Ecocentric

Meltdown: Despite the Fear, the Health Risks from the Fukushima Accident Are Minimal

The nuclear accident at Japan's Fukushima plant caused the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people and sparked fears of a health catastrophe. But nearly two years after the meltdown, a World Health Organization reports says that those fears are unfounded.

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An anti-nuclear protest in Tokyo in April 2012. Japan is likely to begin restarting its shutter atomic plants.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) report (PDF) on the estimated health effects from the Fukushima nuclear accident is out, and the results are… reassuring. The WHO modeled the impacts of excess radiation doses on those living around the Fukushima plant, which partially melted down after the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. The agency concluded that any additional cancer risk from radiation was small—extremely small, for the most part—and chiefly limited to those living closest to the plant. The WHO found:

  • For leukemia, a lifetime risk increase of around 7% over baseline cancer rates for males exposed to the radiation as infants, and about 6% for females exposed as babies.
  • For all solid cancers (meaning everything with a discrete tumor mass, including brain and breast cancer), a lifetime risk increase of about 4% over baseline rates for females exposed as infants.
  • For thyroid cancer (which chiefly occurs in women) a lifetime risk increase of around 70% over baseline rates for women exposed as infants.

Wait a minute, you might be thinking. 7%, 6%, 4%, 70%—those percentage increases actually sound pretty large. Is the WHO saying that those exposed to Fukushima radiation now have a 7% chance of eventually contracting leukemia? Or a 70% chance of contracting thyroid cancer? Isn’t that worrying?

(MORE: 2013: A Cloudy Forecast for Renewable Energy, with a Silver Lining)

But that’s not what the WHO is saying. From the report itself:

These percentages represent estimated relative increases over the baseline rates and are not absolute risks for developing such cancers. Due to the low baseline rates of thyroid cancer, even a large relative increase represents a small absolute increase in risks. For example, the baseline lifetime risk of thyroid cancer for females is just three-quarters of one percent and the additional lifetime risk estimated in this assessment for a female infant exposed in the most affected location is one-half of one percent.

What that means is that the risk of getting cancers like leukemia or thyroid cancer is already very, very low, and even those who lived close to Fukushima—and therefore most likely received the highest radiation doses—will see only a small increase in that small danger. As Richard Wakeford of the University of Manchester, one of the authors of the report, told journalists:

These are pretty small proportional increases. The additional risk is quite small and will probably be hidden by the noise of other (cancer) risks like people’s lifestyle choices and statistical fluctuations. It’s more important not to start smoking than having been in Fukushima.

For those who lived beyond the immediately affected areas around Fukushima, the increased risk is likely to be infinitesimal. The report also looked at the brave emergency workers at the Fukushima plant, who likely received higher radiation doses during the meltdown than anyone else in Japan. The news there, too, is mostly good: perhaps one-third of the workers face a higher lifetime risk of cancer, but that risk still remains low.

While an earlier study by researchers at Stanford University estimated that the radiation from Fukushima might result in an as many as 1,300 additional cancer deaths globally, some researchers feel that the WHO may have even overestimated the increased risk from the accident. (And keep in mind that with some 7.6 million cancer deaths each year, 1,300 additional deaths would mean an increase of 0.02%.) Wade Allison, an emeritus professor of physics at Oxford University, told the AP:

On the basis of the radiation doses people have received, there is no reason to think there would be an increase in cancer in the next 50 years. The very small increase in cancers means that it’s even less than the risk of crossing the road.

(MORE: Independent Commission Releases Report on Fukushima Meltdown, Blames Japanese Culture)

I’m pretty sure that Allison means the risk of getting hit by a car while crossing the road, not the risk of getting cancer while crossing the road. But the point is, by the WHO’s own estimates, Fukushima is unlikely to have a very significant health impact on Japanese citizens. Part of that is due to prompt action in the wake of the accident, including the evacuation of nearby towns, and even more importantly, bans on food from the affected areas. After Chernobyl, some 6,000 children exposed to radiation later developed thyroid cancer because many drank irradiated milk—milk that the Soviet government at the time should have banned.

Greenpeace—which put out its own report on the Fukushima fallout earlier this month—wasn’t happy with the WHO, releasing a statement challenging the study from the group’s nuclear radiation expert Dr. Rianne Teule:

The WHO report shamelessly downplays the impact of early radioactive releases from the Fukushima disaster on people inside the 20 km evacuation zone who were not able to leave the area quickly.

