Fear of nuclear radiation is much worse than the reality

The Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear accident which followed the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011, was about the worst accident that could have happened in a nuclear plant. Hydrogen explosions occurred in the outer containment casings of 2 of the 6 reactors and meltdown of 2 of the cores also took place. A nuclear plant is not a nuclear bomb and a chain reaction leading to an explosion is not a real possibility. It is meltdown of the cores which is the bottom line.

Yet there were no deaths. As the official report from May this year said:

 No radiation-related deaths or acute effects have been observed among nearly 25,000 workers (including TEPCO employees and contractors) involved at the accident site.

It was the earthquake and tsunami which did the damage, caused some 18,000 deaths  and which led to the nuclear accident. But radiation from the nuclear accident has caused no deaths. And the radiation will cause no deaths. The report goes on:

The additional exposures received by most Japanese people in the first year and subsequent years due to the radioactive releases from the accident are less than the doses received from natural background radiation (which is about 2.1 mSv per year). This is particularly the case for Japanese people living away from Fukushima, where annual doses of around 0.2 mSv from the accident are estimated, arising primarily through ingestion of radionuclides in food. …. 

Given the small number of highly exposed workers, it is unlikely that excess cases of thyroid cancer due to radiation exposure would be detectable. Special health examinations will be given to workers with exposures above 100 mSv including annual monitoring of the thyroid, stomach, large intestine and lung for cancer as a means to monitor for potential late radiation-related health effects at the individual level.

The assessment also concluded that although the rate of exposures may have exceeded the levels for the onset of effects on plants and animals several times in the first few months following the accident, any effects are expected to be transient in nature, given their short duration. In general, the exposures on both marine and terrestrial non-human biota were too low for observable acute effects.

The fears of radiation it would seem are completely out of proportion to the reality of damage actually done. The imagination gone wild of writers and movie scriptwriters, has fantasised about mutations and monsters but have had little basis in the history of both military and civil use of nuclear power. The psychological effects of the fears – apparently quite unfounded – have been orders of magnitude greater than the direct effects of any radiation. Japanese children in Fukushima have suffered more from obesity because they have been banned from playing outside than by any effects of radiation.

Perhaps the biggest disservice done by environmental groups is due to their propensity to exaggerate quite legitimate – but manageable – concerns to become Alarmism. Once the Alarmist phase is reached, rational behaviour is no longer possible.  But they have been calling “Wolf” for 3 decades and for far too long now. As catastrophe scenarios and doomsday predictions keep being pushed into the future, alarmist scenarios are increasingly being discounted. There is a beginning of a welcome  return to rationality.

David Ropeik writes in the New York Times:

It has been more than two and a half years since the Fukushima nuclear disaster began to unfold, and still the world watches events closely, fearfully. The drumbeat of danger seems never ending: Earlier this month, to take just one example, international news reports spread word that six workers at the plant had been accidentally doused with radioactive water.

Yet leading health scientists say the radiation from Fukushima has been relatively harmless, which is similar to results found after studying the health effects of Chernobyl. With all that evidence, why does our fear of all things nuclear persist? And what peril does that fear itself pose for society?

Our anxiety about nuclear radiation is rooted in our understandable fear of the terrible power of nuclear weapons. But in the 68 years since those weapons were first used in anger, we have learned, from the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki themselves, that ionizing radiation — the type created by a nuclear reaction — is not nearly the powerful carcinogen or genetic mutagen that we thought it was.

Beginning shortly after World War II, epidemiologists and radiation biologists began tracking atomic bomb survivors. Researchers have followed roughly 112,600 Japanese: 86,611 who had been within 10 kilometers of the center of the explosions, and 26,000 who were not exposed.

The most current analysis estimates that, out of 10,929 people in the exposed population who have died of cancer, only 527 of those deaths were caused by radiation from the atomic bombs. For the entire population exposed, in many cases to extremely high levels of radiation, that’s an excess cancer mortality rate of about two-thirds of 1 percent.

These studies have also found that, more than two generations later, there have been no multigenerational genetic effects on humans, Godzilla and the mutant giant ants in the 1954 film “Them!” notwithstanding. Fetal exposure in utero produced horrible birth defects, but no permanent genetic damage.

Perhaps most importantly, research on the bomb survivors has found that at lower doses, below 100 millisieverts, radiation causes no detectable elevations in normal rates of illness and disease. (Among several measures of radiation exposure, sieverts reflect the biological effects of radiation.) The vast majority of the doses received by people living near Fukushima or Chernobyl were well below this 100 millisievert threshold.

The robust evidence that ionizing radiation is a relatively low health risk dramatically contradicts common fears.

….

The World Health Organization’s 20-year review of the Chernobyl disaster found that its psychological impacts did more health damage than radiation exposure did, and a principle cause of the population’s debilitating stress was “an exaggerated sense of the dangers to health of exposure to radiation.”

Epidemiologists are already seeing the same things in Fukushima, where radiation exposures were far lower than at Chernobyl. Radiation biologists say the increased cancer risk from Fukushima will be so low it won’t change general cancer rates for that area, or Japan generally. (The World Health Organization predicts minor increases in rates of some cancers, for some ages and genders, in small pockets of more highly contaminated areas near the plant.)

Nonetheless, thousands of people are refusing to return to their homes and businesses in evacuated areas, even where dose levels have fallen low enough to declare those areas safe. Levels of stress, anxiety and depression are significantly elevated. One survey found that stress among children in the Fukushima area is double the level of other children in Japan.

And the Japanese Education Ministry reports that the children in Fukushima Prefecture have become the most obese in Japan since the nuclear accident prompted schools to curtail outside exercise, in most cases in areas where the risk from radiation was infinitesimal.

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