The Fukushima Dialogue Initiative is a unique example of democracy in action, where a community is no longer a herd of passive followers, but a group of individuals capable of making decisions, for themselves by their own free will and for others based on respect and mutual trust.
Boiling down four years of discussions and experience to a few lessons learned is not easy. In any case, the human adventure shared throughout the 12 meetings of
the Fukushima Dialogue Initiative was a confirmation of some majors lessons learned from the work performed in the contaminated territories after the Chernobyl accident, in particular in Belarus and Norway.
First and foremost among them was that it is essential for residents to be able to measure, by themselves and for themselves, the presence of radioactivity in their immediate environment. Sharing the results of these measurements in a public setting - a space where residents could express their concerns and reactions, worries and hopes - gradually led to the establishment of local initiatives, allowing people to regain some control over their daily lives and freeing them to make decisions according to their own wants and desires.
In the long run, this interaction, this cooperation in local initiatives and sharing of expertise by experts and the communities themselves, made it possible to implement radiation protection measures to improve residents’ living conditions and, ultimately, to restore their dignity and sense of wellbeing.
Finally, these invaluable lessons must be preserved and disseminated both within the prefecture and beyond, to be called upon if a comparable situation occurs elsewhere in the world.
A GLOBAL IMPACT ON LIVES
The first lesson to be shared is that radioactivity is not just a matter of health effects from exposure. Its intrusion into daily lives has an impact on everyone on both a practical and psychological level, with the resulting sudden loss of control and each person left wondering what they can and can’t do safely. This underlying doubt when it comes to any activity - be it going out, coming home, opening the windows to air out the home, letting the children play outside, sending them to school - is a source of worry and creates a feeling of powerlessness.
Over time, this leads to tense relations among people who have lost their self-confidence and trust in each other, and particularly in authorities and experts. The feeling of living in a “soiled” environment, of being “tainted” by contamination can result in a loss of self-esteem. This was only aggravated by the growing feeling of exclusion that came with measures taken to improve the radiological situation (decontamination, traffic bans, restrictions on local food consumption, etc.), since these tend to create further ruptures in society. For those who decided - or were forced - to leave, the radioactivity felt like an invader who had chased them from their lands into an indefinite exile. The indescribable pain of being uprooted, and the ever-present dilemma: to return or not?
EVERYONE CAN CONTRIBUTE
If the radiological consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident literally paralyzed most residents, they also revealed strong character traits in many: a commitment to involvement, leadership, and dedication to the community. Their determined attitudes when confronted by a complex situation led to a united effort among residents, local authorities, experts, and advisers, to jointly identify paths forward. In certain areas, such as the city of Date, it was the local authorities who were the driving force (more:
Date: leadership at work). In others, such as Suetsugi or Hippo (district of the city of Marumori, in the south of the prefecture of Miyagi), it was the residents who took the initiative (more:
Suetsugi: when citizens take control of their own fate).
In both cases, however, broaching the subject of concrete problems of the residents required support from different types of experts. Many of them got directly involved as individuals, rather than as representatives of an institution. This unique situation played a key part in forging trusting relationships between residents and the experts who assisted them in long-term efforts, creating such close relationships with them that it was as if they belonged to the community.
NO FRILLS! KEEP IT SIMPLE
Discussion between residents and experts on equal ground was crucial in helping Fukushima’s residents find new points of reference as they rebuilt their lives. The special feature of such dialogue was its emphasis on the residents, the creation of a resident-expert relationship entirely focused on the needs of Fukushima’s population; certain experts even willingly moved to Fukushima so they could better understand people’s concerns. They thus had an unrivaled vantage point from which to perceive people’s needs and expectations.
The difficulty of speaking about risks and health effects from exposure to ionizing radiation is another lesson. What residents expected from experts was for them to demonstrate some humility, considering the uncertainty and limits of knowledge at the time, that they differentiate between science and opinion, and, above all, that they respect the values and choices of the people. Last, but not least, they wanted them to understand that protecting themselves against ionizing radiation was not the only problem they were facing.
The goal of radiation protection was not to take control of people's lives, but to help them regain control over their lives.
EXPERTISE NEEDS TO BE SHARED
A key lesson of the Dialogue Initiative was that applying ready-made methods to resolve people’s real-life problems is of little help. To effectively address the issues faced by the residents in their everyday lives, it was necessary to implement a process allowing them to build expertise together. Above all, this meant identifying spaces where experts could come together with those struggling in tough situations, to listen to their questions, their concerns, their difficulties, and their expectations.
The shared expertise - or “co-expertise” - was also supported by joint assessments of people's circumstances and that of the community. This ensured the implementation of projects, with the assistance of professional experts and local authorities, to address problems identified as priorities for individuals as well as the community, critical analysis of results obtained, and communication of the experience gained.
JOINT DEVELOPMENT OF A
PRACTICAL CULTURE OF RADIATION PROTECTION
Through the sharing of expertise to address concrete problems, many of those who participated in the meetings of the Fukushima Dialogue Initiative gradually developed a practical approach to radiation protection. This approach was based on the availability of equipment allowing people to perform their own measurements and to become familiar with new vocabulary such as local dose rate, external and internal dose, food contamination, etc., all foreign concepts in everyday life until the day they had to learn them to interpret measurement results.
Thanks to a practical culture of radiation protection, people can make their own decisions, to protect themselves and others (family, local community, etc.), discussing measurement results with assistance from experts. As they reclaimed their power to make decisions, many participants in the meetings of the Fukushima Dialogue Initiative started to make concrete plans again, much like their Belarusian predecessors, though with two large differences: first, direct access to measuring equipments to determine the radiological situations, and second, the ability to use social media to share information.
Because of its practical nature, this culture of radiation protection provided for tangible improvements in living conditions in this contaminated area and allowed the residents to once again make plans for the future.