment to monitor radiation in locally grown produce.
The scientific reports by UNSCEAR and the WHO following both the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents have indicated that the biggest health effect has been the psychological damage to the population caused by the fear of radiation, rather than the radiobiological effects of exposure fallout. Communicating the real, rather than the perceived risk of exposure to fallout from nuclear accidents is therefore key to being able to engage the population in decisions on future energy production.
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UNU-IAS is co-organizing this event as part of the Fukushima Global Communication Programme, a research initiative examining impacts of the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident of March 11, 2011 on people and society, the challenges of the recovery process in Fukushima, and related issues of risk and information provision.