The WHO should have estimated the radiation exposure of these people to give a more accurate picture of the potential long-term impacts of Fukushima. The WHO report is clearly a political statement to protect the nuclear industry and not a scientific one with people’s health in mind.

Far be it from me to say the WHO, or any international scientific organization, is above reproach. But the WHO’s modeling here seems if anything conservative, overstating the potential risk. And when environmental groups pick holes in scientific consensus on something like Fukushima, they sound very much like the politically conservative climate skeptics who are constantly harping on the supposedly international scientific conspiracy over climate science.

Fukushima, for all the attention, was ultimately small potatoes compared to the disaster at Chernobyl. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) reported that the Fukushima plant may have released about 900,000 terabecquerels of radiation into the air at the height of the disaster, while the 5.2 million terabecquerels of radiation were released during the Chernobyl accident, which also covered a much bigger territory. It’s just a reminder that’s what true about natural disasters is true about man-made ones: the public response or lack of one can matter as much or more than the disaster itself.

But it’s also pretty important that the human health effects of one of the biggest nuclear disasters seem to be virtually nil. That’s worth remembering as nations  turn away from nuclear power on the grounds that it is simply too dangerous. In the wake of the Fukushima accident, Germany decided to begin shuttering its nuclear power plants years before they were do to close. The result, as Bloomberg reported yesterday, has been more coal, more pollutants and more carbon. New coal plants with about 5.3 GW of power capacity will begin operating in Germany this year, far more than the 1 GW of coal that is likely to come offline. Greenhouse gas emissions rose 1.6% in Germany last year. The increase in coal—due in part to the reduction in carbon-free nuclear power—has more than outweighed the vast increase in renewable power created by Germany’s progressive energy policy.

The challenging economics of building new nuclear plants are another question, especially in developed countries. But it’s very difficult to see the logic of voluntarily shutting down the biggest source of carbon-free electricity when it turns out the dangers of nuclear power seem to be overstated. (Tokyo seems to agree—Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that the country would begin restarting idled nuclear plants once new safety guidelines are in place later this year.) And it’s not just carbon—if existing nuclear is replaced by coal or even natural gas, we’ll also see an increase in other pollutants which pose clear and present health dangers that exceed the risks of atomic power. Nuclear power is scary—scarier than climate change for most people—but the facts don’t back up that fear.

(MORE: Nuked: A Year After Fukushima, Nuclear Power Is Down — and Carbon Is Up)

51 comments
RobertoCumbia
RobertoCumbia

The WHO report is nonsense.  Arnie Gundersen's analysis contradicts most of these findings. 

AbiHaworth
AbiHaworth

@yennikwok Yes, hopefully they are minimal Yenni. Wish the whole thing had been handled better so people experienced less stress & worry.

Raithea
Raithea

Right so why don't we break down the numbers. 

Chernobyl disaster:

Reported Dead: 31 (Though this number is disputed)

BP Deepwater Oil Disaster, Texas City Disaster, Sea Gem and other reported accidents:

Reported Dead: 42

This is just one oil company and it is still operating. 

2010 Coal Mining Deaths in US and China alone:

US: 48 China: 2,433

That's in a single year. 

Yes Nuclear power is dangerous and yes it has environmental consequences that affect health and livelihoods but so do oil and gas. Arguably much, much worse by the numbers. There are whole villages in China called cancer villages and its all from industrial and mining waste. 


Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

Nuclear is a great energy source demonized by idiots

KipAnderson
KipAnderson

What about the fact that the damage to the reactor vessels has actually breached them, causing them to leak, and the massive unstable storage pool above reactor #4 that is a 100-fold threat of release OVER CHERNOBYL? Guessing the WHO doesn't want to cause a panic there, what with the well known rarity of earthquakes near Japan . .

AntanasAnuzis
AntanasAnuzis

I think not so terrible that nuclear energy, the worst problem is its use there without using, tay is producing weapons of war or ... wors...

http://lookinarts.com/lias/ Social Website free earn points communicate, invite and much more than ewer:)! 

dunkalunk
dunkalunk

@dunkalunk @TIME "Nuclear power is scary—scarier than climate change for most people—but the facts don’t back up that fear."

askessler
askessler

@EmmMacfarlane Sigh. Nuclear phase-out in Germany lead to spike in new coal plants. Overreaction to rare negative events well documented.

ebeutner
ebeutner

1300 People will die of cancer and this is good news? A small consequence.

Then the article compares it to how many people die the world over of cancer.

