Monday, March 11, 2013

Fukushima: the Second Anniversary

Today is the second anniversary of the huge tsunami that devastated large portions of eastern Japan.   I want to talk about three areas that are rarely reported upon:
  • The accident caused no loss of life from direct radiation
  • People were killed by the evacuation, which was done very poorly
  • The increased risk of cancer in the local population is either zero (no increased risk) or very small (increased risk of 0.02%) depending on what study you believe

For each subject, I will share the facts as I know them, and also give a personal comment.

1) No Loss of Life from Direct Radiation

Damaged plants at Fukushima
March 11 is the second anniversary of the great Tohukou earthquake and tsunami.  This earthquake was one of the strongest ever known. It shifted the earth on its axis by at least 4 inches.  The toll in Japan was huge, with over 18,000 people killed or missing, and hundreds of thousands of buildings collapsed and partially collapsed.

Under these almost unbelievable circumstances, the nuclear power plants at Fukushima were also affected, but succeeded in their design requirement to prevent loss of human life.  No person was killed or badly injured by direct radiation, even after three full-sized plants melted down.

Here's a quote from an article in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet:

In the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident, there were no deaths related to radiation or the explosion of the reactors. However, the evacuation of these patients was accompanied by loss of life.

Personal Comment:  Reporting about the  "Fukushima tragedy" is so overwhelming that the simple fact that nobody died from radiation or explosion is rarely recognized. When I emailed a friend  that nobody had died from radiation at Fukushima, not even workers had died, he didn't completely believe me.  "Do you have a reference on that?" he asked.  Hopefully, The Lancet will serve as a reference. I don't know how much more prestigious you can get, for a medical journal! Also, the nuclear opponents don't parade names and stories of people who died of radiation exposure. They would if they could, I think....

There are many tragic aspects to the Fukushima story, but people did not die of radiation illness (as happened at Chernobyl).  Deaths from radiation did not occur at Fukushima, even with the complete meltdown of three plants.  This is relevant to the next topic about the evacuations.

2) People were killed by the evacuation

Nobody was killed by direct radiation from the melt-down, but people were killed by the evacuation that was the response to the meltdown. Obviously, if there hadn't been a meltdown, there would not have had to be an evacuation. However, it is not appropriate to lay all the blame for the evacuation deaths on the plants.   The evacuation was a badly-planned mess.

The New York Times describes the evacuation as "chaos". Local governments have certified over 600 deaths as "disaster-related"--that is, caused by fatigue or medical conditions made worse by evacuation.

The Lancet, describes the evacuation in an article: Loss of Life After Evacuation, Lessons Learned from the Fukushima accident.  Here are some quotes from that article, describing the evacuation by buses and cars:

The dawn of March 14 therefore saw the beginning of a hurried transportation of these patients to a screening site in Minamisoma city, 26 km northwest of the plant. Medical personnel did not accompany the patients during transportation. Bed-ridden patients were laid down on the seats, wrapped in protective gowns. During transportation, some patients suffered trauma by falling from the seats of the vehicles.

.... The vehicles were packed full, not only with patients but also with residents who had missed the chance to evacuate on their own.....Eventually, the patients were temporarily housed at a meeting room of the Soso Health Care office in Minamisoma city, with no heaters or medical supplies. Many had to wait for more than 24 h before reaching admitting facilities.

In other words, the evacuation killed people because the evacuation was a mess. Yes, I am Monday-morning quarterbacking.  But I need to say it anyway.  The amount of radiation that the people would have received, if they sheltered in place, was not enough to give anyone radiation sickness. Longer-term effects of that radiation were possible.  In these circumstance, however, bundling old and sick people onto buses to go to uncertain destinations, without their medicine or without even water...this was completely unnecessary.  Killing people now to prevent them from dying later?

Personal Note:  I recently wrote an article about Vermont volunteer fire-fighters.  We are rural up here, and we are very organized.  The fire chiefs keep lists of people in their jurisdiction who need  electricity for life support, are in hospice care at home, or are disabled.  They keep the  lists; they also keep keys from civic-minded people who are willing to lend their diesel generators to those who need them.  The chiefs know exactly what to do.

