Humanitarian work and technological disasters

Published: 22 April 2011 11:00 CET

By Tadateru Konoe, President, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

For many years, it was said that the next Chernobyl would be Chernobyl. The creaking sarcophagus seemed to be the world’s biggest risk of a civilian nuclear accident. Never in my worst nightmares did I think that Japan would have to deal with a level seven disaster at a nuclear power plant, which – like Chernobyl – would require setting up exclusion zones, moving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, putting all national emergency plans into place, and watching almost helplessly as radiation poured unseen into the surrounding environment.

Radiation poisoning is the most sinister, agonising way to die. The “liquidators” who shovelled sand onto the burning Reactor number 4 at Chernobyl in the hours after the disaster died horrible deaths, disintegrating as their families and doctors watched. For us in Japan it was a disturbing reminder of the after-effects of the atomic attacks on our land decades before. It is why as a nation we have always supported the work of the Red Cross in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia as they work to mitigate the effects of Chernobyl by monitoring the population for thyroid cancers and abnormalities.

And now we face a similar tragedy at home. We never thought that Fukushima would be mentioned in the same breath as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Yes, the latter occurred in time of war, but the human consequences are the same – long-lasting medical effects, pollution of the soil, loss of home and identity, the stigma of coming from contaminated land.

We thought we were safe. Nuclear engineering and building safety had moved so far from the Chernobyl design that the world could declare that nuclear was the safest form of power for our future. Then came a massive wall of water, and our illusions were dashed. Now we can no longer say “never again”; we can see the impact of a civilian nuclear disaster on a country that is a word leader in disaster-resilient engineering. Japan has been brought to its knees by a few minutes of nature’s fury: would – to name but a few - nuclear Germany or the UK be better prepared? Or Pakistan? Or Armenia?

And although we look on the behemoths of Chernobyl and Fukushima with dread, we must also consider non-nuclear events such as chemical disasters like Bhopal or Seveso. Or the fears of hazardous material from a terrorist attack like 9/11, or Hungary’s red sludge episode of last year. Psychologically and emotionally there is a great gulf between terror attacks and technological disasters (or viral outbreaks) but the effects are similar: sudden onset, mass panic, an overwhelming of infrastructure and huge disruption of normal life.

Our research shows that between 2000 and 2011 some 10,000 people have been killed and 500,000 more affected by chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear disasters, where such data has been reported. (Chernobyl affected some 8 million people).

These figures show the pressing need for governments to invest in community-level preparedness. We have been making this call ever since the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva in 1986, and we continue to do so, alongside many other actors, such as the United Nations and major disaster-response NGOs.

There are currently more than 400 nuclear power reactors in 30 countries, and the number is expected to grow rapidly. If accidents are to be treated as an unavoidable risk, there must be all-out preparations for this eventuality. Experiences gained through past accidents need to be widely shared, as well as guidelines created for a global standard in accident response and agreements reached on the process of international cooperation.

Of course the most macabre spectre is not nuclear power. It is nuclear weaponry and the devastation that one act of war or terror could wreak on our world. Thus it is highly  appropriate that the Red Cross Red Crescent will gather in Oslo next month, to discuss our position on such weapons, as well as our response to future/potential nuclear disasters like Fukushima.

People may say that humanitarian workers have no place in a nuclear disaster, that we have no voice in the debate. But as we have seen from Fukushima, and as we see 25 years after Chernobyl, the comfort we bring to survivors, the services we provide to evacuees and the long-term efforts to restore human dignity are as relevant as they are in our better-known responses in Haiti, Pakistan and other “natural” disasters.

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The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world's largest humanitarian organization, with 191 member National Societies. As part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, our work is guided by seven fundamental principles; humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. About this site & copyright