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Information Technology Critical in Response and Follow-up to Fukushima Nuclear Accident

(Photo: Gerd Dercon/FAO-IAEA)

As the Fukushima nuclear accident unfolded in March of 2011, the global community could follow the emergency response and monitor the situation, thanks, in part, to the widespread availability of mobile communication technology. The Joint FAO/IAEA Division posted rolling reports and updates, compiled and shared monitoring data, and posted a Q&A segment to ensure all Member States and partner organizations had access to the same information and advice regarding safety. In addition, in response to Japan’s request for support, within two weeks of the emergency onset, the Joint Division sent experts to the field to help with technical issues related to food safety and agricultural countermeasures, providing advice on sampling and analytical methods and data interpretation to ensure that reliable, continuous updates could be provided. Building from this, in the aftermath of the emergency, the Joint Division hosted technical meetings and initiated a research project to develop a portfolio of documents and communication tools to ensure any future such incidents will be met with efficient and agreed protocols and guidelines for monitoring, reporting and determining safe radiation levels for agricultural production, and for disseminating information in an easy-to-digest format.

The Fukushima nuclear accident occurred almost exactly 25 years after the Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine, during which the world had seen a proliferation of technological developments to enhance emergency communication and response. The causes of these accidents were very different – Chernobyl resulted from a flaw in the reactor’s design and a test that went wrong, while Fukushima resulted from an earthquake and resulting tsunami waves that inundated the power plant. However, the lessons from Chernobyl, such as the importance of monitoring and sampling agricultural produce and establishing post- accident countermeasures in the context of food and agriculture, helped in the response.

The Japanese government, aided by modern IT and the Internet, went well beyond what was required to ensure the thoroughness of studies and monitoring reports.

Having IT tools also enabled the Joint Division to examine and re-distribute the monitoring information coming from Japan, collecting and disseminating all data through one coordinated international database. This proved so advantageous that, post-accident, it led to an initiative to develop and enhance methods of sharing such information, in readiness, should an accident occur again. This would mean that any government, organization or even individual with an interest in the knowledge and outcomes of the monitoring could have online access.

Almost immediately after the accident, the Joint Division sent a field mission to Japan, to help with technical issues related to food safety and agricultural countermeasures. It provided advice on sampling and analytical approaches, and the interpretation of data to ensure that reliable, continuous updates could be provided. These data were used to establish local and national strategies to deal with the developing situation. During the accident,  a lot of effort was necessary to ensure that those who needed information received it in a form that was easy to understand.

Building on their experience, the Joint Division experts initiated the development of a visionary programme that could manage large volumes of data and, at the same time, automatically put samples on a map, which would help visualize patterns. Not only would this mean that all who needed agricultural data or who were following the accident received the same information, it would also mean less margin for error – as could occur when trying to copy and resend information on hundreds or even thousands of samples through email or spreadsheets. Now, five years after the accident, that vision is becoming a reality.