The international Press reports that a “potential conflict of interest” was “buried” in last year’s 600-page congressional investigation into the Fukushima accident. Doctor Hisako Sakiyama, one of the 10 members of the Diet’s investigation team, has told the Associated Press that one sentence in the report shows that Japanese nuclear utilities paid for scientist’s trips to the headquarters of the International Council on Radiation Protection during the years before 3/11/11. Sakiyama is “outraged” about nuclear utility-funding for Japan’s ICRP members and suspects it compromised their objectivity in setting the nation’s new radiological health standards. She feels the standards were set to limit the high cost of evacuations during nuclear accidents. “The assertion of the utilities became the rule. That’s ethically unacceptable. People’s health is at stake,” she said. “The view was twisted so it came out as though there is no clear evidence of the risks, or that we simply don’t know.” Sakiyama says that Japanese ICRP members believe low-dose radiation is harmless, but the ICRP-itself says the health risk only becomes zero with zero exposure. But, she’s confusing conservative risk assessment with actual health effects, and making a phantom conflict-of-interest issue in the process.
The ICRP has repeatedly stressed that their methodologies used to estimate risk should never be applied to actual health effects. ICRP recommendations for health standards are set significantly below any level of radiation exposure that has ever actually produced negative health impacts. Japan has adopted the ICRP recommendation of one millisievert per year for whole body exposure, in addition to natural background radiation levels. The international “average” for natural background exposure, used by the ICRP, is 2.4 millisieverts per year. Japan’s official “average” natural background is posted at 1.5 mSv/yr. Thus, Japan’s whole body exposure limit is a full mSv/yr. lower that the ICRP recommendation implies. Further, Japan’s limits on food contamination are ten times lower than the ICRP recommendations. How does this indicate a conflict of interest and compromised health standards in order to save money? Simply put…it doesn’t. One sentence in a 600-page document does not eliminate the evidence at-hand. If there were an actual conflict of interest, Japan’s radiation exposure standards would not be less than those recommended by the ICRP.
The ICRP members in Japan who made the trips in question are understandably upset. Scientist Ohtsura Niwa acknowledged that the utilities pay for flights and hotels to ICRP meetings, but he denied that it influences his science. He stands behind his view that radiation worries concerning Fukushima are overblown. He also feels there are powers in the government who want the public to believe the dangers of radiation are worse than reality in order to justify the government’s unnecessary evacuation of thousands around Fukushima Daiichi. Niwa – the only Japanese member to sit on the ICRP’s main committee – spends thousands of dollars per year of his own money on ICRP projects and Fukushima decontamination research, but Sakiyama fails to recognize his personal sacrifice. If she did, her allegation of a “potential conflict of interest” would collapse.
It is important to add that the ICRP takes no stand on any nation’s policy and will not comment on this new controversy. However, the ICRP’s most recent report on recommended radiation standards says, “Health risks from annual radiation exposure of 20 millisieverts, the current level for issuance of orders to evacuate an affected area, are quite small particularly when compared against the risks from other carcinogenic factors.” French ICRP member Jauques Lochard says the risk at 20 mSv is low, but he believes it is not zero. On the other hand, Japanese ICRP member Kazuo Sakai says he wants to debunk the generally-accepted view voiced by Lochard and others that cancer incidence follows the “linear/no threshold” model used to set health standards. He calls the model a “mere tool” and has never been shown to be scientifically sound, and that recent research reports indicate low level exposures are completely safe. Sakai admits he worked for Japan’s Central Research Institute of the Electric Power Industry from 1999-2006. However, his contract made it clear that his science would never be compromised by utility pressure, and he stresses that it never was.
Niwa says he believes the actual negative impacts caused by the low level exposures experienced by Fukushima residents include facing discrimination in marriage elsewhere in Japan due to unfounded fears about radiation and genetic defects. He adds that news reports, such as those about non-cancerous thyroid nodules found in Fukushima children, have amplified fears. Yoshiharu Yonekura, president of the National Institute of Radiological Sciences and another ICRP member, states that thyroid nodule frequencies normally vary and the numbers coming out of Fukushima are to be expected in any closely-monitored population. Yonekura goes further by saying, “Low-dose radiation may be even good for you.”
It seems that Ms. Sakiyama’s sensational public allegation of a conflict of interest seems incredible. It does little more than further promote distrust with respect to the nuclear community in Japan. What’s more important – a potentiality based on thin evidence or the actual professional record of those involved?