 It is like saying on September 11, 2001 in New York 3000 people died, but remember over 155,000 people die world wide each day anyhow. About 57,000,000 people die a year world wide each year. So do not be concerned. It is small fraction of a percent of the total deaths. Only a 1.9 percent daily increase. Less than half a percent of a yearly increase in the death rate. Hardly worth mentioning.

 Think about it 1300 people killed. Cancer death that rips up your body. A death that breaks the hearts and bank accounts of the family.

 This is not acceptable.

Harner
Harner

The WHO works in conjunction with the IAEA.  The IAEA gets its funding from the pro-nuclear DOE.  Now you see why many people believe the WHO's report is a minimized whitewash.

The WHO also minimized the amount of cancers from Chernobyl.

TIME magazine has historically been pro-nuclear.

That's why I highly recommend everyone get their news on Japan's crisis from alternatives sources like 

www.enenews.com

I also recommend the author of this article broaden his research to sites like enenews, enformable, enviroreporter.com, nuclearcrimes.org, nuclearhotseat.com, to get a clearer view of the dangers of nuclear energy and an idea of what Japan's children are really going through.

cal_abel
cal_abel

@yes_VY and unfortunately nobody is going to notice the report, which is even based on LNT.

danascove
danascove

This article is sooo full of untruths.

danascove
danascove

Hmmm,  does the editor NOT like my references to sources of actual truth????? How do my posts KEEP getting deleted???  This isn't a biased, one-sided full-of-cra* article at all, now is it??? <SARCASM>

RalphAllen
RalphAllen

It is called d a Thorium Liquid Reactor  LFTR

  • Can't Melt Down, Fuel can't burn
  • Can't be diverted for Bombs
  • Extremely simple, no heavy redundancy, 
  • Small size
  • Very cheap to produce
  • Virtually all the fuel is burned instead of 1% in current reactors
  • Can be used to eliminate existing radioactive material
  • Thorium very cheap and very abundant
  • byproducts produced needed for medical and NASA explorers produced etc
  • No additional mining needed
  • Thorium co-located with rare earths currently preventing mining those elements
  • Solves green house gas issues
  • $30K Thorium = 1/2 billion in electricity = less than 3 cents KWH
  • Thorium enrichment not needed
  • Thorium reactors work at ambient pressure i.e, no explosions
  • Technology proven with working reactor in 1960s
  • Thorium reactors waste has a 1/2 life of 300 years not 10,000
  Brief overview from 17 out of 32 presentations. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWUeBSoEnRk&list=PL098D071EE5755361 Great presentation   
The US could build these in less than 10 years for the cost of one aircraft carrier  

Grim
Grim

The report states that it is based on the radiation exposure AT THE TIME OF THE ACCIDENT.  So their conclusion, and the conclusion of the article, are only valid if all the radioactive material was 100% cleaned up immediately after the accident so there is no additional exposure.  However, this is not the case.  More exposure is inevitable as contaminated food and water supplies are consumed.  Then there is the economic factor - if the increase in the thyroid cancer rates is 70% then will the operator be accountable for 40% of thyroid cancer costs for the next 75 years in that region?

bachcole
bachcole

Some people love to wallow in their anxiety, no matter what the truth is.  And if they can get a kum ba yah going, holding hands and wallowing in their anxiety all together, even better.

nemo
nemo

Only an idiot or a liar would write such a headline. The reactors are leaking radioactive waste into the ocean as I type and will continue to do so for decades. Chernobyl is contaminating groundwater as I type. The Columbia river in the US is being contaminated even now. When these plants meltdown there is no fixing it. Then there is the problem of waste which is still unsolved. Proponents of nuclear power benifit financially.

ResearchWC
ResearchWC

@kirstygogan "partially melted down" So when the fuel exits the core... because the core was melted, that was partial. H2O cooling to blame

mailofdex
mailofdex

yeah stop nuke energy. it is better to be dependent on foreign oil because it is more safer.

