The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster's Toll: How About Zero?


Credit: Pixeldreams: Dreamstime

The Australian newspaper The Age, senior writer John Watson reports in an op-ed the results of a couple of analyses that look at the follow on health effects of the triple meltdown of the reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in the wake of the March 2011 monster tsunami. Very good news—despite the scale of the disaster and the amount of radiation that leaked into the environment, the health effects will likely be negligible to undetectable. From the op-ed:

In February, the World Health Organisation reported there would be no noticeable increases in cancer rates for the overall population. A third of emergency workers were at some increased risk.

While infants in two localised hot spots were likely to have a 6 per cent relative increase in female breast cancer and 7 per cent relative increase in male leukaemia, WHO cautioned this was a small change. The lifetime risk of thyroid cancer, which is treatable, is only 0.75 per cent, so even in the worst-affected location it rose to only 1.25 per cent.

Now the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has drawn on 80 scientists from 18 countries to produce a draft report that concludes: "Radiation exposure following the nuclear accident at Fukushima-Daiichi did not cause any immediate health effects. It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public and the vast majority of workers." …

Nor has the environment been devastated. The report says: "The exposures on both marine and terrestrial non-human biota were too low for observable acute effects."

As The Age further notes:

Let's be clear, Fukushima was hit by a worst-case scenario: the world's fifth-most-powerful earthquake since 1900, a tsunami twice as high as the plant was built to withstand, and follow-up quakes of magnitudes 7.1 and 6.3. A Japanese commission of inquiry described it as a "man-made disaster" because of regulatory failure and lack of a safety culture.

This "perfect storm" hit a nuclear plant built to a 50-year-old design and no one died. Japan moved a few metres east during a three-minute quake and the local coastline subsided half a metre, but the 11 reactors operating in four nuclear power plants in the region all shut down automatically. None suffered significant damage. (The tsunami disabled Fukushima's cooling system.)

Yet such is the imbalance of dread to risk on matters nuclear that this accident was enough to turn public opinion and governments against nuclear power. Never mind that coal mining kills almost 6000 people a year, or that populations of coal-mining areas have death rates about 10 per cent higher than non-mining areas, or that coal emissions drive global warming.

A 2010 National Academy of Sciences study, The Hidden Costs of Energy, calculated that coal fired electricity generation produced $62 billion in non-climate damages annually in the U.S., of which 90 percent were associated with premature mortality. At the standard rate of $6 million per life, that implies about 10,000 excess deaths per year.

There may be a good economic case against pursuing nuclear power, but worries about the industry's health effects (even in a very near worst case scenario) do not provide good reasons to oppose nuclear power generation.

For more background see my column, "The Cultural Contradictions of Anti-Nuke Environmentalists," and my post-Fukushima column, "Radiation Non-Alert."

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  1. Ron, Ron, Ron:

    EVERYBODY noes that teh nucular is teh eeeeevul and everywun will die of the cancer and have brain tumors and all teh children will grow up to be mutants who will take over the world.

    Obviously the World Health Organization has been bought off by the Evul Kochtopus to cover up the fact that MILLIONS died. You are just shilling for Big Nuke.


  2. At the standard rate of $6 million per life

    I’m not even old enough to make a joke about this. Jeez.

    1. I suppose I am, because I’m running in slow motion right now.

    2. So long as you know Public Enemy did not write Me So Horny, you’re good.

  3. Anyone want to explain how a 6% increased risk relative to the .75% lifetime risk nets a risk of 1.25% for those affected? Shouldn’t it be something like .795%?


    2. I believe you’re correct. 0.75*1.06=0.795. Coincidentally, 0.75/6= 0.125. I don’t think that means anything though.

      1. D & a_s: I interpreted Watson as trying to report various individual cancer risk analyses while simultaneously (and in retrospect confusingly) reporting the overall WHO cancer risk increase for the worst affected areas. But as you point out, perhaps he’s just bad at math.

  4. Given that they’ve evacuated a huge area around the plant, does the fact there’s limited health effects in the places that weren’t evacuated really mean much?

    I mean sure, thousands of people have been driven off their property by TEPCO’s incompetence, but hey, they’re only slightly more likely to get cancer, so don’t get any ideas that they ought to be held responsible for anything.

    1. SD: Yes. And TEPCO should be made to pay for those losses. Actually, your point suggests that the Price Anderson Act should be repealed. If nuke plants can’t afford private insurance, that suggests that they should not be built. Or as I said: “There may be a good economic case against pursuing nuclear power….

      No nuclear, wind, solar, biofuel, coal, geothermal, or oil socialism!

