It has been nearly a year since the onset of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Numerous “one year later” articles are filling the news around the world. While most dwell on the plight of evacuees, apocalyptic “what if” scenarios, and exaggerated predictions of cancer deaths, a few look at the one year anniversary differently. What are the actual health impacts due to Fukushima? Have the risks of radiation exposure been accurately portrayed? Here are a few summaries of just such reports, with links…

  1. (Wall Street Journal | Japan) A panel of prestigious American radiation experts says Fukushima’s radiation health threats have been greatly exaggerated. Members of the Washington panel considered the physical health risks from the exposure too small to measure, but the accident will still have an impact. Psychological trauma from the evacuation and months away from home could end up being the biggest health effects. “From a radiological perspective, we expect the impact to be really, really minor,” said Kathryn Higley, a professor of nuclear engineering at Oregon State University. “I received more radiation on my transcontinental flights from Tokyo to Washington than I did at the reactor site,” said John Boice, a professor at Vanderbilt University and the incoming president of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements. Comments like these fly in the face of government and academic officials in Japan, resulting in overt rejection of the panel’s conclusions. Hisako Sakiyama, an anti-nuclear activist and former cancer-cell biologist at the National Institute of Radiology says that much is still unknown about the effects of radiation on human health. She points out that many people in Fukushima will be exposed to low levels of radiation for very long periods of time, but it’s unclear how much damage such exposure will cause.
  2. (Scientific American) A year after the accident, many experts agree that radiation-based fears are over-blown. Especially the concerns about radiation-contaminated food. Richard Garfield, a professor at Columbia University’s School of Public Health, says, “In terms of the health impact, the radiation is negligible. The radiation will cause very few, close to no deaths.” But that does not mean that the accident has not already caused wide-reaching health issues. “The indirect effects are great,” Garfield says. Some experts believe that the accident was not as dangerous as originally feared, but some less-reported risks may well be worse. Kathryn Higley says debris and scattered chemicals left in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami are potentially more dangerous than radioactive isotopes. She points out, “You have shredded buildings. You have [abandoned] industrial parks, petroleum sites.” Another says an even greater negative health effect might be psychological. “Mental health is the most significant issue,” notes Seiji Yasumura, a gerontologist at Fukushima Medical University’s Department of Public Health. He says stress, such as that caused by dislocation, uncertainty and concern about unseen toxicants, has been linked to increased risk for physical ailments, such as heart disease. So even if radiation risks are low, “people are still worried,” he says.
  3. (Time Science) Was the Fukushima meltdown that dangerous? Was Tokyo really in danger during the crisis? Some experts say “no” to both questions. They feel something about nuclear power makes the news media go straight to the worst-case scenario, whether it happens or not. Risk expert David Roepik says that radiation exposure has some psychological characteristics that make it particularly frightening. Author Bernard Cohen writes, “It is easy to concoct a possible accident scenario that is worse than anything that has been previously proposed. I have frequently been told that the probability doesn’t matter—the very fact that such an accident is [conceptually] possible makes nuclear power unacceptable.” The Health Physics Society says the health threat to Japanese from radiation exposure is extremely low.

Today’s updates…

  • The Japanese government says it will try to silence international rumors about radiation contamination. Rumors around the world have seriously hurt the country’s tourism and agricultural businesses. As a result, a new panel of ministers will explore measures to quell false gossip about Fukushima contamination. They hope to have firm guidelines in place by April. (JAIF)
  • A group of 30 residents in Kanawaga Prefecture have started a service which tests food for radiation. They have bought monitoring units through local donations, each costing more than $16,000. Food samples can be mailed to either of their two locations and results will be sent back within 10 days. Tests will cost $40 to $60. (Japan Times)
  • The issue of tsunami debris disposal continues to amplify. Presently, two local governments are assisting in rubble disposal efforts, but the vast majority of the governments in Japan are reluctant to join in the effort because of vocal minorities. Because of political catering to vocal minorities across Japan, the Tohoku region labors under a staggering volume of dangerous, decaying rubble. One prime example concerns Kanagawa Gov. Yuji Kuroiwa, who said he wants to help. But, he put his plans on hold because he was accosted by 200 outraged citizens (out of a population of ~9 million), many demanding “How will you take responsibility if radioactive substances affect our health?” At a temporary storage site in the Kawaguchicho district of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, a mountain of debris stands like a pyramid. Since last April, it has reached 20 meters high and continues to grow. To avoid a terrible fire or explosion, an excavator recently dug holes and inserted pipes so methane can dissipate. “We don’t want to create such tall debris mountains, due to the risk of fire. But there was no other place,” said an Ishinomaki supervisor of temporary storage. The Environment Ministry has not been actively involved because it does not want to agitate residents who are in opposition. One ministry official said, “The ministry thinks it better to leave things to mayors of concerned municipalities, who have political power.” (Yomiuri Shimbun) Meanwhile, Prime Minister Noda has joined in the fray. He is asking companies across Japan to join in the effort, hoping to ease the political roadblocks that have paralyzed the national disposal effort. He wants a joint public and private effort. His government is working on a budget to fund the group work. (JAIF) A poll of Japan’s 1,789 municipalities reveals that only 27 (~1.5%) say they will accept tsunami debris for disposal, 127 (~7%) say they are willing to consider it, 466 say accepting waste might be too difficult, and 753 say they are not planning to get involved. 53% of the dissenting local communities said they have no facilities for disposal, 41% cited fears of radioactive substances, 24% pointed to the geographical distance for transportation and 20% cited opposition by local residents. (Kyodo News)
  • Another poll across Japan shows 72% see little or no progress with tsunami recovery. The region of greatest discontent is Tohoku, which bore the brunt of the tsunami’s impact, with 78% saying they see no progress. When asked why they think this situation exists, 75% say it is because of the impact of the nuclear accident, which is also the opinion of 91% of the respondents in the Tohoku region. 75% of the respondents said their local governments should help in disposing of tsunami debris. (Stars and Stripes)
  • NISA says they waited more than two months to admit there were meltdowns at Fukushima because the team making the judgment was not formally assembled. Eiji Hiraoka, the NISA’s vice director-general, said, “We must reflect on that we failed to establish (the team) within the formal organizational structure.” An ad-hoc team of ten researchers analyzed what was happening at Fukushima during the first few days of the crisis, concluded that three reactor cores melted down, and believed that there was no danger of the situation deteriorating after cooling water was pumped in to stop the fuel degradation. The work was treated as a mere reference because the team was not positioned within the strict NISA organizational framework. (Asahi Shimbun)

The American nuclear Society has posted a guest blog that was written by me a few weeks ago. It is titled “A Fukushima Investigative Scorecard” which summarizes the (currently) five official Japanese commissions/panels looking into the Fukushima accident. Here’s the link…