Before March last year, if you’d asked a child in Japan about nuclear radiation you would probably have been told about Godzilla, the monster powered by mutations caused by radiation, or Tetsuwan Atomu, aka the nuclear-powered robot Astro Boy. Not any more.
As Japan goes nuclear-free (probably temporarily, though many outside the infamous “nuclear village” would prefer if it were forever) with the last of its 54 reactors shut down last week at Hokkaido Electric Power Co.’s No. 3 unit, at its Tomari plant, the population — children included — has become only too well aware of the pros and cons of nuclear power. In fact you could say people in Japan are hyper-aware of the risks.
It’s understandable. Yet many radiation experts have suggested that the threat posed by fallout from the triple meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is actually quite low, and indeed the psychological fear is causing greater harm. Moreover, the intense focus on the perceived dangers of nuclear power may actually prevent us from seeing much more clear and present dangers.
A new study illustrates that well. It shows that the biggest killers of adults in Japan are things we understand very well and have complete control over: tobacco smoking and high blood pressure.
So why is it that these health risks are neglected, and those of nuclear power are overblown?
Nuclear radiation occupies an especially fearful place in the public imagination, and not just in Japan. Hiroshima and Nagasaki have cast a long shadow, but in many parts of the world the public fear of radiation is out of proportion to its actual danger. (The same fear doesn’t seem to exist in France, which generates almost 80 percent of its electricity through nuclear power — the highest proportion in the world.)
Like it or not, nuclear power is going to be around for a few years yet, even in Japan.
Perhaps predictably enough, in a Fukushima University survey in February and March of 225 young evacuees from villages near the striken power plant (in cooperation with eight of the prefecture’s 11 municipalities in the hot zone), around a third of the children said that the nuclear disaster last year was the first time they’d heard about the dangers of radiation. And of course, they’ve heard about little else since.
Interestingly, too, a second-year middle-school girl speculated that in 30 years’ time Fukushima Prefecture would again be as safe as it was before the nuclear accident — while a 14-year-old boy said Fukushima Prefecture would in the future be powered mainly by renewable energy.
Regardless of the actual risks and dangers stemming from the Fukushima disaster, though — and the evidence suggests Japan got away relatively lightly — nuclear power is now a dangerously decaying political nucleus that requires delicate handling.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has to judge when it is both politically acceptable and scientifically safe for him to order a return to nuclear power. We’ve all heard about the impending power shortages as the country’s concrete cities turn into heat islands as the temperature and humidity remain high throughout summer and everyone cranks up the air conditioning — so it seems Noda can’t delay too long.
However, before the government can end this first period since 1966 when Japan has been without nuclear power — likely when one of the three reactors at Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture goes back on line — it will have to show the public, through open and direct and clear explanations, what it is doing to assess the safety of this technology.
To convey the relative risks to health, I think it’s worth looking at a study on smoking and blood pressure by a team from the University of Tokyo under Nayu Ikeda. Their research found that in 2007, smoking and high blood pressure accounted for 129,000 and 104,000 deaths, respectively, among adults aged 30 and over.
And there’s more data on preventable deaths.
Physical inactivity killed 52,000 people, high blood glucose and high dietary salt intake accounted for 34,000 deaths each, and alcohol use for 31,000 deaths. Ikeda and colleagues found that life expectancy at age 40 would have been extended by 1.4 years for both sexes if exposure to multiple cardiovascular risk factors had been reduced (though it’s not clear whether this means “reduced to zero” or merely “reduced”).
At 82.9 years averaged out across men and women, life expectancy in Japan is currently the highest in the world — though it could easily be significantly higher still if readily preventable deaths were avoided.
“A first step will be to powerfully promote effective programs for smoking cessation,” Ikeda’s team writes in the journal PLoS Medicine (DOI reference: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001160).
People might say they don’t care about the risks of tobacco and dietary excess, because they have a choice about whether to indulge in those things. When there is a radiation leak, there is no such choice.
Of course, tobacco companies have a tight grip on Japanese society, and some would say on Japanese politicians, too, since the government owns a 50.01 percent stake in Japan Tobacco Inc., the world’s third-biggest publicly traded cigarette-maker.
But Ikeda says that doctors can nevertheless play a crucial role: “Health-care professionals, including physicians, who are highly conscious of the harms of tobacco will play the primary role in treatment of smoking and creating an environment for implementation of stringent tobacco-control policies.”
In other words, don’t wait for politicians to act. Will the same be true for finding alternatives to nuclear power?
Here’s one that the 14-year-old evacuee from Fukushima might like to hear about: geothermal energy. What better way, in a volcanic country like Japan — and one where even the monkeys take advantage of hot springs — to tap into the natural energy below the Earth’s crust?
In January, Fujitsu Ltd. started geothermal heat-extraction at a company plant in Nagano City. It uses 31 heat-extraction pipes sunk in the ground to capture geothermal heat — the same stuff that heats the water in which we bathe in onsen hot-spring baths — to generate hot water and power air conditioners in its electronics factory.
If that pilot system works well, the company wants to expand the use of geothermal heat at other locations. More of this, and Japan could be on the way to generating decent amounts of renewable energy — but there’s a long way to go before it can do without nuclear.