Fukushima: the untold disaster

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Two years ago, on March 11, 2011, a massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake sent a 14-metre tsunami crashing into a nuclear power station. Fukushima, the site of the station, became a household name. The result was a disaster: loss of life, release of deadly radiation into the environment and — worst of all — skyrocketing anti-nuclear sentiment across the globe.

I know how that sounds, but I am quite serious. Although more than 15 000 people died as a result of the earthquake and tsunami, not a single person died as a result of direct exposure to radiation. And the World Health Organization recently released a report which, according to the press release, concluded that while children exposed to the most contaminated area of Fukushima were at a slightly higher risk of certain types of cancer, “for the general population inside and outside of Japan . . . no observable increases in cancer rates . . . are anticipated” as a result of the accident.

That may seem incredible to you, considering that here on the West Coast — 8 000 kilometres across the Pacific Ocean — the disaster caused near-panic. Sales of potassium iodide pills (which can protect against thyroid cancer) and Geiger counters went through the roof. My mother called me from Tofino looking for reassurance. And a friend of mine, along with her husband and baby boy, moved to South America for fear of the radiation.

The rest of the world was worried, too: a poll conducted by the BBC soon after the accident suggested that enthusiasm for nuclear power had plummeted. This caused prudent politicians to announce that they were reassessing or scaling down their country’s nuclear industries — Germany, for example, announced plans to be nuclear-free by 2022. And this, in turn, caused the International Energy Agency to cut its estimate of how much nuclear power the world will be generating by 2035 in half.

And what do you think will make up this shortfall? No prizes for the correct answer: hydro is already approaching its apogee, and alternatives like wind and solar are, unfortunately, not yet up to the task. Almost certainly it will be coal, gas and oil. And this is the real disaster.

This is not to imply that nuclear power is perfect: it’s not even close. Even in the best of times, it’s not environmentally inconsequential. It creates radioactive waste. It can help mask clandestine nuclear weapons production. And the risk of accidents like those of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima cannot be discounted.

But however bad nuclear power is, it beats the pants off fossil fuels, which are a major cause of particulate air pollution that, according to one estimate, kills 50 000–100 000 Americans every year via lung cancer and cardiopulmonary diseases.  Not to mention climate change, ocean acidification, oil spills and the risk of conflicts over control of dwindling resources.

Surely anything is better than this. Nuclear is simply the most realistic alternative at hand. This realization may well be counter-intuitive. But if the tragic tale of Fukushima has a moral, it is that our intuitions cannot be counted on to weigh the risks of sudden, dramatic accidents against the inexorable, creeping advance of something much, much worse.

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  • bvconway

    Nathan, If you feel like refuting this data, Scientific American has already tried and were left red-faced (they actually got higher figures).

    Fukushima, San Onofre and Our Health
    by MICHAEL STEINBERG on MARCH 11, 2013
    http://obrag.org/?p=71708

    And subsequent data indicated that this radiation had almost immediate effects.

    “Preliminary data,” Mangano relates, “from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that in the first fourteen weeks after the radioactive plume entered the US, the average number of weekly reported infant deaths in 119 US cities (30 percent of the population) rose 3.99% higher than the fourteen weeks of a year before.”

    “The 2010-2011 change for the prior fourteen week periods was a decrease of 8.37%. There was also a gap for deaths for all ages.”

    In other words, death rates rose for all ages groups after the Fukushima plume passed over the US.

    Mangano and associate Janette Sherman subsequently calculated that this amounted to nearly 22,000 “excess deaths;” that is, that many more deaths than had occurred during the same period the previous year.

    Also:

    “Chris Busby, a professor at the University of Ulster known for his alarmist views, generated controversy during a Japan visit last month when he said the disaster would result in more than 1 million deaths. “Fukushima is still boiling its radionuclides all over Japan,” he said. “Chernobyl went up in one go. So Fukushima is worse.”

    He mentions one million deaths there, but I’ve heard him mention 2 million also. The question to ask is: how many deaths over what period of time?

