Catastrophic nuclear accidents, like Chernobyl in 1986 or Fukushima No. 1 in 2011, are very rare, we’re incessantly told, and their probability of occurring infinitesimal. But when they do occur, they get costly. So costly that the French government, when it came up with cost estimates, kept them secret.
But now the report was leaked to the French magazine, Le Journal de Dimanche. Turns out, the upper end of the cost spectrum of an accident at a single reactor at the plant chosen for the study, the plant at Dampierre in the Department of Loiret in north-central France, would amount to over three times the country’s GDP. Financially, France would cease to exist as we know it.
Hence, the need to keep it secret. The study was done in 2007 by the Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), a government agency under joint authority of the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Environment, Industry, Research, and Health. With over 1,700 employees, it’s France’s “public service expert in nuclear and radiation risks.” This isn’t some overambitious, publicity-hungry think tank.
It evaluated a range of disaster scenarios that might occur at the Dampierre plant. In the best-case scenario, costs came to €760 billion—more than a third of France’s GDP. At the other end of the spectrum: €5.8 trillion! Over three times France’s GDP. A devastating amount. So large that France could not possibly deal with it.
Yet, France gets 75% of its electricity from nuclear power. The entire nuclear sector is controlled by the state, which also owns 85% of EDF, the mega-utility that operates France’s 58 active nuclear reactors spread over 20 plants. So, three weeks ago, the Institute released a more politically correct report for public consumption. It pegged the cost of an accident at €430 billion.
“There was no political smoothening, no pressure,” claimed IRSN Director General Jacques Repussard, but he admitted, “it’s difficult to publish these kinds of numbers.” He said the original report with a price tag of €5.8 trillion was designed to counter the reports that EDF had fabricated, which “very seriously underestimated the costs of the incidents.”
Both reports were authored by IRSN economist Patrick Momal, who struggled to explain away the differences. The new number, €430 billion, was based on a “median case” of radioactive releases, as was the case in Fukushima, he told the JDD, while the calculations of 2007 were based more on what happened at Chernobyl. But then he added that even the low end of the original report, the €760 billion, when updated with the impact on tourism and exports, would jump to €1 trillion.
“One trillion, that’s what Fukushima will ultimately cost,” Repussard said.
Part of the €5.8 trillion would be the “astronomical social costs due to the high number of victims,” the report stated. The region contaminated by cesium 137 would cover much of France and Switzerland, all of Belgium and the Netherlands, and a big part of Germany—an area with 90 million people (map). The costs incurred by farmers, employees, and companies, the environmental damage and healthcare expenses would amount to €4.4 trillion.
“Those are social costs, but the victims may not necessarily be compensated,” the report stated ominously—because there would be no entity in France that could disburse those kinds of amounts.
Closer to the plant, 5 million people would have to be evacuated from an area of 87,000 square kilometers (about 12% of France) and resettled. The soil would have to be decontaminated, and radioactive waste would have to be treated and disposed of. Total cost: €475 billion.
The weather is the big unknown. Yet it’s crucial in any cost calculations. Winds blowing toward populated areas would create the worst-case scenario of €5.8 trillion. Amidst the horrible disaster of Fukushima, Japan was nevertheless lucky in one huge aspect: winds pushed 80% of the radioactive cloud out to sea. If it had swept over Tokyo, the disaster would have been unimaginable. In Chernobyl, winds made the situation worse; they spread the cloud over the Soviet Union.
Yet the study might underestimate the cost for other nuclear power plants. The region around Dampierre has a lower population density than regions around other nuclear power plants. And it rarely has winds that would blow the radioactive cloud in a northerly direction toward Paris. Other nuclear power plants aren’t so fortuitously located.
These incidents have almost no probability of occurring, we’re told. So there are currently 437 active nuclear power reactors and 144 “permanent shutdown reactors” in 31 countries, according to the IAEA, for a total of 581 active and inactive reactors. Of these, four melted down so far—one at Chernobyl and three at Fukushima. Hence, the probability for a meltdown is not infinitesimal. Based on six decades of history, it’s 4 out of 581, or 0.7%. One out of every 145 reactors. Another 67 are under construction, and more are to come….
Decommissioning and dismantling the powerplant at Fukushima and disposing of the radioactive debris has now been estimated to take 40 years. At this point, two years after the accident, very little has been solved. But it has already cost an enormous amount of money. People who weren’t even born at the time of the accident will be handed the tab for it. And the ultimate cost might never be known.
The mayor of Futaba, a ghost town of once upon a time 7,000 souls near Fukushima No. 1, told his staff that evacuees might not be able to return for 30 years. Or never, for the older generation. It was the first estimate of a timeframe. But it all depends on successful decontamination. And that has turned into a vicious corruption scandal. Read…. Corruption At “Decontaminating” Radioactive Towns In Japan.
Don’t be so sure
The March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami caused the deaths of approximately 16,000 persons, left more than 6,000 injured and 2,713 missing, destroyed or partially damaged nearly one million buildings, and produced at least $14.5 billion in damages. The earthquake also caused a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on Japan’s eastern coast. After reading the first news reports about what the Japanese call “3.11,” I immediately drew associations between the accident in Fukushima and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 in what was then the Soviet Union. This was only natural, since studying the cultural fallout of Chernobyl has been part of my life’s work as an anthropologist for the past 17 years. Knowing rather little about Japan at the time, I relied on some fuzzy stereotypes about Japanese technological expertise and penchant for tight organization and waited expectantly for rectification efforts to unfold as a model of best practices. I positioned the problem-riddled Chernobyl clean-up, evacuation, and reparation efforts as a foil, assuming that Japan would, in contrast, unroll a state-of-the-art nuclear disaster response for the modern age. After all, surely a country like Japan that relies so heavily on nuclear-generated power has developed thorough, well-rehearsed, and tested responses to any potential nuclear emergency? Thus, I expected the inevitable comparisons between the world’s two worst nuclear accidents to yield more contrasts than parallels.
But as reporting on the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi NPP unfolded, an unsettling story of stonewalling and sloppiness emerged that was eerily reminiscent of the Chernobyl catastrophe. TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), which operates the Fukushima Daiichi NPP, and the plant’s head, Masao Yoshida, proved to be masters of understatement. Yoshida characterized radiation levels nearly 100 times higher than normal as “higher than the ordinary level,” and he used the wholly inadequate phrase “acute danger” to describe two explosions and the meltdown of three of the reactor cores1 (how about “catastrophic meltdown necessitating immediate evacuation?”). One is reminded of the first official statement acknowledging the Chernobyl accident, which only appeared in a Kyiv newspaper three days after the disaster, and was hidden on the third page in the Weather section: “From the Cabinet of Ministers of the USSR. An accident has occurred at the Chernobyl atomic electrostation; one of the atomic reactors was damaged. Measures are being taken to liquidate the consequences of the accident. The victims are receiving assistance.”2
Recently-released video footage of the early days and weeks of the Japanese crisis reveals that some of the same mistakes made during the Soviet state’s blighted response to Chernobyl were repeated at Fukushima Daiichi. Military helicopters made futile attempts to douse flames inside the damaged reactors with water, a strategy already proven ineffective, dangerous, and potentially counterproductive during the Windscale fire in Great Britain in 1957, and later at Chernobyl. Local Fukushima firefighters were called to the accident scene but not informed of the extremely high levels of radiation—the TEPCO video reveals an official at headquarters to say, “There’s no use in us telling the fire department. That’s a conversation that needs to happen at higher levels.” Recall the six firemen who lost their lives battling the fires at Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4; along with 25 other plant workers and first responders the firefighters for years were the only Chernobyl casualties officially recognized by the Soviet state. The accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima alike have been traced back to lax safety controls and poor plant design or siting, and the emergency response after both disasters included a muddled chain of command, the intentional withholding of vital radiological data and health directives, and the privileging of economic concerns and saving face over the well-being of human beings and the environment. Did we learn nothing from Three Mile, Selafield, Windscale, and Chernobyl? Will the Fukushima accident finally jar us out of complacency, or will the accident be successfully “socially contained,” enabling humankind to “stagger on toward our next disaster?”3
Thanks to colleagues at the Japan College of Social Work in Tokyo, during October and November 2012 I visited Japan to participate in interviews, informal meetings, and conference roundtables with Fukushima evacuees, social workers, medical professionals, and community activists. It was an enlightening though sobering experience: many of the Fukushima stories I heard echoed nearly word-for-word narratives I have read and collected among persons affected by the Chernobyl accident in the former Soviet Union. Just like people who survived Chernobyl and the Soviet Union’s “rectification efforts,” Fukushima-affected persons and their advocates complain of government secrecy and misinformation, top-down decision making, generalized disorganization, and the social ostracism of nuclear accident “victims.”
