Friday, April 13, 2012

Evaluating Nuclear Power Plant Accidents:

Is "No Radiation Deaths" Enough?

While the nuclear community has appropriately tried to correct public apprehension about radiation effects on health, I have been increasingly concerned that, even if the public were to accept that truth wholeheartedly, it may not be enough.

It is true, of course, that the general public does not understand radiation, and it is also true that, for all sorts of reasons, the average person is irrationally afraid of radiation. I have seen it happen in my own home. I'm the proud owner of a couple of pieces of antique, orange-glazed Fiestaware, and I occasionally use one Fiestaware platter as a serving platter. I have seen well-educated--even technically educated--guests draw away from the platter when I explain that it has a uranium-based glaze. So I know it is an uphill battle to convince people that small increases in the readings of radiation monitors around Fukushima are not hazardous.

Nevertheless, the radioactive emissions spread by the accident have caused areas of contamination in parts of the region surrounding Fukushima and have led to profound social and economic consequences. These include the long-term evacuation of around 100,000 people, and the loss of farmland and fishing territory--which means the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people who have not been evacuated, in addition to those who have been evacuated.

Furthermore, while there were no radiation-related deaths from Fukushima, the act of evacuating people under the difficult circumstances immediately after Fukushima did result in some deaths. One can argue that these were not caused by the nuclear plant accident itself. Rather, they were caused by inadequate evacuation planning, or bad decisions, or other man-made and correctable (for the future) actions. One can further argue that every emergency situation seems to result in some degree of confusion, and decisions that, after the fact, can be criticized.

The point is that, even if the radiation from Fukushima did not injure or kill anyone, the collateral damage from the Fukushima accident is huge. It did result in some deaths, and it resulted in tremendous long-term disruption to the lives and livelihoods of many people.

What does this mean for the future of nuclear power? From other posts of mine, readers will know that I see a nuanced picture developing--politicians and a public that is concerned but that recognizes the benefits of nuclear power.

However, to maintain and grow this camp, more experts are beginning to recognize that it is not enough to protect against damaging levels of radiation exposure to the public. We must consider how to protect against extensive land and water contamination and to mitigate against the consequences of contamination levels that require long-term evacuation and the indefinite sequestration of large areas of land.

This new way of thinking may challenge some of our present assumptions, but those who are contemplating this new approach all seem to think it is an achievable objective. As more emerges on this topic, I hope to revisit it in the future.



  1. "The point is that, even if the radiation from Fukushima did not injure or kill anyone, the collateral damage from the Fukushima accident is huge. It did result in some deaths, and it resulted in tremendous long-term disruption to the lives and livelihoods of many people."

    Cancer, which is the primary health effect of concern, doesn't manifest itself for years or decades. The purpose of an evacuation is to minimize the number of cancers in the future. There will be radiation-related deaths from Fukushima, and there would be more without the evacuations. It is unlikely there will be enough in either case to detect confidently using current epidemiological methods.

  2. My problem with this thinking is it lets other polluting producers off the hook, such as arsenic traces from giant coal-fired plants blown across states and farmland whose comparative health effects could be much more toxic than a few milligrams of radioactive dust sprinkled over thousands of acres. Just because incredibly tiny amounts of anything toxic can be detected today doesn't mean it's harmful or else chuck peaches and bananas! I'd like to see soil tests for pollutant/chemical toxins in the Fukushima region and if the readings show known harmful health effects on par with or above that of radioactive traces will they be fair and evacuate those regions in the interest of public health and safety too?? What would such good-for-goose/gander fairness standards do to current land use and settlement here in the U.S.?

  3. Thank you for this post. Reasonable or not, people fear the loss of money and livelihood as a greater threat than loss of life. Perhaps because we can all imagine losing our jobs or being forced to leave our homes, but we cannot easily imagine our own deaths. Fears of contamination (If Vermont farms were contaminated!) is alive and well here, and it is not just fear-mongering fomented by the opposition. To me, this is not insuperable. If we look at other technologies we see that hydro plants have drowned far more territory, and coal mining has done amazing amounts of damage. However, we can't pretend that "nothing happened" in Fukushima.