New Findings by United Nations Scientific Committee on Human Exposure to Radiation from Accident at Fukushima Power Plant Dominate Debate in Fourth Committee

25 October 2013
GA/SPD/539

New Findings by United Nations Scientific Committee on Human Exposure to Radiation from Accident at Fukushima Power Plant Dominate Debate in Fourth Committee

25 October 2013
General Assembly
GA/SPD/539
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-eighth General Assembly

Fourth Committee

14th Meeting (PM)

New Findings by United Nations Scientific Committee on Human Exposure to Radiation

From Accident at Fukushima Power Plant Dominate Debate in Fourth Committee

Draft Decision Approved on Question of Gibraltar

Human exposure to radiation, after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which damaged the nuclear power plant at Fukushima, was low or generally low, with no immediate health effects, the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) heard today in a briefing by the Chair of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation.

Carl-Magnus Larsson said that the study on that topic, undertaken by the Scientific Committee, had found that, so far, there were no immediate radiation-related deaths observed among 25,000 workers at Fukishima and the Scientific Committee expected fewer effects on the population at large, owing to the high evacuation rates and other protective actions imposed by the Japanese Government.

He said that the international community needed to proceed with more caution when it came to children, however, due to the scientific findings on the difference between the ways atomic energy affected them as compared to adults.  A major thyroid screening programme of 360,000 children had been enacted in Japan, and although there were increased rates of detection of thyroid cancers and abnormalities, those were indistinguishable from cancers due to other causes and were compatible with similar screenings in locations not affected by the accident. 

Chair of the Scientific Committee’s study, Fred Mettker, said that following the Fukushima disaster, the Committee had stepped up its efforts to examine the special effects of radiation on children.  It had found that they were approximately five times more sensitive to radiation than adults.  Using 60 years of data from the survivors of the atomic bombings in Japan, accidents such as Chernobyl, and radiotherapy for childhood cancers and benign conditions, science had concluded that children were far different from adults, not only in anatomy, but also in physiology. 

The importance of ensuring human safety and security “cannot be overstated” said Japan’s representative.  Because of its tragic experience in 2011, he said, the country had enhanced its strong commitment to nuclear safety and recognized the critical role played by the Scientific Committee.  That was the only organization that had been carrying out scientific assessment for more than two years regarding the levels of exposure and radiation risks attributable to the nuclear accident in Japan, which appreciated its commitment. 

At the same time, however, the Japanese Government was worried that parts of the Committee’s report might lend itself to misunderstanding.  Right after it was submitted to the Fourth Committee this month, some Japanese media had incorrectly written that the Scientific Committee had concluded that the Japanese Government had underestimated the amount of internal exposure of workers at the plant.

“There were factors of underestimation as well as overestimation in exposure estimation,” he said, adding, however, that only underestimation of internal exposure was written in the report.  Since that might lead to misinterpretation of the report’s message, he asked the Scientific Committee “to give balance” to the overall evaluation of internal exposure in the incoming assessment report.

It was reassuring, said the representative of India, that, in the assessment of the Scientific Committee, there was “no significant adverse health effect” observable in the exposed population so far in connection with the 2011 Fukushima accident.  Given a calamity of this proportion, it was inevitable that certain shades of opinion would paint a “gloomy picture.”  But the Atomic Radiation Committee was able to provide non-partisan assessments.

“We all have a stake in making this type of information available to the public,” the representative of the Philippines said.  Public anxiety over radiation and radiation exposure events could be traced to the lack of reliable and accessible information and misunderstandings that arose.

The scientific findings of the Committee would help the international community to not just understand the impact of that triple tragedy but also provided information on preventing similar incidents in the future, he said, adding that atomic radiation was “a two-edged sword” and to harness it safely, the international community needed to work together as one.     

The Chernobyl and Fukushima tragedies, said the representative of Venezuela, speaking on behalf of the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), were reminders of the need to be careful and to give broad dissemination to the effects of atomic radiation, not only to scientists, but to civil society as a whole.

He added that, given the increase in the use of nuclear technology in the world, especially in areas of health, the work of the Scientific Committee, through five decades of independent scientific research, was essential.  That made it possible to take well-founded decisions in a variety of fields, from energy to radioactive medicine to waste management to the protection of the environment.

The “regrettable and deplorable” nuclear incident at Fukushima should prompt serious reflection, the representative of China said.  “Derivative incidents” were still occurring in Fukushima arousing worry in the whole world.  The country concerned should genuinely fulfil its responsibilities in that regard.