    Given the effects of bio-accumulation (and biomagnification in fish and animals, milk and so on) the death toll is likely to be in the millions. The death toll will never cease, it will continue to climb because the half-lives of some of the 250 odd isotopes are measured in millions and billions of years (longer than the 4.3 or so billion years left in earth’s existence).

  • bvconway

    You should be glad your article is not peer reviewed Nathan. You and Anne Coulter seem to share almost the same view. Could it be that radiation might even be good for you? (Answer: No, quite the opposite).
    The unofficial death toll from Chernobyl is 1 million (and counting). Radiation kills for many many years after the initial meltdown. Chernobyl is still killing.

    http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/03/09/the-dangerous-myths-of-fukushima/

    “Official studies have chipped away at the oft-repeated claim that nobody died from Fukushima. Last month brought the news that 573 deaths in the area near the stricken reactors were certified by coroners as related to the nuclear crisis, with dozens more deaths to be reviewed. Another survey showed that births near Fukushima declined 25% in the three months following the meltdowns.”

    “A February 2012 journal article by the U.S. Geological Survey looked at radioactive Iodine-131 that entered soil from rainfall, and found levels hundreds of times above normal in places like Portland OR, Fresno CA, and Denver CO. The same places also had the highest levels of Cesium-134 and Cesium-137 in the U.S. While elevated radiation levels were found in all parts of the country, it appears that the West Coast and Rocky Mountain states received the greatest amounts of Fukushima fallout.”

    I’ll correct that last sentence: The West Coast, Rocky Mountains and Cascade Mountains are currently (as we speak) receiving the greatest amount of radiation.

    “On December 19, 2011, we announced the publication of the first peer-reviewed scientific journal article examining potential health risks after Fukushima. In the 14 week period March 20 – June 25, 2011, there was an increase in deaths reported to the CDC by 122 U.S. cities. If final statistics (not available until late 2014) confirm this trend, about 14,000 “excess” deaths occurred among Americans in this period.”

    Also keep in mind that research is now continuously and repeatedly pointing out that:

    THERE IS NO SAFE LEVEL OF RADIATION

    (none)

    You are right in one respect: our intuitions cannot be counted on to weigh the risks of sudden, dramatic accidents against the inexorable, creeping advance of something much, much worse.

    If you think one Hiroshima bomb’s worth of radiation a day hitting our coast is nothing to worry about, I say think again.

    If you think a 3-reactor meltdown due to faulty design (BWR-MKI reactors) and bad placement (on top of earthquake faults) is just great and dandy, I say think again. Keep in mind, there were almost 14 meltdowns in Japan.

    If you think the effects of this disaster will not reach you, your family and possible kids, think again. (Levels in the Rockies and Cascades are above Chernobyl levels, and increasing).

    If you think nuclear power plants are safe, consider that they are constantly leaking – tritium and over 250 other isotopes – and that most people living downwind of nuclear reactors get sick (leukemia, cancer and a slew of other diseases).

    If you think coal-fired power plants are the answer: think again. Nuclear power plants in the U.S. only produce about 8% of their energy. They’re actually bomb factories. They are slow-release bombs in and of themselves.

    Nathan, we are currently in a nuclear war beyond your imagining. The fallout is all around you (right now). How about you get out a geiger counter and measure the rain to see for yourself?

    Consider also that there are many transport vectors for the radiation from Fukushima: the ocean, rain, snow, mist, ocean mist (buckyballs), fish, seaweed, pollen, insects, people (alive and dead), used cars, dust, rice, tap water, hot particles (nuclear fleas), tsunami debris and many more. (It will get you).

    Oil indeed. Perhaps we should both go fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, or participate in a War of Aggression against an innocent Middle East nation so that we can find those “weapons of mass destruction”, a euphemism for oil.

    Nuclear power plants ARE weapons of mass destruction – on a good day.

    Oil is not the answer, not by a long shot. Neither is nuclear.