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For The First Time, World Learns Truth About Risk Of Nuclear

The public is always asking of nuclear, ‘what if it all goes wrong?’ Data from Chernobyl and Fukushima have now provided the answer.

David Watson
Aug 12 · 19 min read

Key points

For those short on time, here are the key take-aways:

  • No one should have been evacuated from Fukushima due to radiation
  • If Japan and Germany had reduced coal instead of nuclear after Fukushima, they could have together prevented about 28,000 air pollution-induced premature deaths
  • There were 1,121 deaths in the first 3 years from physical and mental exhaustion in Fukushima evacuees, which translates to an average loss of life expectancy from being evacuated greater than the loss of life expectancy people would have incurred by staying put
  • Loss of life expectancy in worst-affected Fukushima town less than that experienced by Londoners due to air pollution
  • The J-value provides an ethical and mathematically rigorous way to make decisions about what to do during and after a nuclear accident.
  • Remediation and food bans are good value for money
  • The presumption that long term relocations are a good policy tool needs re-evaluating

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The tsunami turned to rubble whole towns like Rikuzentakata, Iwate.

The Fukushima Daiichi accident

The earthquake and tsunami victims in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima received relatively little media coverage outside Japan, with most airtime given over to grainy shots of the three damaged Fukushima Daiichi plants and rushed TV interviews with nuclear “experts”.

The challenge of mass evacuations

Mass evacuations are not simple things. They mean taking over 100,000 people out of their homes, away from their jobs and their local services. In Japan’s case, you have to find somewhere for them to live on a small, densely-populated island. For the adults, you have to find them a job. For the children, you have to find them a school. Any residents who do stay are now living in a ghost town with no local services, including even basic things like food, water and medicine.

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Smoke from the Sendai Nippon Oil refinery

Coping with a nuclear accident

It was with these questions in mind that Professor Philip Thomas of Bristol University started the NREFS project (Management of Nuclear Risk Issues: Environmental, Financial and Safety) in 2012, jointly funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Atomic Energy Commission of India.

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The NREFS team decided it was time to do the maths — what is the real risk from nuclear accidents? (Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng)
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The x-axis shows GDP per capita in 2005 international dollars, the y-axis shows life expectancy at birth. Each dot represents a particular country. (Source: By Radeksz — Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8862417)

The big surprise

A massive 335,000 people were relocated after Chernobyl, never to return. For Fukushima Daiichi, around 111,000 people were forced to evacuate, with close to 50,000 following voluntarily; about 85,000 had not returned to their homes by 2015. Prof. Thomas and his team set about applying the J-value to both these accidents. What they discovered was so surprising that even they found the results hard to believe.

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In 2009, over two decades after the Chernobyl incident, the Azure Swimming Pool in Pripyat shows decay after years of disuse (Source: Photo by Timm Suess from Basel, Switzerland — Swimming Pool Hall 4 (Flickr), CC BY-SA 2.0)
George Monbiot explains how the Fukushima nuclear accident made him pro-nuclear.

Ground-breaking results

NREFS surprised everyone. Even the authors found it hard to believe what the numbers were telling them. The results seem to fly in the face of everything society assumes about the risk of nuclear accidents.

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Fukushima Medical University (Source: Photo by Kozo — 投稿者により撮影, Public Domain)

Nuclear in the media spotlight

For an academic project, NREFS received significant media coverage. The project’s launch was covered by The Times (of London) newspaper, with follow-up pieces from the Financial Times, among others. Amusingly, The London Evening Standard picked up on the London air pollution statistic and turned it on its head: “Living in London ‘poses same risk to health as living in nuclear fallout zone’”, read the headline. The story went viral.

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Have we learned the lesson NREFS provides?

Despite the apparently broad interest and ground-breaking findings, Prof. Thomas believes that almost no country is seriously rethinking how to deal with nuclear accidents. He believes if there were a nuclear accident tomorrow then a lot of the mistakes from Fukushima and Chernobyl would be repeated.

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The now decommissioned Wylfa A power station.

J-value as tool for real-time risk-monitoring

Perhaps there has been limited government interest because the J-value is not much use if we can only apply it some months or years after an accident. For J-value to be really useful it has to be available on-demand to incident controllers during an accident. To this end, Prof. Thomas is working with the Indian authorities to augment their online nuclear emergency response system, known as ONERS.

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The ONERS system would monitor dose in real-time use drones and AVs (Photo by Karl Greif on Unsplash)
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People living near a nuclear plant could access real-time risk measurements on their smartphone (Photo by Sara Kurfeß on Unsplash)

The danger of fearing radiation

Our fear of nuclear has slowed the expansion of new nuclear power. This means more fossil fuels, more air pollution (which kills 7 million people a year), more global warming, more habitat destruction. This fear is dangerous stuff.

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Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018.

What does the future hold for nuclear?

Prof. Thomas’s team did not have an agenda: “the results were a surprise to everyone on the project team”, he says. “But when we take a step back…if our results are correct then we must change the way we perceive nuclear power.”

“If Japan and Germany had reduced coal instead of nuclear after Fukushima, they could have together prevented about 28,000 air pollution-induced premature deaths.”

Revisiting our assumptions about nuclear accidents will not be easy, but we have to try. Everyone has an interest in doing so. Government and regulators have an interest, because evidence from Japan shows that overreacting could be fatal. The nuclear industry has an interest, because a single badly-handled nuclear incident would cause the complete shutdown of the sector, just as happened in Japan. The public has an interest, because on a planet already overwhelmed with fossil fuels and habitat destruction, a billion people still lack access to electricity. Rediscovering nuclear as a safe energy source, as well as a green and affordable one, would be revolutionary.


Further reading

If you want to read more about the NREFS study, the full list of papers can be found here.


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David Watson

Written by

Chartered Physicist, nature-lover, believer in pedal power. Ecopragmatist. Editor@Generation Atomic. All views strictly my own.

Generation Atomic

Energizing and empowering today’s generations to advocate for a nuclear future.

David Watson

Written by

Chartered Physicist, nature-lover, believer in pedal power. Ecopragmatist. Editor@Generation Atomic. All views strictly my own.

Generation Atomic

Energizing and empowering today’s generations to advocate for a nuclear future.

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