Japan too slow in Fukushima health checks-rights group

TOKYO, March 6 Tue Mar 6, 2012 4:58am EST

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TOKYO, March 6 (Reuters) - A year after the Fukushima nuclear crisis, Japan's government is still too slow in providing health checks and information to residents, leaving them confused and suspicious of authorities, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.

"A year on, we are really not seeing basic health services being offered in an accessible way and we are not seeing accurate, consistent, non-contradictory information being disclosed to people on a regular basis," Jane Cohen, a researcher at the New York-based rights group, told Reuters.

"People have to at least be equipped with accurate information so that they are evaluating their situation based on real facts."

The tsunami that hit Japan's Pacific coast last March 11 devastated the Fukushima nuclear power plant, 240 km (150 miles) northeast of Tokyo, causing radiation leaks that contaminated land, air and water and forced tens of thousands to flee.

Mny residents in Fukushima prefecture have since been living with fears about the health effects from radiation.

"There should be a clear plan and place for testing everyone in Fukushima for radiation," said Cohen, who studied the conditions of residents. She suggested the local government may have to borrow medical equipment or bring in more doctors.

The prefectural government is providing health checks for children and pregnant women, who tend to be more vulnerable to radiation, but the process is taking time.

The 360,000 children aged up to 18 at the time of the disaster, will be subject to thyroid checks for the rest of their lives. So far, 40,000 have been screened, an official at the Fukushima government said.

About 380,000 children and pregnant women are eligible to have internal radiation exposure levels checked and 15,400 have done so as of January, according to the government's website.

Fukushima residents' worries are exacerbated by the lack of reliable information about their situation, Cohen said, a problem that erupted at an early stage of the nuclear crisis.

The prime minister's office gradually expanded the forced evacuation zone to 20 km in the first two days after the crisis.

But it failed at the time to quickly disclose computer forecasts -- named SPEEDI -- showing the direction in which radioactive materials would disseminate, due to poor internal communication. The result was that thousands fled in the direction radioactive materials were flying.

Former trade minister Banri Kaieda, who oversaw energy policy at the time, has said that he felt a "sense of shame" about the lack of disclosure.

Cohen said mistrust of authorities had grown. She urged the government to explain the reasoning behind its decisions.

"People don't feel that they have a real picture of what their safety situation is," she said.

"By not disclosing reliable, accurate information in a transparent way, which is a very important component to the right to health, we are really seeing the government not fulfilling its duty to protect the right to health to its people." (Editing by Ron Popeski)

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