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Fukushima 10 years later – its time to focus on the social science

Milton Caplan's picture
President MZConsulting Inc.

Milt has more than 40years experience in the nuclear industry advising utilities, governments and companies on new build nuclear projects and investments in uranium.

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Ten years have passed since Japan suffered the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that killed 20,000 people, caused US$300 billion of damage and initiated the accident at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant. 

Reviewing the media reporting last month, the nature of the stories has changed.  There were of course many articles that continued to talk about the dangers of nuclear power but there were also numerous articles noting the real lesson to be learned from the accident is that nuclear power is safe.  And when news outlets associated the deaths in Japan with the nuclear accident, complaints resulted in many of them accepting their articles were wrong and issuing corrections to state the deaths were all due to the earthquake and tsunami.   

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When it comes to the actual impact of the accident on human health, the science is absolutely clear.  No one died from radiation from this event (the Japanese have associated one death of a nuclear worker with radiation, but the science does not support it).  A recently (2020 edition) updated United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) report on the levels and effects of radiation exposure due to the accident said that future health effects, e.g. cancer directly related to atomic (nuclear plant) radiation exposure are unlikely to be discernible. But that doesn’t mean there was not a large impact on people and Japanese society as a whole.  People are suffering consequences related to the fear of radiation and its potential impact to them and their families, rather than from the radiation itself.  As stated in the earlier 2013 UNSCEAR report, “The most important health effect is on mental and social well-being, related to the enormous impact of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident, and the fear and stigma related to the perceived risk of exposure to ionizing radiation.”   Addressing this impact is essential for both the Japanese people that continue to suffer and to minimize these kinds of impacts in the future.

Mariko Odawara places flowers to mourn the victims of the earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands and triggered the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, during its 10th anniversary, in Iwaki, Fukushima prefecture, Japan March 11, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-HoonReuters

How society feels about different technologies and their dangers vary dramatically resulting in a broad range of public views when accidents happen.  Let’s look at some of the tragic events that have happened around the world in recent years and how society reacted.

In 2018 and 2019 two Boeing 737 MAX aircraft crashed (in Indonesia and in Ethiopia) killing 300 people.   After the second accident the world reacted (two accidents so close together for a new design has never been seen in the history of modern aviation), and these planes were grounded for over two years as serious safety culture issues were identified at Boeing.  Changes have been implemented to correct the deficiencies with the planes now declared safe and returned to service.  Why did it take so long for the industry to react and why did the public not become more concerned about flying?  Flying is important to the world as we all want to travel.  We accept flying as safe and are willing to overlook an accident as a rare event even though the consequences are tragic.  (Since the pandemic we miss travelling more than ever.)  Reporting was more related to how the issue can be resolved to get the planes flying again than in creating fear of flying.

Last summer, a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored at the port of the city of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, exploded, causing at least 215 deaths, 7,500 injuries, and US$15 billion in property damage, and leaving an estimated 300,000 people homeless.  This was a huge tragedy, with the blame focused on the corruption of the Lebanese government.  There was no reporting talking about this dangerous substance and its risks.  No one was asking how it should be safely stored and transported and whether there are shortcomings in the regulations on how to keep people safe.  In fact, the industry that creates the chemical was nowhere to be seen in the discussion. 

Finally, as we all continue to feel the impact of this global pandemic that to date has infected more than 145 million and killed more than 3 million, we still have many who are fighting against public health directives focused on keeping us safe and some who simply choose to not accept the danger posed by this disease.  With the end of the pandemic now in sight because of the amazing success of vaccines developed in record time, the biggest risk remains vaccine hesitancy.  Somehow there are many people who are more afraid of the vaccine than the disease.

Looking at these examples, we see that:

  • It takes two crashes to convince authorities to look for problems with a new aircraft design. The public, although concerned, does not become afraid to fly as long as it is on a different aircraft model (easily compartmentalizing the risk to a specific model) and most are likely to feel comfortable flying on the 737 MAX now that it has been approved to fly again;
  • A devastating explosion of a dangerous chemical raises no questions at all about the chemical itself.  The public are comfortable allocating the blame to government incompetence without any thought to whether or not others are unsafe who are using this substance;
  • A global pandemic that to date has killed more than 3 million people and completely disrupted all of our lives for over a year is not enough for some to follow the science while erroneously worrying that the cure may be more dangerous than the disease risking a delay to the end of the pandemic; and
  • An accident at a nuclear plant resulting from an extreme once in a hundred-year natural disaster disrupts the lives of many and kills no one.  The conclusion for some is the technology is so dangerous that there are calls to completely shut down the industry, with some countries like Germany who have no plant models that are similar to Fukushima nor the conditions for a similar event deciding the risks are too great.