The Committee will consider a draft resolution on the topic at a later date.

Also today, it approved, without a vote, a draft decision on the “Question of Gibraltar.”

The representatives of Argentina, Belarus, Iraq, Mexico, and Ukraine also participated in the discussion on the effects of atomic radiation, as did a representative of the European Union delegation.

The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. on Monday, 28 October to begin its comprehensive review of United Nations peacekeeping.

Background

The Fourth Committee met today to consider the effects of atomic radiation, for which it had before it the latest report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) (document A/68/46).  The Fourth Committee was also expected to take action on a draft decision, entitled “Question of Gibraltar” (document A/C.4/68/L.6). 

Action

The Committee approved without a vote the draft decision entitled “Question of Gibraltar” (document A/C.4/68/L.6).  By its terms, the General Assembly would urge the Governments of Spain and the United Kingdom, while listening to the interests and aspirations of Gibraltar that were legitimate under international law, to reach, in the spirit of the Brussels Declaration of 27 November 1984, a definitive solution to the question of Gibraltar.

Briefings, Effects of Atomic Radiation

FRED METTKER, Chair of the Study by UNSCEAR, said that many years ago when the international community was reviewing the effects of Chernobyl, people in that community said they did not care about themselves, they only cared about their children.  The Committee started looking at the special effects of radiation on children three years ago, but since then, the effect of the earthquake in Japan and the subsequent Fukushima disaster had caused it to step up its efforts.  It had found that children were approximately five times more sensitive to radiation than adults.  It was far beyond science to think of children as just “little adults”. 

He said that using 60 years of data from the survivors of the atomic bombings in Japan, accidents, such as Chernobyl, and radiotherapy for both childhood cancers and benign conditions, science had concluded that children were far different from adults, not only in anatomy, but also in physiology.  To begin with, various tissues grown at different rates in children, organs and other anatomy were closer together, and therefore, what affected one organ could affect another.  Plus, brain activity peaked at one to two years of age and remained high until 12 years, and then declined 40 per cent per year until age 16.  For those reasons, it was known that radiation, while not making a difference in low doses, at high doses, it made a huge difference. 

As with medication, he said, doses of radiation in children had to be assessed differently; even if children and adults could tolerate the same doses of radiation, children might be receiving more because of their need for more sustenance at younger ages and, thus, the greater consumption of food or drink.

CARL-MAGNUS LARSSON, Chair of the Scientific Committee, said that since 11 March 2011, the date of the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which damaged the nuclear power plant at Fukushima, scientists had found that, due to the high evacuation rates and other protective actions imposed by the Japanese Government, human exposure to radiation had been low or generally low, with no immediate health effects.  So far, there were no immediate radiation-related deaths observed among 25,000 workers at Fukishima and the Scientific Committee expected fewer effects to the population at large, owing to Japan’s comprehensive and quick approach to minimizing the damage. 

Among the general public in Japan, he said that although it was important to take a cautious approach, the Scientific Committee concluded that the increased incidence of radiation among adults was not likely to be discernible.  Regarding children, however, the international community needed to proceed with more caution, due to the scientific findings on the difference between the ways atomic energy affected children as compared to adults.  As a result, there had been a major thyroid screening programme of 360,000 children enacted in Japan, using a highly sensitive ultrasonography programme to detect any major contamination.  Although there were increased rates of detection of thyroid cancers and abnormalities, those were indistinguishable from cancers due to other causes and were compatible with similar screenings in locations not affected by the accident. 

While the Scientific Committee had been cautious in its estimation of doses and associated effects on the population of Japan due to Fukushima, he said, in terms of outlining a future direction, it should streamline processes to provide timely evaluations of emerging issues without sacrificing quality, and develop networks of experts and focal points in all Member States, as well as enhance mechanisms for timely data exchange.

Statements

ALFREDO TORO-CARNEVALI ( Venezuela), speaking for the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), said he welcomed the decision to promote among the scientific community and civil society knowledge of the impact of exposure to ionizing radiation.  That could serve as a sound basis for well-founded decisions on the matter.  With the global increase of nuclear technology, especially in areas of health, the work of the Atomic Radiation Committee was essential, as demonstrated by five decades of independent scientific research and achievements.  Bearing that in mind, it was necessary to resolve the Committee’s budgetary crisis.  Permanent and stable support had not yet materialized, despite its work having far-reaching consequences for the fields of energy, waste management, radioactive medicine, protection of workers, and the environment.  The Chernobyl and Fukushima tragedies were reminders of the need to be careful and to give broad dissemination to the effects of atomic radiation, not only to scientists, but to civil society as a whole.