No one knows what really happened here”
I traveled through northeast Japan with an esteemed group of scholars: Dr. Yukio Yamaguchi and Dr. Takashi Fujioka, professors at the Japan College of Social Work; Dr. Masumi Shinya, a professor of sociology at East China University of Science and Technology’s School of Social and Public Administration; Dr. Decha Sungkawan, Dean of the Faculty of Social Administration at Thammasat University in Bangkok; and Dr. Charles Figley, professor and Chair of the Tulane University Trauma Institute.
We traveled by trains and taxis, making research stops in cities like Nihonmatsu and Yamagata City, which received thousands of disaster evacuees, and Otsuchi (Iwate Prefecture), a coastal town devastated by the 3.11 tsunami. Before the disaster Otsuchi had a population of 15,262. At least 800 residents were killed in the tsunami that carried away most of the city’s infrastructure; nearly 500 residents are still missing. Today there are 10,000 people living in Otsuchi, 5,400 of who still live in cramped temporary housing units.
Our guide in Otsuchi was Mr. Ryoichi Usuzawa, a community organizer. Mr. Usuzawa drove us around the city, much of which now consists only of partial concrete foundations where buildings once stood. The entire city administration of Otsuchi (more than 20 persons) drowned in the tsunami—they had been called by the mayor to the town hall at the time of the earthquake. Mr. Usuzawa drove us up a steep hill to an area overlooking the town, just above the now-destroyed Buddhist temple and the adjoining hillside cemetery, which is still intact. On 3.11, hundreds of residents watched from this vantage point as the massive wall of water rolled in and mowed down their town (including their own homes, some with people still inside), the buildings collapsing “like dominos.” The devastation resulted in huge amounts of debris that caused further damage in turn, as tanks of propane gas bobbed along, became entangled in debris, and ignited fires and explosions “bubbling on top with smoke.” Mr. Usuzawa says, “It was like a huge washing machine was spinning the whole town. Everything was moving clockwise.”4
One of these hilltop spectators captured the scene on video, and we watched the terrifying footage on Mr. Usuzawa’s laptop as we looked down over the now-leveled city.5 He explained that hundreds of residents, many of them elderly, fled to the Buddhist temple for refuge from the water and drowned inside. As the tsunami was rolling over Otsuchi, some 200 kilometers away a wall of water invaded the coast of Fukushima Prefecture, destroying the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and the surrounding towns. Yet the impact on residents’ health is harder to calculate, because it consists not only of physical destruction but radiation contamination.
As cultural geographer Shiloh Krupar notes, “Embodied knowledge…take[s] on a particular significance in the presence of large-scale technological -environmental disasters…, where the variability and duration of harmful waste and its biological effects are uncertain and never closed.”6 Measuring radiation exposure and absorbed dose requires specific, often hard-to-access technologies, and laypersons are dependent on experts and their expert knowledge for interpretation of these measurements. Individuals’ ability to know and assess their risks is severely curtailed when expert knowledge—produced by agents usually beholden to states and powerful industrial interests—is the only form of knowledge recognized as valid, even as states and industry intentionally withhold information on hazards and their biological effects. Meanwhile, embodied self-knowledge is discredited.
Fukushima evacuees and their advocates report egregious examples of misinformation, negligence, and cover-up that have exacerbated their health risks. After the earthquake and tsunami the United States Department of Defense and the Department of Energy conducted environmental and radiological monitoring of air, water, and soil on DOD installations in the region.7 According to Professor Yukio Yamaguchi of the Japan College of Social Work, when this valuable data was shared with Japanese authorities they shelved it for two weeks instead of immediately informing the population about radiation risks. Further, the Japanese government failed to provide the Japanese public with data from the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI)—data predicting the location and extent of radioactive contamination after the nuclear accident—until March 23, nearly two weeks after the disaster. Because the SPEEDI data was not available, some families evacuated themselves to locations that actually were more contaminated than where they were living.8 Perversely, the Japanese authorities provided the SPEEDI data to the U.S. military on March 14 but waited a full nine days before releasing it to the Japanese people.9
As happened in the Soviet Union after the Chernobyl accident, after the Fukushima accident the government quickly raised the “acceptable” level of individual radiation exposure. In Japan, the pre-nuclear accident maximum “safe” exposure was one millisievert (mSv)/year.10 After the Fukushima disaster, suddenly exposure of 20 mSv/year was deemed safe. Some medical professionals went so far as to suggest that 100 mSv/year was a safe level of exposure.11 Such inconsistencies made it difficult for those living near the Fukushima Daiichi NPP to make informed choices and take actions to minimize their risk of exposure to damaging radionuclides. In this context of uncertainty, a common phrase among Fukushima accident-affected persons is that, “No one knows what really happened here.”
In an age where sophisticated radiological monitoring is possible and information technology facilitates the rapid evaluation and dissemination of radiological data, the Japanese government’s crude “mapping” of the radiation fallout baffles the innocent and informed alike. Environmental contamination after a nuclear explosion or accident is uneven and patchy. We have known this since the 1950s, when radioactive fallout from bombs detonated in Nevada was carried by rain clouds all the way to New York state. Similarly, radiation maps of the area around Chernobyl (not released until years after the disaster) show an irregular contamination pattern around the NPP with “anomalous” hotspots of contamination hundreds of miles away caused by rains —biochemist and journalist Mary Mycio describes it as a “hand” with a dark palm six miles around the plant and 20-30 mile-long “fingers” caused by radiation carried by the wind.12 Why, in the immediate wake of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, did the authorities not apply this knowledge? Why was the contamination not mapped according to the actual radiological data? Instead, in a move strangely reminiscent of the initial Chernobyl “mapping” of a 30-kilometer “zone of alienation,” a 20-kilometer “planned evacuation zone”13 of compulsory evacuation was drawn around the Fukushima Daiichi NPP. The Japanese Cabinet Public Relations Office announced that the cumulative radiation level in those areas could reach 20 mSv/year. People living outside this artificially-drawn zone have been provided no state support to evacuate from their homes, even if the levels of contamination are actually higher there than in some places inside the planned evacuation zone.
Consider for instance the town of Namie. Namie, which was affected by both the tsunami and the NPP accident, is located inside the exclusion zone, and its roughly 20,000 surviving residents were evacuated to the city of Nihonmatsu.14 However, levels of contamination in Namie are lower than in some towns outside the zone,15 whose residents have not had equitable access to evacuation assistance, medical care and social services. Evacuees from Namie face their own set of very difficult circumstances in Nihonmatsu: they are tired of living in hastily-built, cramped temporary housing quarters; unemployment, boredom, and feelings of lack of control over the future fuel anomie. Long-term reliance on social welfare is demoralizing, and evacuation is especially frustrating for elderly persons who just want to go home. According to a community leader at NPO Namie in Nihonmatsu, evacuees are experiencing serious psychological problems; now that they are not in “emergency mode,” he said, they increasingly dwell on their memories of the devastating tsunami. Many suffer from survivor guilt, asking themselves why they lived when others perished. Social workers report high levels of depression and anxiety, alcoholism, gambling, and marital discord among residents of temporary housing units.
Temporary housing site for Namie evacuees in Nihonmatsu. Located in a former athletic field, this site accommodates 240 families (550 persons), including 75 children under 15 years old, and 78 solitary elderly persons. Photo by Charles Figley.
