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."