What was deadly at Fukushima?

26 August 2014

What turned Fukushima from a medium-ranking industrial accident, of the kind that happens perhaps eight or ten times a year, into a disaster, with a reported death toll among the evacuees of over 1000? It wasn't the radiation, writes Malcolm Grimston. 

In common with Three Mile Island, Fukushima doesn't seem to have caused any deaths from radiation; even at Chernobyl the demonstrable death toll which resulted from radiation exposure was small compared to events like Bhopal or the Banqiao dam failure.

What created the human misery at Fukushima was the response - not the immediate precautionary evacuation but what followed and ironically what preceded. The only other area currently excluded because of human activity is Chernobyl. It follows, to the rational non-expert, that the levels of radiation throughout these exclusion zones must represent a higher risk than any other man-made threat on the planet.

Malcolm Grimston will take part in a panel debate on radiation protection at the WNA Symposium, held in London, 10-12 September 2014

The public relationship with radiation is a complex one. There is a no generalised fear of ionising radiation - it doesn't show up for example in high radon areas. The many examples of fatalities following leakages of radioactive materials from medical facilities do not seem to have been accompanied by much radiophobia, nor was the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2008. Clearly there is something in the way radiation from civil nuclear activities is being communicated which has created a set of fears which are not there in other contexts.

At a meeting of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF) earlier this year one speaker bemoaned how the Japanese public did not realise that man-made radiation was the same as the natural radiation all around us. A huge effort was needed to correct this misimpression, so making nuclear power more acceptable.

Well, what does the well-informed Japanese member of the public know (or at least what unarguable facts are in the public domain)?

First and foremost, around 100,000 people were evacuated from a 20 km radius zone around Fukushima Daiichi and have not (except for a few hundred very recently) been allowed back into their homes for over three years, causing untold misery. In much of the zone doses from radiation (from all sources) are below 5 mSv per year, with fallout dose below 1 mSv per year.

Clearly there is something in the way radiation from civil nuclear activities is being communicated which has created a set of fears which are not there in other contexts

Secondly, there are areas like Ramsar in Iran (average 130 mSv per year) and Guarapari in Brazil (peak levels on the beach equivalent to 350 mSv per year) which are not evacuated. Indeed, there are almost certainly places in Japan (e.g. Kyushu island) where natural doses are above the total dose in some part of the exclusion zone.

What could the well-informed Japanese member of the public make of this? There seem to be three potential explanations.

1. The authorities have gone stark staring mad (or are deeply uncaring) by blighting so many lives and incurring such vast costs for no defensible reason.
2. The authorities are simply lying about the levels of contamination in the exclusion zone.
3. Man-made radiation is significantly more dangerous than the 'same amount' of natural radiation, so comparisons are meaningless. 

Assume that the Japanese government and nuclear industry are successful in persuading people that their (sensible) rationalisation of the undisputed facts in front of them (option 3) is incorrect. The facts won't change, so a new rationalisation will be needed. It is not immediately obvious that a switch to believing 1 (the true one) or 2 would improve people's faith in the industry or in the concept of nuclear power.

Ironically, one suspects that the irrational exclusion was adopted in an attempt to reassure people. In reality, there is a demonstrable, dangerous but almost invisible myth that one should 'err on the side of caution' in radiological protection. Any action that is not justified on health grounds - let's say any exclusion from an area which is safer than living in London or Tokyo with all their air pollution - will do more harm than good.
It can be argued, then, that an overzealous infatuation with reducing radiation dose, far from minimising human harm, is at the heart of the whole problem. Maybe the key question is - how do we protect people not from radiation but from the effects of radiological protection?

Malcolm Grimston

Comments? Please send them to editor@world-nuclear-news.org

Malcolm Grimston is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Imperial College Centre for Energy Policy and Technology. He will take part in a panel discussion on radiological protection at the WNA Symposium, held in London, 10-12 September 2014.