ElpTique
ElpTique

Absolute non sense! Another disgusting attempt at covering up the reality. Go take a look at the children in Belorus and see the cancer rates there, the malformation, the quality of life, the mortality rate and you will see the ugly reality of radiation. Obviously these "science" articles, written by genuflecting journalists, do not dare mentioning the deep study provided by doctors like Alexey Yablokov. God forbid! Right, that man is a doctor that actually cures (or tries to) those children. What does he know? He is a commy or something like that.

Enough! There is nothing safe about radiation, any amount, any exposure. Words of the National Academy of Science.... real Science.

cullet
cullet

Finally a rational analysis of the risks.  And good job interpreting the numbers -- a lot of people see 70% increase and flip out.  The all-cause increased probability of death discounted by age is tiny and dwarfed by the all-cause increase in probability of death caused by coal or other fossil fuel plan operation.  Nuclear power scares people, but the demonstrated risks are smaller than those of other power sources.  In the long run, the world has a choice: embrace nuclear power (including fusion if it ever works) or go back to the medieval era.   

zz1
zz1

CSP is cheaper and easier to build than nuclear. Only problem with it is that it would be too rational for politicians to commit to a truly green economy. Globally we manufacture enough stainless steel every single day to build between 3 and 6 1GW CSP plants a day. We can build a 1GW CSP plant in less than 1 year and it would never ever melt down.

jbsugi
jbsugi

While the WHO's methodology may be sound, its conclusions are not - because of the data they used. All of the exposure risk was calculated using data that was provided by TEPCO and the Japanese government six months after the 3/11 tragedy. That may be the best data available, but anyone who followed the information coming from those two sources as the incident unfolded will be well aware that they were less than forthcoming.

In other words, it is a real problem to base your study on health impacts on data provided by the parties that bear liability for such impacts.

sturner
sturner

So they are trying to make you think that nuke plants are safe ?   What a lie.  A lie is a lie.

It takes a long term study to find the illnesses caused by this.  

Do you really think ANY government cares about your health and safety ?  They care about your ability to pay taxes.

If nuclear power was so safe WHY did Japan close all of their nuclear power plants ?

wwart
wwart

Guess I read it differently--the take I got was, since we are starting with such a low risk, even if you increase it by a substantial percentage you've still got a low risk. If you double a really small number, you still end up with a small number. Just the way the math works out.Don't know how WHO make a determination after such a short time, but the arithmetic in and of itself doesn't seem wrong to me.

FionaRroberts
FionaRroberts

"For thyroid cancer (which chiefly occurs in women) a lifetime risk increase of around 70% over baseline rates for women exposed as infants."

@bryanrwalsh How can you report a 70% increase over baseline rates as"virtually nil"?

Or fail to provide any context? By telling us, for example, what threshhold is considered significant elsewhere. Or indicating how many people are permanently displaced (no health effects there?) Or following up on reports of extremely high levels found in certain fish (a main staple of the Japanese diet). 

I thought @Time was gettting better. 

This article represents a major step backwards from serious journalism. Reads like a press release.

 



johnrexallen
johnrexallen

@Hadrewsky So Albert Einstein was an idiot? Michio Kaku is an idiot? Sounds to me as though you have been indoctrinated into your beliefs. Open your mind a little. If you were makeing billions through nuclear energy and an event like this threatened your profit how would you handle it? GE owns half of the mainstream media in this country so before you go thinking you know what the hell you are talking about consider your source of knowledge. This isnt a debate between coal or nuclear. We could have the entire country running off of solar, wind and underwater turbines if we wanted to. The only problem there is that you can't as an industry profit from that. You are the idiot. "Nuclear energy is a hell of a way to boil water." -Einstein @Hadrewsky

johnrexallen
johnrexallen

@Hadrewsky So Albert Einstein and Michio Kaku are idiots? Before you become indoctrinated into your beliefs consider the source. You may be suprised to know that the nuclear industry has a consideable stranglehold on the media. GE literally owns msnbc and abc.

Harner
Harner

That's not true.  Germany opened ONE new coal plant, which started being built in 2006. 

http://www.renewablesinternational.net/is-germany-switching-to-coal/150/537/56081/

Germany is relying successfuly on Renewable Energy, like wind and solar.  They have been so successful with Renewable Energy, that they EXPORT energy to pro-nuclear France!

