On 12 March 2011, an earthquake near Tōhoku, about 200 miles north of Tōkyō, caused a tsunami which killed up to 20,000 people in eastern Japan.
One of its effects was to overtop the defensive walls and knock out the cooling systems of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (NPP), resulting in three meltdowns, hydrogen explosions and releases of radioactivity. Those resulted in the death of… no one.
As a safety precaution, 109,000 people were ordered to evacuate from within a 20 km radius of the NPP (while 45,000 others chose to evacuate from the wider surroundings). Among these, there were over 2,000 deaths, mainly of elderly and sick people who died at greater rates than usual when being moved from hospitals and care homes or while in temporary housing.
There have been several suicides, including a 102-year-old man who refused to leave his village and a 60-year-old woman who burnt herself to death while depressed about her inability to return home. Those deaths exceed those caused in the Fukushima prefecture by the tsunami.
Analysis in a recent article in The Conversation concludes that probably no one needed to be moved, with a minimal risk to life expectancy from staying put. This was also the judgement of physicist and radiation expert Professor Wade Allison who has argued that current radiation safety levels are at least 1,000 times too low.
Allison has written and lectured on nuclear safety and Fukushima before and since 2011, criticising the dominant Linear No-Threshold (LNT) model which is the basis for the setting of permissible levels of radiation.
The LNT model assumes that radiation damage is simply cumulative and it is — for non-living material. But living matter has evolved in an environment where radiation is ever-present (“background”) from cosmic rays and naturally occurring radioisotopes. All cells contain efficient DNA-repair systems that fix the damage that occurs constantly from background radiation; only when these systems are overwhelmed by an enormous dose does serious harm occur. Such enormous doses would be impossible in the Fukushima situation unless one was a worker in the power plant, and even the few who suffered radiation burns have not suffered subsequent ill effects.
It appears that there are two scandals with Fukushima.
One concerns the inadequate tsunami protection of the Fukushima plant: the protecting walls were too low, flood water knocked out the electricity, and the back-up cooling system only operated for a short time, so the fuel rods started to overheat. The owners, TEPCO, had been warned in 2000 and again in 2008 of the need to urgently improve tsunami protection. Other safety failures made the accident in 2011 much more likely. In contrast, the Onagawa NPP, closer to the epicentre but with safety features exceeding minimum design requirements, was undamaged.
The second concerns the largely unnecessary evacuation of people in area surrounding Fukushima. The threat to people’s health from any increase in radiation levels would have been statistically undetectable, indeed negligible, given the usual threats to health from infections, diet, life style, cancer and so on. In addition to the deaths attributable to the evacuation, people have suffered severe psychological and economic harm from being exiled from their homes.
There is a knock-on effect in that nuclear power in Japan has fallen from about 20% of the energy mix to 7%, meaning that, in the absence of a significant increase in renewable energy, Japan has continued to get about two-thirds of its energy from fossil fuels, with resulting carbon dioxide emissions, and air pollution causing morbidity and mortality. Japan is the third-largest coal importer, with most coming from Australia.
Since 2011, there have been about 50 deaths of Australian miners alone, with many more worldwide, compared with virtually zero proven deaths from nuclear power radiation. We need a public discussion of the risks of all forms of energy generation and this might well conclude that nuclear power has a role in the carbon-free electricity generation needed for the switch to electric vehicles.