1. The human dimension of the accident and the impact on living conditions
The Fukushima Daiichi accident had a tremendous emotional and social impact that called into question the way of life and relationships within the affected communities.
The testimonies of the participants in the Dialogue meetings confirmed the elements observed after the Chernobyl accident with regard to the societal impact linked to the presence of radioactivity and the implementation of protective actions: the loss of control of the inhabitants on their daily life, the disintegration of families, as well as apprehension towards the future, in particular that of children, and the fear of being gradually abandoned.
The Dialogues were a reminder that the irruption of radioactivity in people's daily lives is a significant disruption, which creates an unprecedented situation and profoundly interferes with the well-being of individuals and the quality of living together of local communities. This creates a complex situation generating a lot of questions, concerns and fears among the affected population, those living in contaminated areas as well as the evacuees. In the aftermath of the accident, each individual was constantly faced with the dilemma: should they stay or leave the contaminated territories? And for the evacuees, should they return or not? The answers to these questions depended on the general situation of local communities as well as the personal situation of individuals.
The management of the accident itself and all the actions aimed at improving the radiological situation - decontamination programs, prohibitions and restrictions on economic and social activities in the affected areas, foodstuffs controls, and application of radiological criteria but also compensation for victims - also have societal repercussions on the organization of daily life and can seriously disrupt human relations.
Through their testimonies and reflections, the participants in the Dialogues found the right words to describe these human dimensions. They gradually developed a rich narrative based on their experiences, which helped them engage in the process of rehabilitation.
This clearly confirms the importance, in a post-nuclear accident situation, of setting up forums for dialogue involving the affected population and experts. This helps to develop a practical radiation protection culture, including self-protection actions, and to better understand the protection strategy implemented by the authorities in which people can become more involved. For the experts, these places of dialogue allow, by listening to the people concerned, to better understand their concerns, their questions and their expectations. For those affected, it is not only about getting general information about the situation in their community, but also about improving their understanding of how they are personally exposed and what needs to be done to protect themselves and protect their communities.
The Dialogues also revealed the importance of carefully examining the specific characteristics of affected communities to establish the strategy for the rehabilitation of living conditions. The meetings held in different communities have shown that the same level of contamination can have different consequences depending on local economic and societal characteristics, but also on the traditions, culture and history of each community. This aspect calls for a more in-depth reflection on the articulation of actions at local, regional and national levels in order to identify what types of governance mechanisms would be the most suitable to take into account this diversity.
The post-accident experience of Fukushima and Chernobyl shows also that the protection of children is a major concern. The practical arrangements of this protection depend not only on local circumstances but also on cultural contexts and cover a wide range of actions. Beyond the differences, there is a will not to exclude the children, and in particular the teenagers, from the discussions concerning their life in a contaminated territory. The testimonies of several teenagers clearly showed that they intended to get involved in the rehabilitation of living conditions in the prefecture of Fukushima.
2. The role of measurements
The importance of a rapid characterization of the radiological situation after a nuclear accident is certainly one of the key lessons of the Dialogues. This characterization must be adapted both to the needs of the public authorities, to guide decisions and actions, but also to those of the affected people. However, access to general information on the average ambient dose rates of areas and the average levels of contamination of food products is not sufficient to enable individuals to make decisions about their behaviors and activities.
The Dialogues thus reaffirmed the crucial role of individual measurements. Only access to information on individual exposures enables residents to connect the radiological situation that characterizes their immediate environment and their way of life, and thus to make informed decisions. Several testimonies highlighted the interest of local communities in distributing personal dosimeters that link exposure to individual activities and help people regain control of their situation.
These measures also allow the community to talk about the situation and jointly identify solutions to improve local living conditions. The Dialogues highlighted the importance of exchanges to allow interpretation of results and interaction between local communities and experts. The dissemination of the results of measurements carried out by public bodies and by citizens remains a sensitive issue, raising a difficult problem linked to the interpretation of the inevitable differences and to aspects linked to confidentiality.