And nuclear meltdowns and major radioactive leaks are not rare events. 

Here is just a partial list:

1952 Chalk River Canada --  1953 Savannah River Site US --  1957 Mayak in Russia --  1957 Windscale UK -- 1959 Simi Valley US  --  1961 SL-1 reactor explosion in Idaho -- 1966  Detroit's Enrico Fermfi 1 US  --  1967 Scotland Chapelcross --  1969 Lucens in Switzerland --  1972 Surry in Virginia  .....

There are at least 41 more incidents which can be found on pages 44 thru 46 of the  book "Nuclear Roulette" by Gar Smith

an excellent book that everyone should read.

jilikins
jilikins

@Harner If it's an "official" government/world agency of any kind, I will not believe them anymore about anything.  We do well to listen to our own common sense and knowledge, not what "officials" would have us believe.  I agree with you.

poloniumman
poloniumman

@Harner enenews - now there's a reliable source of nuclear related information. While we are at it, lets listen to Koch funded scientists for climate change information.

poloniumman
poloniumman

@danascove I doubt you are qualified to judge the truthfulness of the article.

KevinN
KevinN

@RalphAllen Apparently this is the carebear version of Thorium reactors. I bought into it too, but have since become better informed. Thorium is not a better choice over uranium.

KevinN
KevinN

@bachcole Have you made any attempt to uncover the truth for yourself or are you relying only on sources that favor your preferred view?

poloniumman
poloniumman

@nemo opponents of nuclear benefit financially too.

KevinN
KevinN

@ResearchWC Actually, no one knows for certain what happened, since we can't look inside (the radiation is way too high, and doubt is the nuclear industry's friend). However, the likelihood that full meltdowns didn't occur within two days of the accident is very unlikely.

mailofdex
mailofdex

but mister mister isn't better to be independent. I mean independent by owning your own stuff. A country should own their own currency and their own energy. You mean own meaning control right? Well in todays word it is better to be controlled by outside forces. That what mr. Clinton said back then. But I think you don't really know who is mr. Clinton and what he did and why he did it. That's the problem with todays people they don't study history no more they're to busy studying social studies.

mailofdex
mailofdex

people should drive cars either. did you know that over 100 people die from car accidents DAILY. It is very dangerous to be in a vehicles.

KevinN
KevinN

@cullet A lot of people assume WHO is not biased too. What does it matter if it is 70% or 0% if the numbers are not valid?

eabarth
eabarth

@sturner Because they were facing irrational backlash from a catastrophe that occurred on one of the plants. Maybe they should increase the standards of safety for the grounds on which the plants are built (e.g., not susceptible to tsunami/earthquake damage), but to use this as an example for closing down all plants is like throwing away a whole cheesecake because a fly landed on one slice.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@johnrexallen

Einstein couldn't fathom a meltdown proof generation IV reactor. The US Navy happily motors around the world using this tech and we are improving upon it daily.

The fact is that this technology is being made safer are more effective as time goes on to the point that we are developing reactors that cannot meltdown even if you wanted to make one.

poloniumman
poloniumman

@jilikins @Harner the problem with listening to common sense is that when it comes to radiation risks there is very little common sense. Just look at how many people don't believe the WHO analysis simply because the numbers don't seem bad enough.

Harner
Harner

www.enenews.com is an exellent news aggregator site, highlighting stories from sources like Bloomberg, Reuters, AP, the New York Times, and other main stream media sources. 

In addition, the commenters and comments at Enenews are outstanding.

bachcole
bachcole

@KevinN@bachcole  I have not made any attempt to get at the truth because I figured that the truth wasn't being hidden, much.  The company may be BSing to some extent.  But (1), it is common for people to get hysterical about this sort of thing, and (2) there aren't any reporters reporting that they couldn't find out any information and it is all a big cover-up.  Most nuclear accidents are about what could have happened, not what actually happened.  Even Chernobyl, the animals are thriving without any ugly mutation whatsoever.  So, I choose to not worry about it.  If I lived in northeast Japan, I might give it some thought.

danascove
danascove

@poloniumman ?????  I did not post links to enenews.  See, you do not even know what you're talking about

poloniumman
poloniumman

@danascove @poloniumman you post links to enenews...