CARL HALLERGARD, representing the European Union delegation, stressed the importance of the Scientific Committee’s work in assessing the effects of radiation on human health and the environment.  On the basis of its scientific authority, the Committee was essential.  He welcomed the Committee’s proposal to cooperate on the periodic collection and exchange of data on radiation exposure of patients, as well as the methodology applied to such data collection.  Medical exposure to atomic radiation, by far the population’s largest source of artificial radiation exposure, was an international priority.  Welcoming the Committee’s other work, he noted information provided on the nuclear accident in the wake of the East Japan earthquake and tsunami, as well as conclusions on the levels and effects of exposure arising from the incident.  The Union also welcomed the information provided on other essential scientific findings on the effects of radiation exposure on children.  Continued research was needed to identify the differences between children and adults in terms of the risk from exposure.

RICARDO ALDAY ( Mexico) said the existence of nuclear weapons had a huge impact on the world, thus leading for the first time to a real debate on it and a willingness to share information.  It was clear that the ability to respond to a possible nuclear explosion, whether accidental of intentional, was severely limited.  Either would have devastating humanitarian impact and irreversible effects on the environment, to which no nation would be able to respond.  Earlier this year, Mexico had taken part in the international conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, and it would host another conference in the hope of working together on preventing the explosion of a nuclear weapon or nuclear technology, whether accidental or intentional.

BUROOJ AL-HAIDARI ( Iraq) said that according to article 9 of her country’s Constitution, Iraq must respect its international obligations regarding the development, proliferation and use of nuclear and chemical weapons.  Iraq was constantly trying to mitigate the effects of its prior nuclear programmes.  Its ministries were working to diminish the effects of polluting installations and to regulate the use of radiological sources.  Further, there was an emergency plan in place for nuclear accidents and Iraq was cooperating with international organizations in that area.  “The Earth and the sky belong to all of us,” she said, and no one could escape the negative effects of that phenomenon.  At the same time, Iraq was interested in cooperating with developed countries regarding nuclear energy.  It would continue to support United Nations’ efforts to mitigate the risk of radiation and limit its causes.

ZHAO XINLI ( China) said that as energy needs increased, safe and reliable nuclear energy merited “vigorous development and utilization”.  Atomic radiation technology had further applications in numerous non-nuclear fields, such as health care.  The international community should make full use of that technology for the benefit of mankind.  The nuclear incident at Fukushima, “regrettable and deplorable”, should prompt serious reflection, with a view to prevent similar accidents.  In Fukushima, “derivative incidents” still occurred, which aroused the worries of the whole world.  The country concerned should genuinely fulfil its responsibilities in that regard.  The United Nations had a role to play in ensuring the safety of atomic radiation, and China proposed progress in four areas, including the strengthening of the Scientific Committee.  China had worked diligently on the safety of atomic radiation and had made progress in nuclear energy research, development and application.  After decades of effort, it had become a major Power in atomic radiation technology.

ROBERT BORJE ( Philippines) said that atomic radiation was “a two-edged sword” and the international community needed to work together as one to ensure that it was harnessed safely.  The Philippines acknowledged the outreach activities being undertaken, in particular, plans for the dissemination of the Committee’s report on the levels and effects of radiation exposure due to the nuclear accident in Japan in 2011.  “We all have a stake in making this type of information available to the public,” he said, as public anxiety over radiation and radiation exposure events could be traced to the lack of reliable and accessible information and misunderstandings.  The Committee’s scientific findings on the levels and effects of radiation exposure due to that accident, on the release of radioactive material into the environment, dose assessments on members of the public and station workers, and health implications would help the international community, not only to understand the impact of those events, but also to help prevent similar incidents in the future.

NAOKI TAKAHASHI (Japan), saying that his statement was based on instruction directly from his capital, said that because of its tragic experience of the nuclear accident caused by the massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011, his country further enhanced its strong commitment to nuclear safety and recognized the critical role played by the Scientific Committee.  The importance of ensuring human safety and security “cannot be overstated”.  The Scientific Committee was the only organization that had been carrying out scientific assessment for more than two years regarding the levels of exposure and radiation risks attributable to the nuclear accident in his country, and he appreciated its commitment. 