Realizing that returning to Namie is only a distant prospect, and concerned about reports of Namie children being bullied in local schools, in fall 2012 a group of community activists founded Namie Elementary School in Nihonmatsu. The school has enrolled just 30 students so far, but organizers hope it will grow and serve to cohere the community of Namie evacuees in Nihonmatsu, who one community leader described as having been “scattered like sesame seeds.”16 Indeed, loss of community is one of the consequences of 3.11 and the resulting evacuations and resettlements of paramount concern to social workers and NPO leaders. Social work specialists in Japan point out that loss of communities was a major problem after the Great Hanshin (Kobe) earthquake in 1995, but the lessons of that tragedy have not been applied after 3.11.
Living apart is too difficult”
The experiences of the Nakamura family illustrate the difficulties faced bt many Fukushima accident-affected families. Before 3.11, Miki Nakamura, a nutritionist, lived with her husband and three young daughters in Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture, 58 kilometers from the damaged NPP. The Nakamuras evacuated temporarily immediately after the accident. However, being understandably reluctant to uproot their young family, they returned to Fukushima as the new school year began in April. As in other locations close to the damaged nuclear power plant, the schools in Koriyama stayed open even though neither radiological monitoring nor decontamination efforts were underway.17 During an informal interview in October 2012, Miki Nakamura recalled that she and other parents were told “very firmly” by their children’s schoolteachers that children should continue to attend school; children were advised to wear masks, windbreakers, and hats to protect them from radiation. Trusting in the judgment of the teachers—and in the reassurances issued by the then Prime Minister Naoto Kan and the Secretary General that “there will not be immediate health impacts”—the children in Koriyama continued going to school.
The young families who at the time of the Chernobyl accident were living in Pripyat—the workers’ city built 2 km from the NPP—would find this tragedy familiar. Although news of the accident began to circulate informally hours after the Chernobyl explosion, the authorities did not warn the 49,000 residents of Pripyat to take precautions until a full 36 hours after the accident. Children enjoyed playing outside on the warm April day, unaware that their young bodies, especially their young thyroid glands, were soaking up radioactive particles. The thyroid gland is the organ most sensitive to radiation exposure; this is particularly true for children and for those with iodine deficiencies. Local health workers were instructed not to distribute prophylactic potassium iodine pills, for fear of “causing panic.” (Subsequently, around 6,000 cases of thyroid cancers—and many more cases of thyroid anomalies—have been documented among children who at the time of the Chernobyl accident were living in contaminated areas in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.18) Incredibly, a similar scenario unfolded after the Fukushima Daiichi accident. Although health workers themselves took prophylactic potassium iodine, it was not given to children.19
On March 15, it snowed in Fukushima, and the snow contained radioactive materials. Radioactive particles landed on the surface of the soil. In April, the air dose rate exceeded 3.8 microsieverts (/hour at “hot-spots” in Koriyama, and 8 microsieverts/hour at some points along the school route.20 Meanwhile, during the days following the Fukushima Daiichi accident, the Nakamuras’ dosimeter registered radiation levels of 1.5 microsieverts /hour right outside their home. It was not long before the eldest Nakamura daughter (age nine at the time) started having uncontrollable nosebleeds that her mother says “persisted even after going through a box of tissues.” The child’s nosebleeds were the first key factor in the family’s decision to leave Koriyama.
The second factor was the resignation of Professor Toshiso Kosako, an expert on radiation safety at the University of Tokyo and a nuclear advisor to the Japanese Prime Minister. In late April 2011 Kosako resigned in protest of the Japanese government’s decision after the Fukushima Daiichi accident to raise the official acceptable level of radiation exposure in schools from 1 to 20 mSv/year, a decision that allowed “children living near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to receive doses of radiation equal to the international standard for nuclear power plant workers…a level [that is] is far higher than international standards set for the public.”21 Professor Kosako said he could not endorse this policy change from the point of view of science, or from the point of view of human rights.
The Nakamura family made a difficult decision: Miki and the children would move to Yamagata City, about an hour’s drive across the mountains from Koriyama. Mr. Nakamura would remain behind for his job, and the family would get together on weekends. Thus, Miki Nakamura and her three girls joined approximately 4,200 evacuees from Fukushima prefecture who moved to Yamagata. Like the Nakamuras, around 2,500 of these evacuees are from Fukushima City and the surrounding Nakadori area that were not under mandatory evacuation.22 As “voluntary” evacuees, these citizens are hardly entitled to the same state entitlements that mandatory evacuees receive. Some voluntary evacuees did receive two-part reparation payments from TEPCO, the first for the months up until December 2012, and the second for the months from January to August 2013.
The financial stress on voluntary evacuees—many of which find themselves running two households (one back home, one in Yamagata)—is enormous. Rent is free for evacuation housing, but families spend approximately 100,000 Yen ($1,110) per month on moving costs, utilities for two residences, and children’s kindergarten and school fees outside their place of official residence. (The latter obstacle compels some voluntary evacuee families to transfer their official place of residence, a decision that produces its own set of complications.) Costs of transportation are also high for these split families, who travel frequently to spend time together; also, unlike mandatory evacuees, voluntary evacuees must cover the costs of their own medical check-ups. Reparations from TEPCO do not even begin to offset these expenditures: the Nakamura family received the first compensation payment of just 400,000 yen for one child, 80,000 yen for each parent “for their unnecessary radiation exposure that could have been avoided,” and another 200,000 yen “for minor and additional costs.” The second payment consisted of only 80,000 yen for a child, 40,000 yen for an adult, and 40,000 yen for additional costs.
Miki Nakamura notes that, lacking appropriate entitlements and compensation, among voluntary evacuees “ there are so many children and mothers across the country that live each day by digging into their savings set aside for children’s education and their own retirement.”23 Over time, despite their continuing concerns about radioactive contamination, the financial and emotional burdens of voluntary evacuation have compelled a number of these families to return home against their better judgment. Miki Nakamura predicts that a number of families will return to Fukushima Prefecture from Yamagata in spring 2013, “not because Fukushima will be safe, but because living apart is too difficult.”
I am not a doctor but I know my children are sick”
In Yamagata City, the Nakamura girls continue to have health problems such as sore throat, canker sores, swollen lymph nodes, and dark circles under their eyes, which their mother believes to be related to the nuclear accident. The 10-year-old’s nosebleeds continue, but doctors—state employees who likely do not have the freedom to admit a Fukushima accident-related diagnosis—continue to discount radiation effects. One doctor who examined the eldest Nakamura child suggested that the girl’s nosebleeds were “caused by the stress of the mother.”
This readiness to attribute bodily complaints of disaster-affected persons to psychological and emotional stress is all too reminiscent of the diagnoses of “radiophobia” doled out by medical professionals and experts in the Soviet Union after the Chernobyl disaster. Not surprisingly, many people in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia who believed that Chernobyl fallout had compromised their health balked at the suggestion that their ailments were caused by “fear of radiation,” not radiation itself. They had good reason to be skeptical. Anthropologist Adriana Petryna’s ethnographic study of the Chernobyl medical assessment and compensation system has revealed that system to be anything but objective.25 Petryna documents how the invention and application of radiation-related diagnoses in Soviet medicine were as political and social as they were scientific. Further, only half-hearted attempts were made to systematically collect health data from Chernobyl-affected persons (plant workers, clean-up workers, evacuees), making any firm conclusions about biological effects of radiation exposure versus psychological effects of “radiophobia” impossible.
During 1997 I shadowed medical professionals working at the clinic in Kyiv that houses the “Chernobyl registry.” Persons with a “Chernobyl tie” from across the country (those deemed partially or fully disabled due to Chernobyl’s effects on their health) were offered regular examinations at the clinic—some were required to undergo these checks to retain their benefits—and personnel were supposed to enter patients’ data into the clinic’s computer database. The doctors and nurses I shadowed were harried and underpaid, and saw the data entry task as a nuisance. Often data was never entered, or it was entered helter-skelter. It is well known that after Chernobyl some data concerning individual exposure to radiation (particularly among clean-up workers) was actively destroyed or changed.26
I also in 1997 assisted with a WHO-funded study of children’s thyroid health in Chernobyl-contaminated areas whose planned evacuation was scuttled due to lack of funds. The research team exerted a yeoman’s effort, but the desperate conditions of local infrastructure made our tasks extremely difficult. We worked in hospitals without running water or electricity, and thus our ability to do blood draws and perform ultrasounds on children’s thyroids was limited. Local medical personnel were skeptical of our team and the study’s motives and we suspected they actively discouraged sick villagers from participating. Qualitative questionnaires were not tailored to local ways of life. For instance, youngsters who spent hours each day working in the fields and walking long distances to school were never sure how to answer the ill-phrased question, “Do you exercise or do sports regularly?”
