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Whos' Really to Blame for Fukushima Health Impacts?

John Wheeler's picture

Producer of "This Week in Nuclear"; Manager in the Nuclear Industry; Former Senior Reactor Operator; Nuclear Workforce Planning & Workforce Development Expert

  • Member since 2018
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  • Mar 12, 2012

As is often the case, the passage of time yields clarity about events, and the nuclear power plant accident at Fukushima is no different.  It has become clear that the misinformation and hysterics by anti-nuclear groups and individuals were mostly wrong.  Their doomsday prophesizing actually worsened human suffering and environmental impacts by contributing to unwise decisions by political leaders in Japan and elsewhere to shut down nuclear plants.  In contrast, bloggers and experts from within the nuclear community accurately predicted outcomes and human health impacts.

As was predicted on this blog and elsewhere, the multi-barrier reactor containment design protected the public.  Contrary to claims by anti-nuclear groups, the melted cores did NOT burn through the reactor vessels.  The containment structures remained virtually intact. The damaged reactor fuel remained inside the reactor vessels and containment systems.

Despite preposterous claims by Greenpeace and others, there were no chunks of plutonium scattered across the countryside.  Only radioactive gasses escaped over the land, and most of that gas was short lived Iodine that has long since decayed away.

As reported on Bloomberg and other news sources, no one in the public was harmed by radiation from the damaged reactors.  A small number of plant workers received higher than normal radiation exposures, without lasting effects.  Any hypothetical future health effects will be immeasurably low and will be indistinguishable from normal disease rates within the general population.

No one, not even the “Fukushima 50″, was exposed to life threatening amounts of radiation.  Journalists who flew across the Pacific to cover the story received more radiation exposure from cosmic rays in flight than they received from the reactors once on the ground.

The visually spectacular hydrogen explosions of the plant buildings, while providing great fodder for anti-nuclear rhetoric had little impact on the safety of the reactors, and harmed no one.

The unit 4 fuel storage pools did not empty of water and did not catch on fire.  The fuel there remained safely submerged and suffered no damage of any consequence.

Finally, there was no need for the 50-mile evacuation zone ordered by NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko. His decision still has nuclear experts scratching their heads and wondering why.  Jaczko’s actions demonstrated he lacks the experience and knowledge to ask the right questions at crucial moments.  In addition, he lacked the wisdom to recognize other more credible information was available that contradicted his view.  He needlessly rushed forward with an ill-advised decision that was horribly wrong.

This is not to imply there were no environmental or economic impacts from the reactor accident – of course there were!  The expensive cleanup in surrounding areas will take years and will cost billions.  This is but a small fraction of the total cost of recovery from the horrific earthquake and tsunami.

The earthquake and tsunami were responsible for untold human suffering and devastation.  That is where the focus of the world should have been and should continue to be.  The problems at the Fukushima nuclear plant accident have contributed needlessly to Japan’s economic burden by prompting the irrational shutdown of nuclear plants across the country.  This has caused energy shortages and billions of dollars of additional costs from skyrocketing imports of fossil fuels.  Of course, the fossil fuels providers are scrambling to rake in tens of billions of dollars in profits.

The health effects to Japan’s population were NOT from radiation, but from stress caused by the unfounded fear of future health effects.  The responsibility for this lies squarely on anti-nuclear activists who relished in spouting fatalistic, exaggerated claims, and on an uninformed media who presented those claims as virtual facts while downplaying opposing views from true experts in the field.


John Wheeler's picture
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Jesse Parent's picture
Jesse Parent on Mar 13, 2012

This is interesting as I’m still trying to understand what is going on.

I’m currently not sure what to think about the massive shut down of all the reactors in Japan. It seems questionable in one sense. But in another, at least from studying Fukushima I, I can see why there would be a massive effort to appear like they are doing something about the problem. I’m not sure how much of what is happening in Japan is Public Relations or not, but there at least seems a reason to go into damage control mode. The lack of adjustments that TEPCO made in preparing Fukushima I for well-cautioned earthquake and tsunami threats is probably one source of contention, and I would guess that such has mixed with other sentiments, including the general misinformation mentioned in this post.

I think Japan should strive to make sure their nuclear plants are up to code, but that’s regardless of what happened at Fukushima. The public backlash against nuclear energy, however, seems like a curious situation to mitigate. From Japan Today:

Shinichiro Takiguchi, executive senior researcher at Japan Research Institute, said the shuttering of nuclear plants is not sustainable.

“Basically, the general consensus for the long term is reduce nuclear power” but not stop it, he said. “It’s more reasonable to increase the use of other energy sources and gradually reduce nuclear while taking additional safety measures.”

A short or medium-term transition towards a long term, (whatever that long term is), with nuclear power completely absent from Japan’s energy mix seems significantly difficult, perhaps entirely untenable.


Thanks for the info, I’ll check out the ANS report/conference.

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