Our purpose here is not to go into detail but to contrast how we as a global population choose to see threats and risks and respond to them. Each one of these examples demonstrates a vastly different response as the public has varying degrees of concern when evaluating risk.  Often many of us try and discuss why we think this is the case.  However, truly understanding these differences in perception and reaction is a task for the social scientists.  The issues are complex.  Studies are needed to learn how to better address public concerns and develop strategies to ensure that risks are contextualized, and science better explained to ensure the best possible response when tragic events occur.  

It is a good thing the nuclear industry learns lessons from its experience to make nuclear better, but we also seem to define ourselves by our accidents rather than by our successes.  Perhaps its time for that to stop. It may have taken a decade, but the world is realizing the benefits of nuclear power far outweigh the risks (a phrase we hear every day about vaccines) and that climate change is the greater threat to humanity that needs to be addressed now, with nuclear power being an important part of the solution.

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Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on May 7, 2021

Milton, Excellent examples and contrasts. It seems most people wait until after a major disaster before reacting. Also if something happens slowly they don't seem to care or notice. The deadly exhaust from gas and diesel vehicles is a good example of that. You have made people aware of how they justify things . Now we see if they act. 

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on May 24, 2021

Some of the statements by the author of this post are astonishing in its distortions of the data and findings, but revealing with respect to the lengths to which the nuclear industry will go in order to minimize the public´s perception of the scale of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. 

The UNSCEAR report says a lot of things.

But it does NOT say this:

"No one died from radiation from this event"

Here are just a few of the findings that the report did contain.  I do recommend a close reading of the report in its entirety.

1. The report does say that people who stayed in the area closest to the plant were exposed to higher radiation levels than those who were evacuated.   So, there is reason to say that the evacuation, with all of its problems, was probably worthwhile (Pg. 88):

"...Committee estimates the municipality-average absorbed doses to the thyroid of infants in the first year to be up to about 30 mGy, for those who were evacuated, and up to about 20 mGy, for those who remained in the non-evacuated areas..."

Please compare the observed doses (pg. 147) to the  allowable (EPA/NRC/DOE) doses:

Those who remained in the Fukushima Prefecture received much higher doses than those outside.  The upper limits of the exposure were in many cases an order of magnitude higher.

Regulatory Dose Limits (EPA/NRC/DOE):

Radiation Worker – 50 mSv

(NRC, "occupationally" exposed)

General Public – 1 mSv

(NRC, member of the public)

General Public – 0.25 mSv

(NRC, decommissioning and decontamination all pathways)

General Public – 0.10 mSv

(EPA, air pathway)

General Public – 0.04 mSv

(EPA, drinking water pathway)

In addition, these norms do not take into account the relatively higher sensitivity to radiation in children because of their rapid cell division and differentiation.

"Children are generally more susceptible to ionizing radiation and other environmental pollutants, and may suffer from life-long health consequences… and a peak in Down Syndrome cases was observed in newborns born in 1987, one year after the Chernobyl nuclear accident (Zatsepin, 2007). New DNA mutations in children born after the accident to irradiated parents and living in non-contaminated territories confirm the long-term health risks in the exposed population (Aghajanyan and Suskov, 2009; Weinberg et al., 1997)."

2. The report indicates that the decontamination efforts may have been effective (Pg. 136), depending on the validity of the model used:

"Based on a large number of ambient dose rate measurements taken before and after remediation, the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) used a model to estimate the average reduction in the effective dose to the public as a result of remediation in the SDA and ICSA (i.e., having subtracted the contributions from natural processes) [M38]. The average reductions estimated by the MOE correspond to dose reduction factors."

3. There were higher rates of thyroid cancer among those who were most exposed to radiation (Pg 89-91):

"In the first round of screening, the rates of diagnosed, suspected or confirmed thyroid cancer among the approximately 300,000 individuals who were children or adolescents (ages 0–18) at the time of the FDNPS accident were found to be much higher than those documented in the cancer registries of other prefectures of Japan.

For example, females of ages in utero to five years at initial exposure comprise the most susceptible subgroup. For this subgroup, about 16 to 50 cases of thyroid cancer attributable to radiation could be inferred from the estimated exposure, depending on the risk model assumed. Yamamoto et al. [Y6] also reported a statistically significant positive radiation exposure-related trend for thyroid cancer prevalence or incidence in the first two rounds of FHMS screening, based on estimated average external exposure levels and numbers of screened individuals and thyroid cancer cases for each of the 59 municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture."

4. However, the authors presented findings that may indicate that the data may have been affected by the screening methods used.  The result is that the observed rates of thyroid cancer may not have been the result of radiation.

In several places in the report, the following was noted (Pg.89):

"These observations suggest that the increased incidence rates may be due to over-diagnosis (i.e., detection of thyroid cancer that would not have been detected without the screening and would not have caused symptoms or death during a person’s lifespan)..." 

and in Appendix B:


So, many more cases of thyroid cancer were reported. But the method used to detect those cases was not the same used in screening the rest of the Japanese population.