Observing these problematic data-collection procedures makes me question research conclusions that purport to definitively assess Chernobyl’s health impacts, and especially those that downplay the medical effects of radiation exposure (e.g. the 2003-2005 Report of the Chernobyl Forum).27 The same critical eye should be applied to Fukushima accident health studies, since reports from Japan indicate that health monitoring of persons exposed to radiation after the Fukushima Daiichi NPP accident has been far from systematic or problem-free. The affected population is skeptical that doctors in the state system of medicine can offer objective diagnoses. This distrust means they may be compelled to pay out-of-pocket for private health care, in which case their medical data may not make it into official databases. In the future, these persons will not be eligible for public compensation for their Fukushima accident-related health problems.
Skepticism of official health pronouncements is reflected in people’s desire to have their personal levels of radiation exposure checked. Whole body counters (a device used to identify and measure the radioactive material in the body) are in deficit in Fukushima City, and the waiting list to be checked is some six months long.28 Even though Yamagata hosts the largest group of Fukushima evacuees in Japan, there is not a single whole body counter in the city.29 And as with Chernobyl, the chaotic evacuation of residents after the Fukushima accident complicates exposure assessment and health monitoring. Additionally, in early Feburary 2013 at a private meeting of the research and survey committee on residents’ health, it was suggested that the Fukushima Prefectural Medical College, the institution entirely responsible for examining radiation and its health effects, has attempted to delay the thyroid check-up for evacuees outside the prefecture.30
Not surprisingly, “radiophobia” has made its way into the Fukushima accident lexicon.31 It becomes convenient and somehow perversely comforting to focus on the psychological impacts of nuclear disasters, with their many “unknowns.” The victim-blaming Miki Nakamura encounters (“the child’s health complaints are caused by the stress of the mother”) would be familiar to many Chernobyl-affected persons I have interviewed in Ukraine. Of course, this is not to discount the real psychosocial stresses associated with evacuation and the multiple forms of Fukushima’s fallout (radioactive, economic, social, psychological), many of which are being tracked by the Fukushima Health Management Survey.32
Miki Nakamura has met with other forms of stonewalling in her efforts to monitor her children’s health. Like all children living near the disaster site, the Nakamura girls are entitled to thyroid screenings. After her daughters’ thyroid checks at the Fukushima Prefectural Medical College, Miki received a brief notice in the mail that lacked any details or explanation of the test results. When she phoned the Medical College to ask for an explanation of the test results, personnel told her, “We are so very busy…” and discouraged her from getting a second opinion, which in the words of the doctors, “just causes confusion.” Despite the deficit of whole body counters, Miki managed to arrange whole body counts for her daughters. However, without regular follow-ups to track the dynamic—whether their counts are going up or down—the information is of limited utility.
Miki Nakamura sums up her frustrations: “I am not a doctor but I know that my children are sick. And I saw that other children from Fukushima and in the greater Kanto region had the same health problems as my daughters, though I do not hear about it anymore…” Recent health studies show that Miki’s concern about her daughters’ thyroid health is far from unfounded. According to the April 2012 Sixth Report of Fukushima Prefecture Health Management Survey, which included examinations of 38,114 children, 35.3% of those examined were found to have cysts or nodules of up to 5 mm (0.197 inches) on their thyroids. A further 0.5% had nodules larger than 5.1 mm (0.2 inches).33 Contradicting earlier reports, the National Institute of Radiological Sciences admitted in July 2012 that children from Fukushima had likely received lifetime thyroid doses of radiation.34 The Health Risk Assessment from the Nuclear Accident after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in February 2013 states that in the most affected regions of Fukushima Prefecture the preliminary estimated radiation effective doses35 for the first year after the disaster ranged from 12 to 25 mSv. According to the report, in the most contaminated location the estimated increased risks over what would normally be expected are as follows:
*all solid cancers – around 4% in females exposed as infants;
*breast cancer – around 6% in females exposed as infants;
*leukemia – around 7% in males exposed as infants;
*thyroid cancer – up to 70% in females exposed as infants (the normally expected risk of thyroid cancer in females over lifetime is 0.75% and the additional lifetime risk assessed for females exposed as infants in the most affected location is 0.50%).36
The future is what we are looking at right now”
Miki Nakamura spends time with other evacuee families every day as founder and director the Yamagata Association of Mothers in Evacuation (YAME). The association is a resource base and support system for families like the Nakamuras who are voluntary evacuees often split between two households. YAME has a liaison council to help mothers get necessary information, provides babysitting services and a “mothers’ morning out,” offers free legal consultations, and sponsors a regular “children’s plaza” where mothers can socialize and exchange advice while their children play. Miki Nakamura and her association worked with a local politician to draft the Fukushima Child Victims’ Law, which was passed by the Diet. But this is just a resolution without enforceability, and specific measures to protect victims’ rights (e.g. the right not to return to Fukushima) have not been determined.
As a nutritionist, in a context of radiological uncertainty Miki Nakamura draws on her knowledge of food properties and the complexities of the food supply to regulate her children’s diet. She shares and publishes recipes that contain “radioprotective” ingredients. Foods that contain beta carotene and vitamin C, for example, can help rid the body of radionuclides.37 One food that people in the Fukushima-affected areas have not enjoyed since 3.11 is persimmons (a crop for which the region is famous), which actively absorb radionuclides and thus are highly contaminated. The Yamagata countryside is adorned with scores of persimmon trees laden with ripe, juicy, entirely inedible fruit. Just as apples have become the key symbol of the Chernobyl accident (the forbidden fruit, original sin, humankind’s folly in seeking to control nature through science)38, perhaps the quintessential symbol of the Fukushima Daiichi accident will be the persimmon, which in Buddhist thought symbolizes the transformation of humans’ ignorance (the acrid green persimmon) into wisdom (the sweet, ripened fruit).
Miki Nakamura has lost all trust in the authorities. Before the disaster she always believed the government and she never thought twice about living near a nuclear power plant. Today she demands justice. She said: “The Fukushima disaster is not just an economic problem, but a problem of our children’s future. The future is what we are looking at right now. Our kids have the right to safety and to a good and long, peaceful life. These are not ‘poor kids.’ They have a future. The most important part of reconstruction after the accident is the restoration of people’s trust and sense of security.”
Was nuclear technological failure—the Chernobyl disaster—the “straw that broke the camel’s back” of the Soviet Union?39 The botched handling of the accident and its aftermath—and especially the central government’s overt failure and disinterest to protect the safety of citizens—confirmed what many citizens strongly believed: their government did not care for them and the system had become thoroughly corrupt and untrustworthy. While widespread protest against nuclear energy and its environmental and health risks was not possible in the authoritarian Soviet state, even in those conditions of a muzzled press and lack of freedom of speech a green movement emerged in response to Chernobyl. Chernobyl’s political fallout was one factor contributing to Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (openness), and in a limited way anti-nuclear sentiment also fueled the Ukrainian independence movement.
