Global health impacts of the Fukushima nuclear disaster calculated

Jul 17, 2012

Radiation from Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster may eventually cause anywhere from 15 to 1,300 deaths and from 24 to 2,500 cases of cancer, mostly in Japan, Stanford researchers have calculated.

The estimates have large uncertainty ranges, but contrast with previous claims that the release would likely cause no severe health effects.

The numbers are in addition to the roughly 600 deaths caused by the evacuation of the area surrounding the directly after the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and meltdown.

Recent PhD graduate John Ten Hoeve and Stanford Professor Mark Z. Jacobson, a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, are set to publish their findings Tuesday (July 17) in the journal Energy and . The research constitutes the first detailed analysis of the event's effects.

No effects?

The Fukushima Daiichi meltdown was the most extensive since Chernobyl. Radiation release critically contaminated a "dead zone" of several hundred square kilometers around the plant, and low levels of radioactive material were found as far as North America and Europe.

But most of the radioactivity was dumped in the Pacific – only 19 percent of the released material was deposited over land – keeping the exposed population relatively small.

"There are groups of people who have said there would be no effects," said Jacobson.

A month after the disaster, the head of the United Nations Science Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, for example, predicted that there would be no serious public health consequences resulting from the radiation.

Global reach?

Evaluating the claim, Ten Hoeve and Jacobson used a 3-D global atmospheric model, developed over 20 years of research, to predict the transport of radioactive material. A standard health-effects model was used to estimate human exposure to radioactivity.

Because of inherent uncertainties in the emissions and the health-effects model, the researchers found a range of possible death tolls, with a best estimate of 130. A wide span of cancer morbidities was also predicted, with a best estimate of 180.

Those affected according to the model were overwhelmingly in Japan, with extremely small effects noticeable in mainland Asia and North America. The United States was predicted to suffer between 0 and 12 deaths and 0 and 30 cancer morbidities, although the methods used were less precise for areas that saw only low radionuclide concentrations.

"These worldwide values are relatively low," said Ten Hoeve. He explained they should "serve to manage the fear in other countries that the disaster had an extensive global reach."

The response

The Japanese government's response was much more rapid and coordinated than that of the Soviets in Chernobyl, which may have mitigated some of the cancer risk.

Japanese government agencies, for example, evacuated a 20-kilometer radius around the plant, distributed iodine tablets to prevent radioiodine uptake and prohibited cultivation of crops above a radiation threshold – steps that Ten Hoeve said "people have applauded."

But the paper also notes that nearly 600 deaths were reported as a result of the evacuation process itself, mostly due to fatigue and exposure among the elderly and chronically ill. According to the model, the evacuation prevented at most 245 radiation-related deaths – meaning the evacuation process may have cost more lives than it saved.

Still, the researchers cautioned against drawing conclusions about evacuation policy.

"You still have an obligation to evacuate people according to the worst-case scenario," said Jacobson.

If it happened here

To test the effects of varying weather patterns and geography on the reach of a nuclear incident, the two researchers also analyzed a hypothetical scenario: an identical meltdown at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, near San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Despite California's population density being about one-fourth that of Japan's, the researchers found the magnitude of the projected health effects to be about 25 percent larger.

The model showed that rather than being whisked toward the ocean, as with Fukushima, a larger percentage of the Diablo Canyon radioactivity deposited over land, including population centers such as San Diego and Los Angeles.

Jacobson stressed, however, that none of the calculations expressed the full scope of a nuclear disaster.

"There's a lot more to the issue than what we examined, which were the cancer-related ," he said. "Fukushima was just such a large disaster in terms of soil and water contamination, displacement of lives, confidence in government oversight, cost and anguish."

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More information: 'Worldwide Health Effects of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident,' Energy and Environmental Science, at Mark Z. Jacobson's Fukushima research page: www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/fukushima.html

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User comments : 4

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CapitalismPrevails
5 / 5 (2) Jul 17, 2012
If the reactor was a LFTR, the ice plug in the drainage pipe would have melted because the electric power to keep the ice cool would be gone. Then the fuel would drain into a secondary cooling tanks for safe keeping. Problem solved.
ShotmanMaslo
5 / 5 (1) Jul 17, 2012
"But the paper also notes that nearly 600 deaths were reported as a result of the evacuation process itself, mostly due to fatigue and exposure among the elderly and chronically ill. According to the model, the evacuation prevented at most 245 radiation-related deaths meaning the evacuation process may have cost more lives than it saved."

Interesting. It clearly does not make sense to evacuate people when it would cause more deaths than the danger (not even talking about the economic damage of unnecessary evacuations). If thats the case, then recommended evacuation radiuses in case of radiation accidents should be revised and decreased. The danger of doing nothing should be weighted against the dangers of large scale evacuation, and only where its greater should the evacuation be recommended.
EWH
5 / 5 (1) Jul 17, 2012
The health effects are likely even more uncertain than the study suggests. The concentration of radioisotopes in edible fish and other food could lead to more severe effects, while low doses of some types of radioactivity will statistically prevent some cancers due to hormesis.

Also lacking is any basis for comparison of risks - how does this compare to the particulates, chemicals and radiation released every year by the coal-fired power plants of China? How about the post-tsunami fires in chemical plants, warehouses, refineries and so forth?
DaveMart
5 / 5 (3) Jul 18, 2012
The difference in the two sets of figures shown are that the evacuation deaths are solid, the supposedly 'calculations' of deaths from low levels of radiation are in fact a wild speculation, based on the Linear No Threshold hypothesis, which to date has almost zero empirical evidence.
It states that if taking 100 aspirins is fatal, taking one a day for a hundred days will just as surely kill you.
Of course the idea is nonsense, and on the contrary there is substantial evidence that what actually occurs is hormesis, which means that low doses of radiation over a period of time activate the immune system, as radiation is of course perfectly natural and has been part of the environment for as long as the earth has existed.

Hysterical over-reaction, including dozens of deaths from heat prostration and thousands of hospitalisations because perfectly good reactors in no danger from tsunami have been switched off is the real cause of verifiable casualties.

Greenpeace kills.

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