Indeed, the authors of the UNSCEAR report (Pg. 93) say:

"...FHMS screening programme has been conducted primarily as a health-supportive programme rather than a rigorous scientific study that aimed to control for all sources of data bias."

With regard to leukemia the authors note (Pg.98):

"...the Committee’s estimate of leukaemia risk per mGy has increased somewhat compared to the UNSCEAR 2013 Report [U10]"

So, it must be said that, according to the UNSCEAR reports,  the true effects of the exposure to radiation at Fukushima are not yet known.  Of course, there are other reports that do link the radiation exposures of individuals at Fukushima to cancer. This one is a good one, and included in the UNSCEAR bibliography.  Toki, H., T. Wada, Y. Manabe et al. Relationship between environmental radiation and radioactivity and childhood thyroid cancer found in Fukushima health management survey. Sci Rep 10(1): 4074 (2020).

While there are data that indicate many more cancers, they cannot be taken as definitive. However, they cannot be thrown out either!

5. It must be remembered that the true health consequences, cancer or otherwise,  may take many more years to really know. This is noted in many reports, e.g.

" consequences may start to arise from the Fukushima accident and be documented over the next 5–40 years..."

"...the increase in incidence of thyroid cancer in children in Belarus was seen only 4–10 years after the 1986 Chernobyl accident..."

The data for this report was collected at various times prior to the end of 2019 (pg. 8), less than 8 years after the accident.

"The aim of this scientific annex is to provide a summary of all of the scientific information available (up to the end of 2019) relating to the levels and effects of radiation exposure due to the FDNPS accident..."

In fact, most of the data in this UNSCEAR report on exposures were taken from the 2013 report. For example, on pages 69 and 71, it is pointed out that effective doses in 2021 are the estimated doses based on earlier measurements. They are not measured data.  In fact, it appears that quoted doses and  exposures after  initial measurements in 2011 are based on modelling, not on observed data. It is evident that some new whole body data were collected (pg. 114-120) as late as  in 2012 and 2013, but not later.

It is one thing to try to put the disaster at Fukushima into context with other disasters.  It is quite another to misrepresent the data and to make completely false claims. 

Unfortunately, the data are not clear enough yet to firmly state whether or not the observed effects were due to radiation.  Though they indicate more cancers, the data may be skewed due to the method of diagnosis.

If there is one thing that we should have learned in the last year, it is at least a little about epidemiology: If you underestimate the risk and under prepare for it, it is going to bite you.

Yet the author of the post manages to make absurd statements about Fukushima´s victims while ignoring the epidemiological evidence to the contrary.  If there is one thing we know for sure it is that the following is an utterly false statement.

“When it comes to the actual impact of the accident on human health, the science is absolutely clear.»

In fact, the opposite is absolutely obvious: The science is absolutely unclear.

Have the purveyors of nuclear learned nothing in the past year?  Will they soon be revising history by claiming that no one died as a result of Covid?

Of all the papers and presentations regarding Fukushima in particular,  and the risk of nuclear power in general, this is the most amazing to me, (if true), especially as it comes via the IAEA.

The central premise of this paper is this:

"The Fukushima Daiichi disaster revealed an order-of-magnitude difference between the accident frequencies forecast by probabilistic safety assessments and observed frequencies."

Various explanations for this divergence are discussed.

One of them is this, which I find so disturbing:

           "The wrong values taken into account for Fukushima Daiichi"

"When the nuclear power plant at Fukushima Daiichi was built the risk of an earthquake exceeding magnitude 8 on the Richter scale was estimated as less than 2x10-5 per year. This value was taken from the work of modelling and numerical simulation carried out for each plant in Japan by the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention (NIED). However historical research has identified six major quakes which have occurred on the Sanriku coast since 869. That was the year of the Jogan undersea earthquake, probably the most devastating ever known on this stretch of coastline until March 2011. The various pieces of evidence which have been gathered suggest that these quakes all exceeded magnitude 8. This means the observed annual frequency should be about 5x10-3, in other words 100 times higher than the results calculated by the NIED."

«…we do know some of the values taken into account by the generating company or the regulator for the risk of an earthquake or tsunami. The figures were largely underestimated. The plant was designed to withstand a magnitude 7.9 earthquake and a 3.1 metre tidal wave. On 11 March 2011 at 14:46 JST it was subjected to a magnitude 9 tremor, then swamped by a wave more than 10 metres high."

How is it even possible that such a basic error could have been made? It is as if an offshore structure or vessel is to be designed for the "100 year wave" but instead is actually designed for the "10 year wave." In monetary terms alone, the result of the error is put at $300 million.  I only hope that the engineers who read this are better at probability calculations than they are at epidemiology.  Judging by the magnitude of this accident and the “conclusions” reached by the “expert” author of the post, there is good reason to distrust them.


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