Fukushima – feat, not folly.

The latest news on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown that took place in March 2011 came in a few days ago:

Now the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has drawn on 80 scientists from 18 countries to produce a draft report that concludes: “Radiation exposure following the nuclear accident at Fukushima-Daiichi did not cause any immediate health effects. It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public and the vast majority of workers.” [The Age, emphasis added.]

The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) is yet to share the full report with the public on its website, but news outlets appear to have received early drafts from them. After a full two years of study, the study appears to conclude that ‘No radiation-related deaths or acute effects have been observed among nearly 25,000 workers involved at the accident site.

While this may sound contrary to the popular discourse on the “unmitigated disaster” that was Fukushima, this is hardly the first report indicating negligible health risks from nuclear radiation. As the same article mentions, the World Health Organisation had conducted a study which came out with similar results in February this year, finding but marginal increases in cancer risks among the most affected – while finding no evidence of increased miscarriages, stillbirths or more extreme effects of radiation exposure at the site.

The UN and the WHO are both organisations that are quite careful about health risks and human hazards (even erring too far on the side of caution in some cases) and cannot easily be dismissed as institutions that underplay nuclear radiation risks. The evidence flies in the face of initial hysterical claims of widespread hazards (including the spread of radiation through stratospheric wind systems!). Individuals like Mark Lynas have been steadily debunking most of the myths and bad science that has surfaced after the incident. Among other things, it seems like the impact of the forced evacuation and relocation of the elderly Japanese population around the nuclear reactor site might have had a larger health impact than all the nuclear radiation.

Some fear was generated last year when scientists found a significant number of mutant butterflies in the vicinity of Fukushima. While the increased mutations were likely a result of radiation exposure, the results are not of a kind that can be directly extrapolated to humans. Molecular biologists have extensively studied mutations and the effect of mutagens in various organisms, and the dose required for a human being are several orders of magnitude higher than what is sufficient to cause mutations in small invertebrate species like butterflies. Mammals also have more robust DNA error correction mechanisms that check mutations and are able to delete and remake mutated sequences of the genetic code. Further, it also helps to remember that all of us have numerous mutations – likely in every single cell in the human body – but only a small number of them cause changes in minor cell behaviour, a smaller number resulting in significant cellular changes, and an even smaller number resulting in tumours. A minuscule number of these are fatal or hereditary.

The reports by UN and WHO provide sound evidence for the minimal nature of impacts due to radiation exposure from the meltdown and ought to allay most fears on the subject, but unfortunately, they fail to do so.

Closer home, misinformation about Fukushima has had an enormous impact on Kudankulam on the southern coast of India. Fears about a Fukushima-like disaster have fueled resistance to the local nuclear reactor for over two years now. A quote from a woman at the nearby fishing village of Idinthakarai from 2012 is most telling:

“We never listened to Udayakumar Sir when he told us about the radiation dangers, till Fukusima happened. I saw it on TV and later on videos shown by our leaders. I realised that the fears were not far-fetched. It can happen to us also,” [The Telegraph, Feb 7, 2012]

Make no mistake, the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 was a disaster of epic proportions, killing over 15,000 people and causing estimated damages of about $235 Billion dollars. But this was due to the tsunami, and not the nuclear meltdown in the TEPCO plant at Fukushima. However, the two were fungible for villagers 7,000 kilometres away in Tamil Nadu and it was taken advantage of by the local agitators and activists. It worked as effectively as it did because people had a living, recent memory of the Indian Ocean tsunami that caused widespread death and destruction in the region. Never mind that the Kudankulam nuclear reactor site was protected from the worst of it precisely because of its well-chosen location, sheltered from much of the open ocean by the island of Sri Lanka – as well as coral reefs and offshore islands.

Equally, one cannot claim that the Fukushima reactor meltdown had no elements of risk mismanagement and human error behind it, there were indeed many lapses on the part of the owner TEPCO and the Japanese government. BUT. I stand by my old claim that the damage control efforts after the emergency were nothing short of a feat of great human excellence and engineering. It is also telling that in spite of regulatory oversights and lapses in safety planning, the effects of the meltdown were minimal. This underscores the success of decades-long global obsession with nuclear reactor safety and security, which has resulted in a nuclear industry that is likely far safer than most other forms of energy production. The chronic safety risks from a nuclear power plant are nil today, and acute safety risks have the best-designed emergency response systems that human ingenuity has been able to develop – and are more than up to the challenge.

Once we stop listening to those trying to cause fear and doubt and look instead at hard evidence, the reality of nuclear risk and safety is quite apparent.

Bonus: I never tire of promoting Randall Munroe’s excellent radiation dose chart. It gives you a great picture of the natural ionising radiation that we live with, all the time. Also, read the Acorn‘s excellent post from just after the Fukushima incident in 2011.

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