Similarly, Japanese citizens have lost trust in the government and in engineers and physicians who previously commanded such respect and authority. Community leaders strongly feel that Japan lags behind other industrialized nations in democratic governance; they are particularly concerned about lack of press freedom. Indeed, in December 2012 the World Audit on corruption, democracy, and freedom of press gave Japan a democracy ranking of 29 (1 is most democratic, 150 least democratic). This puts Japan in the Audit’s “Division 2” list, along with Ghana, Panama, and Israel. Of the 26 OECD countries, Japan ranks 19th in democratic governance.40
The sound defeat of the Democratic Party by the Liberal Democratic Party in the national parliamentary elections in December 2012 reflected dissatisfaction with the status quo. But the elections were a referendum on the DP, not nuclear power; the LDP is pro-nuclear and does not plan to scale back nuclear energy production. Indeed, traveling through Japan I was struck by the relative lack of anti-nuclear discourse, even in Fukushima Prefecture. Few politicians criticize nuclear power. A notable exception is Tetsunari Iida, director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies who lost a bid for governor of Yamaguchi Prefecture in elections in July 2012. The anti-nuclear Tomorrow of Japan Party—formed less than a month before the national parliamentary elections in December 2012—garnered scant voter support and disappeared. Reportedly the party’s calls for nuclear power draw-down failed to gain traction “amid concerns that electrical shortages could hurt the already shrinking economy.”41
Indeed, one gets the impression that response to the disaster has centered primarily on short-term economic, not human, concerns. Before the accident at the Fukushima NPP, Japan relied on nuclear power for 30% of its energy needs and was planning to increase that to over 50% within two decades. According to Japan’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, scrapping nuclear power would result in losses of $55.9 billion for power companies, at least four of which would likely face insolvency.42 With these economic stakes, it is not surprising that TEPCO and the Japanese government have been stingy with information about the disaster, the radioactive fallout, and the potential health consequences. My acquaintances who hoped Japan would abandon nuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster fear that the chance to “change the country’s direction” has already passed by.
Haruhiko Fukase, a resident of Yamagata City who worked as a shelter volunteer and coordinator during the evacuation effort, said that the nuclear accident-affected people have been forgotten not just by the international community, but by many of their fellow Japanese citizens. “For people in Tokyo and other big cities,” he said, “the evacuees don’t even register anymore. Their problems have been forgotten.” But for thousands of families, the Fukushima nuclear disaster will never end. Community leaders repeat this refrain: “The reactor is still hot; the situation is still unstable.” Miki Nakamura and like-minded community leaders are not giving up on the democratic process. They continue to speak justice to power. As Nakamura said during the December 2012 Japanese elections, “ To give up on Japanese politics is, to me, to give up on Fukushima.”43
Fukushima is Chernobyl. Independent of the system (Japanese, Soviet), nuclear technology requires disregard for the public, misleading statements, and obfuscation in multiple domains (medicine, science and technology, governance). As anthropologist Hugh Gusterson notes, “The disaster at Fukushima has generated cracks in what we might call the ‘social containment vessels’ around nuclear energy—the heavily scientized discourses and assumptions that assure us nuclear reactors are safe neighbors.”44 Comparing the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima shows that “peaceful” nuclear technology is anything but.
I am grateful to Miki Nakamura, Satoko Hirano, Yukio Yamaguchi, Paul Josephson, Marvin Sterling, and Charles Figley for their contributions to this article.
Sarah D. Phillips is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University, Bloomington. She is author of Women’s Social Activism in the New Ukraine: Development and the Politics of Differentiation (2008, Indiana U Press) and Disability and Mobile Citizenship in Postsocialist Ukraine (2011, Indiana U Press). Her website is at http://www.indiana.edu/~medanth/.
She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Fukushima’s Nuclear Casualties (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Public Pays for Fukushima While Nuclear Industry Profits (ipsnews.net)
Exactly two years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, perhaps the most crucial issue to be addressed is how many people were harmed by radioactive emissions.
The full tally won’t be known for years, after many scientific studies. But some have rushed to judgment, proclaiming exposures were so small that there will be virtually no harm from Fukushima fallout.
This knee-jerk reaction after a meltdown is nothing new. Nearly 12 years after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, there were no journal articles examining changes in local cancer rates. But 31 articles in publications like the Journal of Trauma and Stress and Psychosomatic Medicine had already explored psychological consequences.
Eventually, the first articles on cancer cases showed that in the five years after the accident, there was a whopping 64% increase in the cancer cases within 10 miles of Three Mile Island. But the writers, from Columbia University, concluded radiation could not account for this rise, suggesting stress be considered instead. While this was later contested by researchers from the University of North Carolina, many officials still subscribe to the slogan “nobody died at Three Mile Island.”
In 1986, after the Chernobyl catastrophe, officials in the Soviet Union and elsewhere raced to play damage control. The Soviet government admitted 31 rescue workers had died soon after absorbing huge radiation doses extinguishing the fire and trying to bury the red-hot reactor. For years, 31 was often cited as the “total” deaths from Chernobyl. Journal articles on disease and death rates near Chernobyl were slow and limited. The first articles were on rising numbers of local children with thyroid cancer – a very rare condition.
Finally, 20 years after the meltdown, a conference of the World Health Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency, and other groups admitted to 9,000 cancers worldwide from Chernobyl. But this was a tiny fraction of what others were finding. A 2009 New York Academy of Sciences book estimated 985,000 deaths (and rising) worldwide from Chernobyl fallout. The team, led by Alexey Yablokov, examined 5,000 articles and reports, most in Slavic language never before available to researchers.
Fukushima was next. While estimates of releases remain variable and inexact, nobody disputes that Fukushima was the worst or second-worst meltdown in history. But predictably, nuclear proponents raced to assure the public that little or no harm would ensue.
First to cover up and minimize damage was the Japanese government and nuclear industry. John Boice of Vanderbilt University went a step further, declaring “there is no opportunity to conduct epidemiologic studies that have any chance of detecting excess cancer risk. The doses are just too low.” At a public hearing in Alabama in December, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission official Victor McCree stated “there was no significant exposure to radiation from the accident at Fukushima Daiichi.” Just days ago, a World Health Organization report concluded there would be no measurable increase in cancer rates from Fukushima – other than a very slight rise in exposed children living closest to the site.
Others have made estimates of the eventual toll from Fukushima. Welsh physicist Christopher Busby projects 417,000 additional cancers just within 125 miles of the plant. American engineer Arnold Gundersen calculates that the meltdown will cause 1 million cancer deaths.
Internist-toxicologist Janette Sherman and I are determined to make public any data on changes in health, as quickly as possible. In the December 2011 International Journal of Health Services, we documented a “bump” in U.S. deaths in the 3-4 months after Fukushima, especially among infants – the same “bump” after Chernobyl. Our recent study in the Open Journal of Pediatrics showed rising numbers of infants born with an under-active thyroid gland – which is highly sensitive to radiation – on the West Coast, where Fukushima fallout was greatest.
It is crucial that researchers don’t wait years before analyzing and presenting data, even though the amount of available information is still modest. To remain silent while allowing the “no harm” mantra to spread would repeat the experiences after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and allow perpetration of the myth that meltdowns are harmless. Researchers must be vigilant in pursuing an understanding of what Fukushima did to people – so that all-too-common meltdown will be a thing of the past.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project.
Last week, I made fun of an advisory that appeared in the Greater Kashmir newspaper, describing steps people could take to protect themselves during a nuclear attack. I noted the similarities with the fallout shelter schemes and “duck and cover” drills promoted in the US in the 1950s. With the Oslo conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons only a few weeks away, with an entire panel given over to a critical examination of preparedness and response, I got to wondering what, if anything, the US had done to update its own nuclear civil defense plans in recent times.
What I found was a 40-page inter-agency document called “Nuclear Detonation Preparedness: Communicating in the Immediate Aftermath,” which was approved for “interim use” in September 2010. The document draws upon the combined resources of 13 federal agencies and the American Red Cross to provide a set of messages that can be delivered by local, state, and national authorities in the event of a nuclear explosion. The premise is that this explosion will be an act of nuclear terrorism (sidestepping the fact that the US has thousands of nuclear weapons and a declared willingness to use them). While the document is not presented as an operational nuclear disaster response plan, what it says (and, more important, what it does not say) reveals a lot about the futility of any such plan.
Although I’m a hearty proponent of ridicule when dealing with the ridiculous, and certainly used it in my previous piece, I can’t quite bring myself to treat this document sarcastically. There are two reasons.
First, when you strip away all the boilerplate rhetoric and redundancy, the document is really about only one aspect of response: providing information and guidance about radiation to outlying populations, and suggesting how to minimize exposure if they were not among those killed or seriously injured by the blast and thermal effects of the explosion. While Chernobyl and Fukushima exposed the limitations of managing even this narrow a response on a large scale, there are measures that would help some people protect themselves from exposure to large amounts of radiation, and one can’t fault disaster response agencies for taking this on as a responsibility.
