Japan's panicked Fukushima evacuation of some 130,000 persons was unnecessary, but it serves as a great warning for us. For most of the evacuees, their first year exposure was about 2 REMs of radiation, fifty times below where it causes illness. Some were exposed to 22 REMs, still far below the sickness level of 100 REMs. Yet the Japanese were basically following American civil defense guidelines. Irrational fear of radiation permeates Washington's civil defense and nuclear regulatory guidelines. There is an argument that virtually any radiation might eventually cause cancer in some people. The Wall Street Journal link above calculates a possible 194 excess cancers among the Fukushima population, however 1,600 persons died from the forced evacuation.
Fortunately, the GAO recently published a relevant report in September: NUCLEAR TERRORISM RESPONSE PLANS: Major Cities Could Benefit from Federal Guidance on Responding to Nuclear and Radiological Attacks. It details dangerous ignorance by most cities' officials which "could lead to a disjointed and untimely response that might increase the consequences of attack." The "GAO found that federal guidance on the type and timing of such assistance is not readily available or understood by all emergency managers" and that "cities may not have the information they need to adequately prepare for and respond to them. This could lead to complications that result in greater loss of life and economic impacts."
The report's conclusion, What GAO Found, urges "that FEMA develop guidance to clarify the early response capabilities needed by cities for RDD (radiological dispersal device) and IND (improvised nuclear device) attacks. FEMA did not concur with this recommendation. GAO believes that gaps in early response abilities warrant federal attention and has clarified its recommendation."
These concerns may have come about because of more and more reports that the forced evacuation in Fukushima was not necessary. The panicked Japanese authorities were apparently following old American guidelines under the ALARA policy. ALARA means As Low as Reasonably Achievable which, in practice, has been interpreted as meaning that any radiation is dangerous. The threshold was established after World War II and then used by the EPA to set a 15 millirem limit as the danger exposure level for nearly everything from civil defense to reactors and nuclear waste disposal sites. Actual threats to health starts at 100 REM. The EPA is now considering a 50 REM threat level. In Japan not a single person died from radiation, and hardly any got ill, even among the emergency nuclear workers at the reactor.
The fact that FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) did not agree with the GAO's call for clarified guidance may not just be government inertia. It could also be because of strong resistance from extreme environmentalists who oppose any modification of old rules about what radiation levels are actually dangerous. EPA is working on new guidelines for exposure risk from terrorist attacks. Its formal 90 day public comment period expired on July 15 (since extended to Sept 15th) and the report has still not been issued. Extreme environmentalists are already opposing any modifications.
If the EPA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (which incidentally contributed to the panic in Japan by urging Americans up to 50 miles away to flee the whole area) propose substantial changes in limits, it could bring into question the whole excessive fear level about the use of nuclear energy and nuclear waste disposal. Furthermore it could challenge other far-out EPA limits on dust, mercury, lead, and all sorts of other chemicals and minerals based on the theory of "linear no threshold theory." Their cost to the American economy in lost jobs, shut down factories and mines is stupendous. EPA models are largely based on this theory, namely that even the tiniest exposure—e.g. parts per billion—will eventually produce illness, mainly cancers, in some people. An article in Forbes explains why the theory is fallacious. The costs of EPA enforcement of its old models are in the hundreds of billions—the Wall Street Journal reports that the cost for cleaning up 130 contaminated nuclear sites is $350 billion.
For more details on measuring radiation, civil defense and consequences of the linear no threshold theory, please see my earlier article "Terrorism and Radiation, Understanding the Real Threat to Our Cities."
Ignorance in the national media is equally pervasive. Witness the recent reports that radioactive water was leaking into the ocean from Fukushima. Almost nowhere did one see any explanation or questioning of the amounts of radiation, whether they were dangerous or simply negligible. Finally the Washington Post published some details explaining the perceived dangers, but still using the old radiation limits. The Japan Times has published some realistic information about fish and radiation. The New York Times recently published an op-ed, Taming Radiation Fears, calling for less panic and better understanding.
In 2004 I wrote "Thoughts on Terrorist Targets" arguing that Bin Laden would not waste his resources on small targets, that his objectives were major ports, infrastructure or symbolic ones. However, with his death and now the proliferation of little Al Qaeda cells with angry young men, humiliated and enraged by what they see as America's unjust killing of Muslims, the threat has changed. Since Boston's attack we now know that just a few can launch terrorism inside America. The Boston bombing was done by two men, the recent Kenya shopping mall attack, by half a dozen or a few more. A nuclear device or "dirty bomb" is beyond the capability of most, but one day there will surely be such an attack.
The greatest threat from terrorism is what Washington, in reaction, does to America. We were spared in Boston, but need to pay attention now. Thankfully the GAO report is a good start.