It is interesting to note that the participants in the Dialogues rarely referred to the radiological criteria applied by the authorities to manage the radiological situation and never discussed their justification. The discussions confirmed that those affected by the contamination were mainly motivated by what they could do to improve their situation from a radiological point of view. However, the participants in the Dialogues discussed and analyzed the impact of radiological criteria on daily life, and in particular the fact that they can become a blocking factor for action and a source of division between people, with negative consequences for communities.
3. The process of co-expertise and the development of a practical culture of radiation protection
As was already the case after the Chernobyl accident, feedback from the Fukushima-Daiichi accident and the Dialogues clearly showed that radiation protection experts can, through the co-expertise process, play a key role for a greater autonomy of those affected. The co-expertise process is the mechanism that allows experts and those affected by the accident to jointly assess the situation.
The role of the experts can take on various aspects, starting with the joint characterization of the radiological situation with the local populations. As the experts are already aware of the radiological situation, the first challenge for them is to learn to be open to concerns and worries, but also to the expectations expressed by local populations focused on both daily life and the possible future. From there, the experts can determine, together with the population, protective actions to improve the situation or radiological monitoring that corresponds to local needs and specificities. In any case, the expert sees his role evolve and he must reflect on his positioning. He is no longer just the scholar, who contributes his knowledge. He must also listen to the affected people who share with him their intimate reality, their concerns and their anxieties. By combining his knowledge with that of the other persons involved, the expert can help build a reliable base of practical know-how that can be used by everyone. This role of go-between is a change in the posture of the expert.
In addition, it is important to keep in mind that the work of radiation protection experts is based not only on their own efforts, but also on those of public authorities, especially municipalities. Indeed, in the case of co-expertise processes, radiation protection experts can play a key role in relaying the expectations and priorities of local populations directly to local authorities who can thus adapt their strategies. Radiation protection experts can also be involved through the local authorities themselves. In this case, the experts bring their scientific knowledge while the local authorities bring the local knowledge as well as the direct contact with their citizens.
Because the post-accident situation affects all dimensions of daily life, the local population is not only faced with problems linked to radioactivity. In this context, experts must develop and implement strategies to improve living conditions as a whole. Once again, this is a real challenge for them, because they have to open up and consider many complex issues sometimes outside the framework of their own professional skills.
Nevertheless, the post-Chernobyl and post-Fukushima situations clearly showed that, in many cases, the co-expertise processes are successful and allow local populations to cope with their situation. The acquisition of a practical culture of radiation protection by local populations results in the construction of their own benchmarks regarding radioactivity in daily life. Thus, local populations can regain autonomy and make their own choices, in an informed manner. In other words, we could say that the processes of co-expertise contribute to restoring the dignity of populations living in contaminated territories.
4. The ethical challenge of the expert
The involvement of experts in the management of post-accident situation, in particular in the process of empowering those affected, poses new questions with regard to their personal and professional ethics. Their direct involvement in the assessment of the local situation requires them to be aware of certain pitfalls. The pitfalls to avoid are to trivialize the radiological risk, leave people alone to face the risk, force people to stay in the affected areas or initiate protective measures without involving the people concerned.
The ethics of the expert is thus based on the adoption of principles that were highlighted during the Dialogues:
- Adopting a cautious attitude towards radiological risk: It is necessary for the experts to recognize the limits of their knowledge as well as the uncertainties linked to the management of post-accident situation. Thus, it is never easy to conclude that a situation is safe and, more generally, to discuss with those affected of the effects and risks associated with exposure to ionizing radiation. Experts must remain consistent with scientific knowledge relating to radiological risk and the basic principles of radiation protection;
- Respect autonomy and free choice: decisions must be made with respect for individual values and choices. Therefore, the role of the expert is not to make decisions for individuals about their future, nor even to convince them that one way is the right one. Decisions involve many dimensions to be considered and the radiological issue is nothing more than one of them;
- Commitment: Experts involved in post-accident management must be committed to the populations in the service of improving their protection and restore their living conditions. This commitment contributes to the promotion and establishment of an effective interaction between the different decision-making levels (local, regional, national).
The Dialogues thus highlighted the important role of experts in the sometimes long and difficult process of empowering local populations with regard to radiological risks. This importance is coupled with the realization by the experts themselves of the need to adopt a sometimes new ethic, as a “go-between” and builder of links.