Second, the language in this document is simultaneously earnest, wishful, and evasive. Behind all the bureaucratic jargon and public relations spin, I hear the voices of people who are trained to help, who want to believe they could help even when helpless, and who can’t bring themselves to say what they know to be true (or, more likely, were prevented from saying it).
That doesn’t mean I have anything positive to say about the handful of messages that are recycled through a question and answer format (often, the same blocks of formulaic text are copied and pasted from page to page):
- “Find the nearest building, preferably built of brick or concrete, and go inside.”
- “Radiation levels are extremely dangerous after a nuclear detonation but the levels reduce rapidly, in just hours to a few days.”
- “When evacuating is in your best interest, you will be instructed to do so.”
- “Please follow instructions.”
- “Stay tuned because instructions may change.”
- “Wash your hands with soap and water before handling any food.“
- “We are doing everything possible to identify those responsible for this malicious, tragic event.”
- “We, as a city and a nation, will recover from this tragedy. This process will not occur overnight. We need everyone to work together to support those in need and rebuild what we have lost.”
Stay calm. Stay inside. Wash your clothes and your food. Follow instructions. Let us do our jobs as best we can. Take care of those around you. There’s some “stiff upper lip” rhetoric and several pages of generalities about radiation (including misleading diversions about “background radiation”) and its health effects, and not much else.
There is not one meaningful word about what has happened to—or what can be done for—those in the areas of greatest devastation. The prepared response to the questions “how many people have died?” and “how many have been injured?” is “we don’t want to speculate on the specific number.” The answer to the question “what is being done in response?” is “responders are working to save lives as close to the impacted area as possible.”
But then comes a crucial acknowledgement: that “as close as possible” is not nearly close enough (remember Fukushima). “This nuclear detonation has created some areas where the destruction is so devastating and levels of radiation are too high for responders go into at this time (sic).” In anticipation of the question “when will things return to normal?,” comes the closest thing to a moment of real honesty that you’ll find in these 40 pages:
“…[N]ormal after the attack may not look like normal before the attack,” and, further on, “it may be years before the most contaminated areas are reoccupied.”
This, gentle reader, is a tacit admission that no meaningful disaster response to a nuclear detonation can be organized, other than providing updates about fallout and decontamination advice to those at some distance from the physical effects of the explosion.
(The closest thing to a moment of real dishonesty? Q: “Will shelters be available for people instructed to evacuate?” A: “Yes, designated shelters will be available.”)
Unfortunately, reality provides all the evidence needed to come to the opposite conclusion. The most responsible thing the authors of this document could say is that everything they know how to do in the face of a hurricane, or an earthquake, or an industrial disaster, would be useless in the event of another Hiroshima or Nagasaki. An inter-agency report with that kind of message might lead to a different question from a concerned public: “When, exactly, do you plan to get rid of the weapons that could do this to us? Or to anyone?”
- End the Nuclear Lobby (alethonews.wordpress.com)
It’s been nearly 18 months since the disastrous nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. There have been many reports on the huge amounts of radioactivity escaping into the air and water, unusually high levels in air, water, and soil – along with atypically high levels of toxic chemicals in food – that actually “passed” government inspection and wasn’t banned like some other food.
Conspicuously absent are reports on effects of radiation exposure on the health of the Japanese people. Have any health officials publicly announced post-March 2011 numbers on fetal deaths, infant deaths, premature births, birth defects, cancer, or other health conditions? The answer so far is an emphatic “no.”
The prolonged silence doesn’t mean data doesn’t exist. Japanese health officials have been busy with their usual duties of collecting and posting statistics on the Internet for public inspection. It’s just that they aren’t calling the public’s attention to these numbers. Thus, it is the public who must find the information and figure out what it means. After locating web sites, translating from Japanese, adding data for each of 12 months, and making some calculations, mortality trends in Japan after Fukushima are emerging.
The Japanese government health ministry has posted monthly estimated deaths for the 12 months before and after Fukushima, for the entire nation of Japan. These are preliminary figures, but they have historically been very good estimates of final numbers. A further look is in order.
Total deaths increased 4.8%, compared to the normal 1.5% annual rise. Since about 1.2 million Japanese people die each year, this computes to an excess of 57,900 deaths. The rise in deaths from accidents is given as 19,200, close to estimates of those killed directly by the earthquake and tsunami. But this still leaves an excess of 38,700 Japanese deaths, with no obvious cause.
The reports provide mortality numbers for 12 common causes, making up about 80% of all deaths in Japan, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, and pneumonia. Each increased in the past year, with the exception of homicide and suicide. The category “other,” which is a collection of all other causes, rose 5.9%. The sharpest increases occurred immediately after the meltdowns, in March-June 2011 (vs. the same period 2010), a finding consistent with that found in preliminary mortality in the U.S. in a December 2011 article I co-authored with Dr. Janette Sherman in the International Journal of Health Services.
Nobody should yet race to conclusions that 38,700 Japanese died from Fukushima exposure in the first year after the disaster. Several activities must occur. The final death statistics must first be posted, which will occur sometime next year. Counts of deaths and diseases among infants who are most susceptible to radiation exposure must be made public. Numbers for each area of Japan must be made public – radiation exposure from Fukushima would likely result in the highest rises in mortality in areas closest to the damaged plant. Numbers of deaths must be converted into rates, to account for any change in population.
Other potential factors accounting for increased mortality must be considered. For example, were there any fatal epidemics post-March 2011? Was access to medical services reduced in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami? Changes in morbidity and mortality rates often have more than one contributing cause.
The final element needed before conclusions are made is patience; vital statistics must continue to be tracked, and compared with radiation exposures to the Japanese people. One year after the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, which joins Fukushima as the two worst nuclear disasters in history, no examinations of deaths among nearby Soviet citizens had been done. In fact, data was suppressed, and the standard line from the Soviet government – and for years after – was that 31 emergency workers who died putting out the fire at the stricken reactor were the only casualties.
Fast forward 20-plus years, with the publication of a 2009 book by the New York Academy of Sciences. A team of Russian researchers, led by Dr. Alexey Yablokov, published results of 5,000 reports and articles on Chernobyl – many in Russian languages never before made public. Yahlokov’s team concluded that near Chernobyl, increases in diseases and deaths were observed for nearly every human organ system. They estimated that 985,000 persons died as a result of Chernobyl exposures by 2004 – and that many more were to follow.
There is no question that even if Fukushima studies proceed and are conducted in an objective manner, it will take years before the true extent of casualties are known. However, an early estimate of 38,700 additional unexplained deaths in Japan in just one year must be taken seriously, and underline the need for Fukushima health studies to be made a top priority, in Japan and in other affected nations.
Monthly mortality statistics from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, are available at http://www.mhlw.go.jp/english/new-info/jul_2012..html. Death statistics are in the July 26, 2012 publication “Monthly Vital Statistics Report (preliminary data) February 2012” and then select the same report for the prior 11 months.
Joseph J. Mangano, MPH MBA, is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project in New York.
- Fukushima disaster spawns mutant butterflies (smartplanet.com)
- Fukushima: Computer model predicts under 200 radiation deaths (crofsblogs.typepad.com)
Last April 20 the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published an on-line article entitled “Short-term and Long-term Health Risks of Nuclear-Power-Plant Accidents” by Dr. Eli Glatstein and five other authors. The article was riddled with distortions and misinformation, and overall was very poor research. As the NEJM is a peer reviewed journal and has a significant letters section, I wrote a letter pointing out some of the errors committed by the authors, and a longer piece containing a comprehensive critique.
The NEJM demands that letters to the journal contain material that has not been submitted or published elsewhere, so I had to refrain from submitting my longer piece anywhere until the NEMJ made a decision on my letter. When my letter did not appear after a couple of weeks I inquired, and was told that the article would soon appear in the printed version of the Journal, and that no letters about the article could be published until after the print version came out. The printed version finally appeared on June 16.
