Like millions of other people in Japan, I watched the events of March 2011 unfurl with shock and trepidation. The massive earthquake, the terrible tsunami and then what seemed to be a dreadful nuclear disaster.
Yet now I wonder at my naivety, because the nuclear accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant triggered in me a critical review of everything I thought I knew about radiation and nuclear power. I am now firmly pronuclear, and not despite the Fukushima accident, but because of it.
Let’s look objectively at what happened. There was a major earthquake, unprecedented in scale, followed by a 15-20-meter tsunami that flooded a large nuclear power plant. The equipment designed to provide power to the cooling systems in case of accident was flooded, and human error was also a factor. As a result, full or partial meltdown occurred in three separate reactors. It was pretty much a worst-case scenario.
Yet, not one person was killed by radiation, and nobody has been harmed, though two workmen, who have since been released from hospital, were reported to have received “radiation exposure to the legs.” Overall, not much of a “disaster,” especially compared to a genuine industrial catastrophe like Bhopal in India in 1984, where more than 10,000 people died and 500,000 were injured.
Some media sources were reporting the Fukushima accident to be the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, if not ever. My response to that is to say, well, if that is the worst nuclear disaster ever, we should immediately start the construction of large numbers of new nuclear power plants.
Nor, according to mainstream science, are there likely to be any long-term health consequences due to radiation from Fukushima. In fact, a resident living anywhere in the prefecture, even within the evacuation zone, is likely to have received less radiation in 2011 than people living in areas of high natural background radiation around the world, such as parts of Iran and India. Yet those places have not reported any ill health effects; on the contrary, local hot springs in those areas, high in natural radiation, are frequented by tourists for their supposed health benefits.
Wade Allison is an emeritus professor of physics at Oxford University. He has shown that the risk of getting cancer from radiation is so low that it literally cannot be measured at less than 100 millisieverts of radiation exposure a year, yet areas of Fukushima with just 5 millisieverts of exposure a year are subject to expensive “decontamination” efforts.
Other experts have said that at worst, using the most pessimistic of theoretical assumptions, living close to the Fukushima plant may raise the risk of cancer in your lifetime by a fraction of 1 percent. In contrast, and as an example of the skewed perceptions of risk many people have, living in a major city subjects people to a very real and measurable reduction in life expectancy due to air pollution; but surprisingly, nobody is advocating the evacuation of Tokyo in the light of this.
In the case of Chernobyl, where explosions blew off the lid of the nuclear reactor and dumped large amounts of radioactive materials straight into the atmosphere, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) reported that about 50 plant workers died directly from radiation, there was a “dramatic” jump in thyroid cancers among locals exposed at a young age, and an increase in cataract problems and leukemia among cleanup workers. However, for the rest of the general population, the psychological reactions to the accident were judged to be the most serious problem.
In the case of Three Mile Island, there were no reported health effects from radiation at all, regardless of what you may have heard. And while UNSCEAR is not due to release a formal assessment of the Fukushima accident until September, they are likely to report that the actual health effects, minimal at most, are considerably outweighed by the psychological damage caused by the fear of radiation.
Yet so underreported is the scientific consensus in the Japanese media that the average person could be forgiven for having no knowledge at all of this very prosaic reality. On the contrary, barely a day goes by, even now, 16 months after the tsunami and nuclear accident, without some exaggerated and dire report of leaking water pipes, contaminated food or “radioactive” debris.
An astounding example of the skewed coverage of Fukushima could be observed last year during the “contaminated beef” scare. An NHK special broadcast featured a lengthy and worrisome introduction, footage from cattle farms in Fukushima, an examination of flaws in the inspection system, shrill announcements of becquerels in the hundreds and thousands, interviews with crying supermarket managers who had inadvertently sold the meat, and clips of young mothers fearfully clutching their babies and wondering about the safety of their families. Finally there was a 15-second clip of a university professor calmly stating that you would have to eat a kilo of that beef a day in order for the radiation to have any measurable effect upon your health.
It is that contrast — between 45 minutes of fear-mongering and 15 seconds of calm science — that tells you all you need to know about the nuclear “crisis” in Japan.
It is a crisis that some elements within the media and a vocal minority of the public seem determined should continue. Indeed, as time has passed since the accident, and as the situation at the plant itself has not worsened, the antinuclear lobby seems offended rather than mollified.
When in December last year the Japanese government, on sound engineering advice, declared the reactors in a state of cold shutdown, the response from some was hardly relief; in fact, it almost seemed to be anger: How dare the crisis be over? An English-language editorial on the Mainichi website accused the government of “fudging the rules” about cold shutdown, and concluded by declaring that the shutdown is “merely the result of officials lowering their own hurdles.” It continued, “It reminds me of the time during World War II when the Imperial Japanese Army headquarters called the Japanese army’s retreat a ‘shift in position’ “.
One might be tempted to suggest that the hyperbole of such an assertion might “live in infamy.” That a major newspaper was so desperate to keep alive an imagined nuclear crisis that they compared it to Japan’s hopeless fight in the Second World War shows us merely that some media elements are absurdly yet tragically invested in the continuation of the “crisis.” After all, fear sells more newspapers than calm scientific statistics.
The relatively minor effects of the Fukushima accident can really be appreciated when compared to the hideous health consequences of the use of other major energy sources. Every year thousands of people are killed in coal mining accidents in China alone, and the burning of coal and oil kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide annually through the release of air pollutants. Compared to those numbers, is it really possible that people choose not to support nuclear energy, when Fukushima radiation has killed no one at all?
The real tragedy of the Fukushima accident is that many normal people have been whipped into a fever pitch of extraordinary apprehension about nuclear power, which in turn is putting pressure on the government, against all scientific and economic advice, to keep Japan’s nuclear power plants idle and even shut down the industry forever.
The result of such a decision would truly be a disaster. Already Japan has spent ¥4.3 trillion more this year on fossil fuels, opening up old mothballed “thermal” plants and drastically expanding gas infrastructure to make up the shortfall of power production. Massive amounts of carbon dioxide have been released unnecessarily into the atmosphere, making a mockery of Japan’s once-genuine claim to be a world leader in the fight against climate change.
Add to this the constant threat of blackouts, electricity price hikes and the likelihood of people dying unnecessarily from heatstroke, and Japan really is on the verge of becoming a country that someone might choose to fly from. I might become a “flyjin” myself.
Michael Radcliffe is a lecturer at Yokohama City University. Send comments and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org