To his chagrin, he said, just following the submission by the Scientific Committee of its report to the Fourth Committee this month, some Japanese media had misunderstood and incorrectly written that the Scientific Committee had concluded that the Government of Japan had underestimated the amount of internal exposure of workers at the plant.  His Government was aware that there were factors of underestimation, as well as overestimation in exposure estimation, but only underestimation of internal exposure was written in the report, which could lead the public to misinterpret the report’s message.  Japan, therefore, requested the Scientific Committee to give balance to the overall evaluation of internal exposure in the upcoming assessment report.  The Japanese Government was ready to submit the necessary evidence and data to the Scientific Committee.

AVINASH PANDE ( India) noted it was reassuring that, in the assessment of the Scientific Committee, there was “no significant adverse health effect” observable in the exposed population so far in connection with the 2011 Fukushima accident.  In the aftermath of a calamity of that proportion, it was only to be expected that certain shades of opinion would paint a “gloomy picture”.  However, the world should depend on the non-partisan assessments of UNSCEAR for a non-judgmental view.  Commending efforts by the Government of Japan, which had ensured a considerable reduction in radiation dose received by its people, he likewise congratulated the Scientific Committee for its evaluation of radiation exposure of children, which was “revealing”.  He also emphasized the use of UNSCEAR risk assessments by regulatory agencies for determining limits of radiation exposure, noting that those were several folds lower than doses where significant harm had actually been shown.  That was of particular importance for populations exposed to chronic high level natural radiation, and where there was a concern regarding public perception of those limits.

MARGARITA MACKAY ( Belarus) emphasized that the Scientific Committee remained the main source of information on the effects of atomic radiation for the international community.  Her country fully supported the activities that had led to the report’s findings on the effects of radiation in children and the outcome of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident.  With the increased use of nuclear and atomic energy in the world, she could not overvalue the importance of the report and was happy to contribute her country’s first-hand experiences of the events in Chernobyl, especially as they would benefit the United Nations Action Plan on Chernobyl to 2016.  

ANDRIY TSYMBALIUK ( Ukraine) said there was a continuing need to examine and compile information about atomic radiation and to analyze its effects on mankind and the environment, as the complexity and diversity of such knowledge had increased considerably over the years.  Many concerns had been expressed about the radiological consequences of the 2011 accident at Fukushima, and there was a further need for comprehensive assessment of the levels of exposure and radiation risks.  As seen through the reports, it was also important for the Scientific Committee to continue to review advances in the understanding of the biological mechanisms by which radiation-induced effects on human health or non-human entities could occur.  That provided the scientific foundation in formulating national and international standards for the protection of the general public and workers against ionizing radiation.  Those standards were directly linked to important legal and regulatory instruments, as well as to the establishment and coordination of the periodic collection and data exchange on radiation exposure of the general public, workers and, in particular, patients.

GERARDO DIAZ BARTOLOME ( Argentina), aligning with MERCOSUR, said his country had been a dynamic member of the Scientific Committee since its establishment in 1955.  Its new report followed the tradition of the “high scientific level” of its work.  Argentina put special emphasis in the studies conducted on the effects of radiation exposure on children in connection with the nuclear accident in Fukushima, and drew attention to the findings’ “preliminary” nature.  Argentina hoped the Committee would complete those studies to achieve a comprehensive understanding of those “important issues”.  He supported the request of the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to complete a comprehensive report on the Fukushima accident.  The Committee should continue to bring that issue to the attention of the IAEA as a means to contribute to the completeness and quality of the report.  Work should also continue to assess radiation exposures of different populations from electricity generation. 

LILIANA SANCHEZ RODRIGUEZ ( Cuba) said that international peace and security remained threatened by the existence of approximately 4,400 deployed nuclear warheads, with half ready and operational in a state of maximum alert.  The total number of nuclear warheads amounted to 17,270.  Their use was illegal and could not be justified by any security doctrine.  The Scientific Committee must strengthen bonds with Member States as well as with the World Health Organization (WHO), IAEA and other United Nations bodies.  Despite its limited resources, Cuba had supported the humanitarian programme to recuperate children who were victims of the Chernobyl accident.  Her country encouraged the Committee to continue its important work in understanding and disseminating information about the impact and levels of ionizing radiation.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.