However, on July 1,1 was notified by the NEMJ that they would not publish my letter due to “space constraints.” The four letters that they did publish in response to the article were at most only mildly critical and missed the glaring short-comings of the report. In other words, NEMJ sat on my letter and effectively stifled my critique of what can only be described as industry propaganda for almost three months until public attention had moved on to other matters. However, with attention once again focused on the still-out of control Fukushima reactors on the first anniversary of the accident, my expose on how the media and academia have joined together to downplay the dangers of nuclear power is a poignant as ever.
Since the nuclear disaster in Fukushima started in March, the media has been full of misinformation about the dangers posed by the nuclear accidents and the damage caused by past accidents such as those at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Whether it is Jay Lehr on Fox News1 or George Monbiot on Democracy Now,2 the story line is the same: there were only dozens of deaths from the Chernobyl and none from TMI, the health consequences for the general population are negligible, and all things considered nuclear power is among the safest forms of energy. In some cases the lines are spoken by industry hacks whose true motive is to protect profits, while other times the spokesperson is a global warming tunnel visionist who has lost sight of the fact that we as humans have ingeniously devised a multitude of ways to mess up our planet, including nuclear wars and disasters.
Lehr and Monbiot both made reference to a 2005 report commissioned by the United Nations that included the participation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the World Health Organization (WHO) and several other UN-linked agencies. Oddly enough, the official press release by the UN announcing publication of the report starts off with the following sentence: “A total of up to four thousand people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP) accident nearly 20 years ago, an international team of more than 100 scientists has concluded.”
The reference to 50 deaths pertained to those “directly attributed” to radiation from the disaster. Moreover, this report represents the most conservative of studies from credible sources, with other estimates reaching as high as almost one million Chernobyl deaths.
Lehr works for a public policy think-tank and Monbiot is a journalist. Perhaps we should expect writers from those professions to misleadingly cite sources in order to promote a preset agenda in the hope that no one will check their sources. However, it comes as a shock that medical doctors writing in a prestigious medical journal like the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) would resort to the same practice. On April 20 the NEJM published an article by six doctors entitled: “Short-term and Long-term Health Risks of Nuclear-Power-Plant Accidents.” I will not presume to know what the motives of the authors were or what led them to their erroneous conclusions, but I do feel the need to point out the errors that somehow the NEJM’s peer review process failed to notice.
The authors prominently cite two International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) studies in downplaying the deaths from Chernobyl. The authors state that “[a]lthough the Three Mile Island accident has not yet led to identifiable health effects, the Chernobyl accident resulted in 28 deaths related to radiation exposure in the year after the accident. The long-term effects of the Chernobyl accident are still being characterized, as we discuss in more detail below.” What is the reader intended to take from this statement? First of all, that the TMI accident in its totality did not cause any health effects that have been identified, which is itself a problematic statement. Secondly, that the total deaths from Chernobyl were the 28 in the first year plus whatever would be discussed later in the paper. As it turns out, the rest of the paper only mentions fatalities one other time, and that is that 11 of 13 plant and emergency workers that underwent bone marrow transplants died, and it is not clear whether or not these eleven are included in the above mentioned 28 fatalities. So the reader is left with the impression that the studies that the NEJM authors are citing conclude that the Chernobyl accident in its totality produced only a few dozen fatalities.
However, just as with Lehr and Monbiot, the NEJM authors start with the most conservative studies and then are misleading in their citations. They ignore the existence of high-profile studies that draw very different conclusions, omit the more damning parts of the studies they do cite, and then quote statements that were not intended to portray the totality of the accidents as if they were bottom line conclusions.
For instance, in making the assertion that Chernobyl caused 28 deaths in the first year, the NEJM authors cited an IAEA report that actually said: “The accident caused the deaths within a few days or weeks of 30 ChNPP employees and firemen (including 28 deaths that were due to radiation exposure).”
Notice that the IAEA statement is limited to power plant employees and fireman, whereas the authors imply the entire population. In fact, that IAEA study focused on the “600 emergency workers who were on the site of the Chernobyl power plant during the night of the accident,” and not the exposed population at large or the hundreds of thousands of “liquidators” who worked to contain the plant over the next couple years. Moreover, the IAEA study did not preclude the possibility that some of the liquidators or general public could have been killed due to radiation exposure in the first year, not to mention subsequent years. While the authors only mention a handful of cancer deaths in subsequent years, the second IAEA study acknowledges that among the one million or so most exposed, several thousand Chernobyl-caused cancer deaths would be “very difficult to detect.” The study states the following:
The projections indicate that, among the most exposed populations (liquidators, evacuees and residents of the so-called ‘strict control zones’) total cancer mortality might increase by up to a few per cent owing to Chernobyl related radiation exposure. Such an increase could mean eventually up to several thousand fatal cancers in addition to perhaps one hundred thousand cancer deaths expected in these populations from all other causes. An increase of this magnitude would be very difficult to detect, even with very careful long term epidemiological studies.
Clearly, the content of these two IAEA studies was not accurately reflected in the NEJM article. Moreover, the IAEA is not necessarily the best source of information. It was never intended to protect the public from the dangers of nuclear power plants. That is not part of its mission. The statute of the IAEA states that:
[t]he Agency shall seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world. It shall ensure, so far as it is able, that assistance provided by it or at its request or under its supervision or control is not used in such a way as to further any military purpose.
Thus, the IAEA was created to PROMOTE nuclear power (while checking the proliferation of nuclear weapons). It therefore cannot be assumed to be an unbiased or authoritative source of information on the health risks of nuclear power.
The NEJM article is misleading or inaccurate in other instances. For instance, its discussion is weighted too much towards whole body radiation, which is really only relevant to the emergency workers. The article acknowledges that it is not whole body radiation, but rather internal contamination that is “the primary mechanism through which large populations around a reactor accident can be exposed to radiation.” So why emphasize whole body radiation if it is not the mechanism through which populations are endangered?
They then launched into a long discussion about acute radiation sickness, which is largely a red herring since the threat to the general public is mainly from cancer. The NEJM article further obfuscates the issue with a table that compares the effective doses of radiation that a resident near a nuclear accident is exposed to with what someone is exposed to from something mundane like an airplane ride or a chest x-ray. This is like comparing the force of a cool breeze to the force of a knife slicing the jugular. The knife is lethal because it allows a very small amount of force to be concentrated on a vulnerable target. Similarly, the risk to Fukushima residents is not radiation spread out over their entire body, but rather radioisotopes like iodine 131 being concentrated by biological processes into a vulnerable target like the thyroid.
The NEJM authors mislead in other ways. They write “After Chernobyl, approximately 5 million people in the region may have had excess radiation exposure, primarily through internal contamination.” They cite the second IAEA study. The reader is likely to assume that up to 5 million people in the countries in Europe and Asia where the fallout from Chernobyl may have reached could have been exposed to excess radiation (i.e. radiation in excess of normal), and that this is the limit of exposure to internal radiation.
However, the IAEA study is only referring to the contamination region designated by the former USSR (a small area in the corners of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia) and does not imply that excess radiation exposure (internal or otherwise) was limited to this area. In fact, they do not use the word “excess,” but rather specify a particular level of radioactive cesium. The actual wording of the IAEA report was as follows:
More than five million people live in areas of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine that are classified as ‘contaminated’ with radionuclides due to the Chernobyl accident (above 37 kBq m-2 of 137Cs).
On the same page, the report also states that “The cloud from the burning reactor spread numerous types of radioactive materials, especially iodine and caesium (sic) radionuclides, over much of Europe.” It added that radioactive cesium-137 “is still measurable in soils and some foods in many parts of Europe.” Thus, there certainly were people outside of this narrow region of 5 million inhabitants who also were exposed to Chernobyl radiation through their environment and food. Indeed, the authors discuss the move by Polish authorities to administer potassium iodide to 10 million Polish children. Obviously Polish officials feared radiation exposure to these people.
Furthermore, there is major omission in the authors’ discussion of radiation. They discuss beta and gamma radiation, but do not mention alpha radiation. They then go on to dismiss the danger of plutonium contamination, which is dangerous precisely because it is an alpha emitter. They state that “Radioisotopes with a … very long half-life (e.g., 24,400 years for plutonium-239) … do not cause substantial internal or external contamination in reactor accidents.” The authors are either lying or ignorant. The danger from plutonium-239 has nothing to do with its half-life (long half-lives indicate slower radioactive decay). Plutonium, if ingested internally, is dangerous because the large and heavy alpha particles it emits are the most damaging to DNA and the most likely to cause cancer. In fact, Plutonium is the most lethal substance known to mankind.
