The Kernel
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The Kernel

An aerial view of the wrecked Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant in March 2011 (Digital Globe)

The True Tragedy Of Fukushima Was Our Response To It

Ten years on from the accident, it’s time to highlight its real legacy — namely, that lives are lost if nuclear plants close.

Is it really ten years? Already a decade since the fourth-most-powerful earthquake ever recorded hit the eastern coast of Japan? That long since the tsunami it caused swept inland, causing devastation on a huge scale and claiming almost 16,000 lives? Somehow — to me, at least — it doesn’t feel like it. Why is that, I wonder?

Probably because, to judge from some media headlines over the years since, this horrific natural catastrophe wasn’t a problem, and instead the real disaster was the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Scare stories about Fukushima started even before the plant’s containment was breached, with media pundits racing to supply breathless and ill-founded predictions of doom. Some even stoked up the fear in order to capitalise on it later by peddling radiation ‘cures’.

Others just outright lied. Remember that map purporting to show radioactivity emanating across the Pacific from the stricken plant towards the US Pacific coast? Well, it was doctored: the original map, produced by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, showed the energy released from the tsunami, not radiation — the scale, which shows wave height in centimetres, was simply cropped from the image by whoever it was that wanted to promote a scare story.

This image was claimed by some sources to show radioactivity emanating from Fukushima, when in fact it shows wave height from the tsunami. (NOAA)

The flood of misinformation surrounding Fukushima has never stopped, from claims of underground explosions to ridiculous reports of mutant daisies. Of course, concerns about misinformation feed into wider ones about the prevalence of ‘fake news’, and the lack of science literacy and critical thinking in the media and the general public alike. But false claims such as those outlined above are a problem that nuclear energy has had to deal with for a long, long time.

So, what is the real legacy of Fukushima? Make no mistake, the impact of the accident is certainly disastrous — but not in the way you might think.

First of all, however, let’s state the scientific facts about Fukushima’s physical consequences. What are the long-term radiation risks for the population at large? Well, to quote Gerry Thomas, professor of molecular pathology at the department of surgery and cancer at Imperial College London (and a world expert on the radiological effects of Chernobyl), “There aren’t any.”

Based on dose assessments by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), the average lifetime effective doses for adults in the Fukushima prefecture are estimated to be around 10 millisieverts (mSv) or less — around the same as a CT scan. For comparison, the background radiation rate in Japan is around 2.1 mSv per year. In short: no radiation-related deaths have been caused by the Fukushima accident, nor are there ever likely to be any.

No environmental damage

What about the radiological consequences for the environment? Obviously, the clean-up at the site and surrounding area will continue for many years and cost many millions of dollars. Despite this, many of the 100,000 people evacuated from the region have now returned home, or are able to do so. But in terms of damage to the local ecology, there is none. Around 250 million gallons of contaminated water is being stored at the site, but TEPCO (formerly Fukushima’s operator) is filtering out the radioactive particles — and the rest can then be safely released into the ocean, where any remaining radioactivity will blend harmlessly into the background radiation of the Pacific.

The ocean is naturally radioactive. (www.ourradioactiveocean.org)

So if Fukushima caused no lasting physical damage to either people or the environment — especially in comparison to a tsunami that killed thousands — why should we class it as a disaster at all? I would argue because of its indirect effects, all of which one might just as validly state are instead the result of human psychology — and, more specifically, an irrational fear of radiation and nuclear technology.

In other words — the real disaster of Fukushima is not the accident itself, but how we responded to it.

Unnecessary evacuation

Take the evacuation, for example. Over 2,200 people have now died as a result of being evacuated from the vicinity of the power plant. Many of these people were elderly or infirm, and died as a direct result of the stress of the evacuation itself — about 90% of deaths were for people above 66 years of age. But over the 10 years since, many more of those displaced have tragically taken their own lives as a result of the ongoing stress, trauma and depression caused by their plight, and poor mental health among those evacuees that are still displaced is an ongoing problem.