      1. Does hamsters running in wheels qualify as “biofuel”? If not, I have a pitch to arrange with the DOE.

      2. Although, weren’t they driven off their land by the tsunami in the first place?

        1. Some were, many weren’t. The exclusion zone extends inland far beyond the area directly impacted by the tsunami.

      3. The problem is TEPCO isn’t being made to pay for the losses, the Japanese taxpayer is. The government has given them 10 trillion Yen to pay for the cleanup.

        This is typical for the nuclear industry: they depend on the state forcing taxpayers to subsidize the costs of disposing of their radioactive waste and to pay for cleanup costs when disasters happen. And while you’re correct that other power plants can lead to deaths too, a coal plant disaster isn’t going to render a 60 km wide circle uninhabitable for decades.

        1. But 10 trillion Yen is like $15 isn’t it?

          1. It’s 128 billion US dollars.

            1. So 4.7 GW capacity over 40 years assuming 75% of the potential power generation was sold would mean that they would have merely had to have had a surcharge of $0.001 per KWH to cover the cost of this disaster.

        2. Is the nuclear industry given the opportunity to dispose of their waste? If so, the next reactor built would be some kind of breeder.

        3. Perhaps the problem would be less expensive to solve if the government stopped forcing them to keep stacks of nuclear waste hoarded in their basements.

          FWIW, I’d love to see more coal plants. It’s a robust technology. We have lots of fuel laying around. Unfortunately instead of building new ones, the current administration seems positively gleeful about using shady tactics to shut perfectly good coal plants down. It’s almost like they’re not acting in good faith or something.

          1. Perhaps the problem would be less expensive to solve if the government stopped forcing them to keep stacks of nuclear waste hoarded in their basements.

            What are they going to do with the nuclear waste instead?

        4. a coal plant disaster isn’t going to render a 60 km wide circle uninhabitable for decades

          Neither will most nuclear disasters, evidently.

          1. Only an auto-worker union can do that.

    2. Actually it suggests that driving people off of their land was perhaps unnecessary.

      As usual, the fear of radiation does more damage than the radiation itself.

    3. It probably means that there’s no good reason to keep the land evacuated.

      We could always send out a certified atomic exorcist to preform the proper rites and rituals, if it makes you feel better.

  5. Ra-di-a-tion. Yes, indeed. You hear the most outrageous lies about it. Half-baked goggle-box do-gooders telling everybody it’s bad for you. Pernicious nonsense. Everybody could stand a hundred chest X-rays a year. They ought to have them, too.

  6. What did the Japanese ever do to deserve everything they have went through?

    World War 2 and the nuclear bombings, Godzilla, the earthquake with resulting tsunami, and a nuclear disaster on top of that? And now this:

    Worse than Godzilla

    Why can’t anyone ever think of the Japanese?

  7. “Mark it zero, Dude.”

  8. This is unpossible. I read on teh interwebz comment sections that teh radiashun was going to make its way to teh west coast and kill all who live there. You are clearly mistaken Ron. Or more likely, simply lying to increase the bottom line of the Kochtopus.

    I also have it on good authority that all life is dead in and around the Gulf of Mexico due to the BP “DISASTER”, yet teh korparashuns are covering it up to make teh profitz.

    1. I’d almost forgotten about the BP thing. While it was a terrible thing to happen and effects will go on for some time, it was, of course over blown to a large degree.

      I remember one amusing incendent where a friend was drunkenly shouting about how asking how much oil was OK to spill in the ocean was like asking how much bleach is OK to drink. I had to point out that there is some amount of bleach that is safe to drink and that that amount relative to the volume of your body is probably quite a bit larger than the amount of oil spilled relative to the volume of the Gulf of Mexico.

      It’s hard to have a good sense of proportion when it comes to very big things.

      1. There certainly were effects of the spill, and losing that much oil in the gulf is certainly not a good thing, but yeah, it was way overblown.

        My favorite part was when they went to clean up certain areas and they discovered that there was a giant boom in the population of a bacteria (or some tiny thing) that literally ate all the oil.

        It’s almost like the ecosystem is aware of things like oil and things have evolved to take care of the random oil that leaks into the ocean…

  9. We need a few more nuclear disasters before people start realizing they are no big deal.

  10. There are some holes in that Australian article:
    1.) Apparently that UNSCEAR study extrapolated from radiation counters worn by the workers. However, some of those radiation counters were shielded:

    2.) There exists another study which claims that the rate of thyroid cancer in the age group 10-14 has already increased in the area (but also states this might likely have other causes):

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