Yes, we never encountered anything as bad as a tsunami in Vermont, but the evacuations in Fukushima was not to prevent people from drowning in a tsunami. (And by the way, the fire-fighters did a great job during Hurricane Irene: everyone acknowledges their contribution.)  The Fukushima evacuation was caused by fear of exposure to radiation, without any reason to believe that such exposure would cause sickness or death in the near future.  I can't imagine the local fire chiefs bundling people onto buses and letting them fall off the seats during the ride!
Firefighter from Wikipedia, not local

My article on volunteer fire-fighters appeared in the winter edition of  Here In Hanover Magazine: "Who You Gonna Call? Volunteer Fire Departments of the Upper Valley."

Evacuating these elderly people from Fukushima was a very bad idea.  They could have sheltered in place. They could have been supported in place.  They could have lived.  That is my opinion.  I hate to be critical of people that were trying to do their best, but really?  What kind of cloud of radiation did they think they were getting?  Even at Chernobyl, nobody except workers on-site died immediately from radiation poisoning. Even at Chernobyl, twenty miles away, immediate death was not an issue.  They had time to do it better in Japan. They really did.

3) There will be few (or zero) deaths due to radiation in the future.

Well, nobody died of radiation YET, the nuclear opponents say, but in the future, there will be millions of horrible deaths from cancer.

There may be some, or there may be zero.  There were two recent reports on this.  One by the UN committee on radiation, which predicted zero deaths, and one by the World Health Organization, which predicted some premature deaths, perhaps as many as predicted in a recent Stanford University study: 1300  premature deaths, an 0.02% increase.  I recommend the Bryan Walsh article in Time magazine for a clear explanation of the WHO study. Meanwhile, James Conca at Forbes reviews a UN committee report that predicted there will be no increase in cancers in the population of Japan due to Fukushima.

Personal note: I am not going to try to distinguish between a report claiming a 0.02% increase and a report claiming no increase.  From a practical sense, they are the same conclusion.  No megadeaths resulted from this accident, and none will result. The opponents will say that the UN and WHO studies show that these international organizations are in the pay of the nuclear industry.  Fine.  The anti-nuclear activists around here already carry signs about "state's rights."   I look forward to them adding "U. S. OUT of the U. N!" signs to their demonstrations.

White Chrysanthemums
Traditional flower of mourning in China, Japan and France


The Fukushima Daiichi meltdown caused suffering and it caused death.  There were no immediate deaths, and few (or no) cancers can be expected among civilians. The main cause of the suffering and the deaths was the badly-handled evacuation.

This was not a doomsday event.  It was a truly terrible event.  But it was not the doomsday event nuclear opponents were expecting, or perhaps hoping for.


Mike Mulligan said...

Where do you think we would be...if we had a stupid nuclear accident and a cover-up was involved...where the public blow back from mistrust of the nuclear companies and government oversight of the nuclear industry...we were out two years from the event and 99% of our nuclear plants for two years were still shutdown...

Take your pick, either it bankrupted Duke or Exelon...

jimwg said...

Be very difficult to cover-up a meltdown, and why except for movie drama? People's Hollywood generated perceptions and prejudices already mistrust nuclear energy despite its nil mortality/damage facts and record, mostly thanks to the nuclear industry/community insanity for not hawking nuclear energy's own virtues. The senseless illogical knee-jerk mass shutdown was classic politician science-illiterate cluelessness and election CYA. I'm guessing off the hoof, but I think were it up to physicians and engineers to decide when it was okay to return people to their Fukushima homes which they likely should've never left they'd done it last year. The stall is politics, maybe infused with a little FUD-fanning fossil fuel bucks.

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Mike Mulligan said...

Yea, because of your industry's penchant for excessive secrecy... especially hiding your mistakes and screw ups.

That is your weak link!

I am going to put this thing on Byron's and Exelon's docket: