Biomedical Ethics, University of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan.
On 11 March 2011, Japan experienced a major disaster brought about by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and a massive tsunami that followed. This disaster caused extensive damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant with the release of a large amount of radiation, leading to a crisis level 7 on the International Atomic Energy Agency scale. In this report, we discuss the obligations of physicians to provide care during the initial weeks after the disaster. We appeal to the obligation of general beneficence and argue that physicians should go to disaster zones only if there is no significant risk, cost or burden associated with doing so. We conclude that physicians were not obligated to go to Fukushima given the high risk of radiation exposure and physical and psychological harm. However, we must acknowledge that there were serious epistemic difficulties in accurately assessing the risks or benefits of travelling to Fukushima at the time. The discussion that follows is highly pertinent to all countries that rely on nuclear energy.