As mentioned above, the IAEA cannot be thought of as an authoritative, unbiased source of health information given its explicit mission of promoting nuclear power. The same can be said for other sources cited by the authors, including the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. At the same time, the authors ignored prominent studies produced independently of the nuclear industry and affiliated governmental bodies that indicate that there were indeed serious public health consequences from the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accident.
Significantly, the authors failed to mention the seminal work on the consequences of radiation exposure from Chernobyl done by Yablokov, Nesterenko and Nesterenko of the Russian National Academy of Sciences.3 This team of scientists from Russia and Belarus studied health data, radiological surveys and 5,000 scientific reports from 1986 to 2004, mostly in Slavic languages, and estimated that the Chernobyl accident caused the deaths of 985,000 people worldwide. Given the prominence of this report and the fact that its findings are completely at odds with the conclusions reached by the IAEA and other sources cited by the authors, it was intellectually dishonest not to mention the report if only to dismiss it.
Indeed, the Yablokov et al report is hardly the only major study to contrast starkly with the minimalist portrayal of the health consequences from nuclear accidents. Regarding Three Mile Island, there is the June 1991 Columbia University Health Study (Susser-Hatch) of the health impacts from the TMI accident published its findings in the American Journal of Public Health and subsequent work by Dr. Steven Wing of the University of North Carolina. These studies point to increased incidences of cancer in areas close to the reactor or downwind from it.
Another example of minimizing potential health impacts of a nuclear plant accident is this statement in connection with the accident at Fukushima:
Although the radioactivity in seawater close to the plant may be transiently higher than usual by several orders of magnitude, it diffuses rapidly with distance and decays over time, according to half-life, both before and after ingestion by marine life.
Japan has a massive fishing industry because, along with rice, fish is the staple of the Japanese diet. Any release of radiation into coastal fishing grounds will wind up being concentrated through biological processes as it works its way up the food chain and eventually to the Japanese dinner table. The narrow restrictions on commercial fishing near the Fukushima coast may be obeyed by fisherman, but many of the fish they seek are migratory, and there is no way of preventing these fish or their food sources from passing through contaminated water. Moreover, the claim that the radioactivity “decays over time” glosses over exactly how much time. While some of the radioisotopes being spilled into the ocean have half-lives of days, others have half-lives of years and even millennia. The impact on health from releases into the ocean cannot be so lightly dismissed.
Although it will take some time for the dust (or fallout) to settle, it may well turn out that the Fukushima disaster is the worst nuclear accident of all-time, surpassing Chernobyl. The contamination from the Chernobyl accident led to the establishment of a 30-kilometer wide “zone of alienation” to which people are not allowed to return. The current evacuation zone around the Fukushima plant is of comparable size, and with the Fukushima reactors continuing to release contamination for the foreseeable future, the only question is how large will be Japan’s “zone of alienation.” And while greater Tokyo has so far been largely spared due to the prevailing winds blowing so much of the contamination into the Pacific, winds will be changing with the upcoming monsoon season and the summer typhoons. [Note: countless radioactive “hot spots” have since been detected all over greater Tokyo, particularly in places where rain water accumulates.]
It is this proximity to Tokyo, one of the world’s most densely populated metropolises, that could make Fukushima the worst industrial calamity in history. An increase in cancer mortality even of the “difficult to detect” scale referred to by the IAEA study described above could condemn several tens of thousands of people. And that is far from being the worst case. The NEJM authors and others who propagate myths about the minimal casualties from Chernobyl and other accidents feed into a mindset that is leading to disastrous policy decisions. The only way to correct course is to identify the myths and the mythmakers.
- Jay Lehr said that at Chernobyl “the bottom line was that 50 people died in the explosion from radiation from fire…”
- George Monbiot stated that “so far the death toll from Chernobyl amongst both workers and local people is 43.”
- Alexey V. Yablokov, Vassily B. Nesterenko, Alexey V. Nesterenko, “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment“, 2010, Nature – 400. Also available at: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1181
Titus North is an adjunct professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s Political Science department.
Exposing the “No Harm” Mantra
The myth that Fukushima radiation levels were too low to harm humans persists, a year after the meltdown. A March 2, 2012 New York Times article quoted Vanderbilt University professor John Boice: “there’s no opportunity for conducting epidemiological studies that have any chance for success – the doses are just too low.” Wolfgang Weiss of the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation also recently said doses observed in screening of Japanese people “are very low.”
Views like these are political, not scientific, virtually identical to what the nuclear industry cheerleaders claim. Nuclear Energy Institute spokesperson Tony Pietrangelo issued a statement in June that “no health effects are expected among the Japanese people as a result of the events at Fukushima.”
In their haste to choke off all consideration of harm from Fukushima radiation, nuclear plant owners and their willing dupes in the scientific community built a castle against invaders – those open-minded researchers who would first conduct objective research BEFORE rushing to judgment. The pro-nuclear chants of “no harm” and “no studies needed” are intended to be permanent, as part of damage control created by a dangerous technology that has produced yet another catastrophe.
But just one year after Fukushima, the “no harm” mantra is now being crowded by evidence – evidence to the contrary.
First, estimates of releases have soared. The first reports issued by the Japanese government stated that emissions equaled 10% of 1986 Chernobyl emissions. A few weeks later, they doubled that estimate to 20%. By October 2011, an article in the journal Nature estimated Fukushima emissions to be more than double that of Chernobyl. How anyone, let alone scientists, could call Fukushima doses “too low” to cause harm in the face of this evidence is astounding.
Where did the radioactive particles and gases go? Officials from national meteorological agencies in countries like France and Austria followed the plume, and made colorful maps available on the internet. Within six days of the meltdowns, the plume had reached the U.S., and within 18 days, it had circled the Northern Hemisphere.
How much radiation entered the U.S. environment? A July 2011 journal article by officials at Pacific Northwest National Lab in eastern Washington State measured airborne radioactive Xenon-133 up to 40,000 times greater than normal in the weeks following the fallout. Xenon-133 is a gas that travels rapidly and does not enter the body, but signals that other, more dangerous types of radioactive chemicals will follow.
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.
Radiation in rainfall guarantees that humans will ingest a poisonous mix of chemicals. The rain enters reservoirs of drinking water, pastures where milk-giving cows graze, the soil of produce farms, and other sources of food and water.
Finally, how many people were harmed by Fukushima in the short term? 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. One physician speculated that many women chose to deliver away from Fukushima, but an increase in stillbirths remains as a potential factor. In British Columbia, the number of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome deaths was 10 in the first three months after Fukushima, up from just one a year before.
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.
We made no statement that only Fukushima fallout caused these patterns. But we found some red flags: infants had the greatest excess (infants are most susceptible to radiation), and a similar increase occurred in the U.S. in the months following Chernobyl. Our study reinforced Fukushima health hazard concerns, and we hope to spur others to engage in research on both short-term and long-term effects.
For years, the assumption that low-dose radiation doesn’t harm people has been used, only to fall flat on its face every time. X-rays to abdomens of pregnant women, exposure to atom bomb fallout, and exposures to nuclear weapons workers were all once presumed to be harmless due to low dose levels – until scientific studies proved otherwise. Officials have dropped their assumptions on theses types of exposures, but continue to claim that Fukushima was harmless.
Simply dismissing needed research on Fukushima health consequences because doses are “too low” is irresponsible, and contradictory to many scientific studies. There will most certainly be a fight over Fukushima health studies, much like there was after Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. However, we hope that the dialogue will be open minded and will use evidence over assumptions, rather than just scoffing at what may well turn out to be the worst nuclear disaster in history.
Joseph Mangano is an epidemiologist and Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project.
Janette Sherman is an internist and toxicologist.
- 14,000 U.s. Deaths Tied to Fukushima Reactor Disaster Fallout (alethonews.wordpress.com)