Editorials

Protecting public health after major radiation emergencies

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d1968 (Published 25 March 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d1968
  1. Steven M Becker, associate professor and vice chair
  1. 1Department of Environmental Health Science, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL 35294, USA
  1. smbecker{at}uab.edu

Nuclear crisis in Japan is a powerful reminder of past lessons

No two disasters are precisely the same, and the unfolding emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility in Japan has several unique characteristics. The main one is the combination of circumstances that produced the crisis: a massive earthquake followed by an immense tsunami. Still, the Japanese nuclear crisis has important similarities with past emergencies and is a reminder of some crucial lessons.

One lesson is that in the 21st century, the distinction between natural and technological disasters is becoming increasingly blurred. With a variety of hazardous materials facilities located near populated areas around the world, natural disasters can quickly unleash serious secondary technological disasters. For example, an earthquake in Turkey in 1999 damaged several industrial plants, and the resulting releases of hazardous materials caused thousands of people to evacuate and some earthquake search and rescue operations to be abandoned.1 Despite the growing risks of such combined disasters, few countries are adequately prepared to deal with the kinds of cascading impacts, complex health effects, and special challenges that such natural-technological disasters pose.

The situation in Japan also reminds us that all radiation emergencies are ultimately international. In an age where commerce and tourism are globally integrated, an accident like the one in Fukushima inevitably involves people, commerce, governments, and healthcare systems from many nations. The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster demonstrated this, but even a smaller event such as the 2006 poisoning …

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