This is an identical pattern to that seen at Chernobyl — the psychological impact caused by a ‘victim mentality’, coupled with fear and anxiety over radiation, results in poor mental health and related effects such as alcoholism. These are far more dangerous public health crises than any effect of radiation. As before, the fear of radiation is more dangerous than radiation itself.

But it gets even worse — research conducted by Professor Philip Thomas of the University of Bristol in collaboration with other experts as part of the Management of Nuclear Risk Issues: Environmental, Financial and Safety (NREFS) project shows that, for the most part, the evacuation was entirely unnecessary.

The research, published in the journal Process Safety and Environmental Protection in December 2017, uses a rigorous and objective measure called the ‘J-value’ to assess the likely outcomes of a given course of action such as evacuation, as opposed to other measures such as staying put. The analysis showed that almost no one should have been moved at all from the area around Fukushima Daichi; the evacuation caused a greater loss of average life expectancy than if everyone had stayed in the area. In fact, simply living in London poses a greater risk to life expectancy thanks to the city’s excessive air pollution (a fact to which I, a Hackney resident, can readily attest).

In short: the evacuation did more harm than good. But the bad news doesn’t stop there.

No nuclear means more fossil fuels

Staying with the subject of air pollution, the fact that Japan shut down all its nuclear plants after the Fukushima meltdown — a totally unnecessary move, given that most of them survived the earthquake and tsunami — has been truly disastrous. This is because, to make up the shortfall in generation caused by the loss of over 50 reactors, Japan initially turned to coal and gas rather than renewables. Economically, the cost of all those fossil fuel imports — the country is the second-largest importer of fossil fuels in the world — pushed Japan’s trade deficit to dizzying heights. Another side effect is higher electricity prices, which causes greater mortality during winter months.

Japan increased its use of fossil fuels after shutting down its nuclear power plants following Fukushima. (EIA)

But the human and environmental costs are even worse. Germany followed suit in shutting down roughly half of its nuclear reactors following the Fukushima accident. While fossil fuel use spiked in Japan, it has remained roughly constant in Germany, although the Germans still rely to a great degree on fossil fuels, especially coal and lignite — two of the dirtiest fuels imaginable — to power the country’s grid. And as you’d expect, this has led to an increase in emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the two countries.

This has serious consequences for Earth’s climate and human health alike. Research by Pushker Kharecha and Makiko Sato published in the journal Energy Policy in September 2019 estimates that “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 and 2.6 billion tons of CO2 emissions [emphasis added] between 2011 and 2017”.

A coal-fired power station in Poland. (Petr Štefek)

So, the results are therefore in: shutting down nuclear power plants is a disaster for the climate and for society. And here lies the paradox: the lesson of Fukushima is that nuclear energy is incredibly safe. It shows that even when you throw two of the most destructive natural disasters in history at a nuclear plant, there is still no lasting damage to human health or the environment. More to the point, it shows that even when nuclear goes disastrously wrong it causes less loss of life than fossil fuels do when they’re working perfectly — fossil fuel-related air pollution killed an estimated 8.7 million people in 2018, according to a recent study.

But how to convince the public of this — especially in Germany and Japan, where anti-nuclear sentiment runs high? Until recently, few have dared to advocate for nuclear energy. Thankfully, the situation is changing — green campaigners such as Generation Atomic and others are leading the way in telling the facts about nuclear energy and bringing them to a wider audience than ever before. And elsewhere, the voices in support of nuclear — from seasoned environmentalists and climate scientists to Hollywood celebrities — are growing ever louder.

So on the tenth anniversary of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, we should rightly respect and mourn those lives lost in the natural disaster, as well as those needlessly lost and disrupted through the unnecessary evacuation in the wake of the Fukushima accident. But surely the only fitting memorial is to embrace the truth about nuclear energy. If we are to meet the challenges of providing sufficient clean, zero-carbon energy to fight catastrophic global heating while alleviating global poverty, nuclear is the way forward — otherwise even greater disaster will ensue.

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The Generation Atomic magazine. Our latest thoughts on the role of nuclear in a clean energy future.

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Rob Loveday

Rob Loveday

I geek out and write about various topics — the main ones being nuclear energy and palaeontology.

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