Evacuating a nuclear disaster areas is often a waste of time and money, says study

Over 110,000 people were moved from their homes following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011. Another 50,000 left of their own will, and 85,000 had still not returned four-and-a-half years later.

While this might seem like an obvious way of keeping safe, my colleagues and I have just completed research that shows this kind of mass evacuation is unnecessary, and can even do more harm than good. We calculated that the Fukushima evacuation extended the population's average by less than three months.

To do this, we had to estimate how such a nuclear meltdown could affect the average remaining life expectancy of a population from the date of the event. The radiation would cause some people to get cancer and so die younger than they otherwise would have (other health effects are very unlikely because the radiation exposure is so limited). This brings down the of the whole group.

But the average radiation cancer victim will still live into their 60s or 70s. The loss of life expectancy from a radiation cancer will always be less than from an immediately fatal accident such as a train or car crash. These victims have their lives cut short by an average of 40 years, double the 20 years that the average sufferer of cancer caused by radiation exposure. So if you could choose your way of dying from the two, radiation exposure and cancer would on average leave you with a much longer lifespan.

How do you know if evacuation is worthwhile?

To work out how much a specific nuclear accident will affect life expectancy, we can use something called the CLEARE (Change of life expectancy from averting a radiation exposure) Programme. This tells us how much a specific dose of radiation will shorten your remaining lifespan by on average.

Yet knowing how a will affect average life expectancy isn't enough to work out whether it is worth evacuating people. You also need to measure it against the costs of the evacuation. To do this, we have developed a method known as the judgement or J-value. This can effectively tell us how much quality of life people are willing to sacrifice to increase their remaining life expectancy, and at what point they are no longer willing to pay.

You can work out the J-value for a specific country using a measure of the average amount of money people in that country have (GDP per head) and a measure of how averse to risk they are, based on data about their work-life balance. When you put this data through the J-value model, you can effectively find the maximum amount people will on average be willing to pay for longer life expectancy.

After applying the J-value to the Fukushima scenario, we found that the amount of life expectancy preserved by moving people away was too low to justify it. If no one had been evacuated, the local population's average life expectancy would have fallen by less than three months. The J-value data tells us that three months isn't enough of a gain for people to be willing to sacrifice the quality of life lost through paying their share of the cost of an evacuation, which can run into billions of dollars (although the bill would actually be settled by the power company or government).

The three month average loss suggests the number of people who will actually die from radiation-induced cancer is very small. Compare it to the average of 20 years lost when you look at all radiation cancer sufferers. In another comparison, the average inhabitant of London loses 4.5 months of life expectancy because of the city's air pollution. Yet no one has suggested evacuating that city.

We also used the J-value to examine the decisions made after the world's worst nuclear accident, which occurred 25 years before Fukushima at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. In that case, 116,000 people were moved out in 1986, never to return, and a further 220,000 followed in 1990.

By calculating the J-value using data on people in Ukraine and Belarus in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we can work out the minimum amount of life expectancy people would have been willing to evacuate for. In this instance, people should only have been moved if their lifetime radiation exposure would have reduced their life expectancy by nine months or more.

This applied to just 31,000 people. If we took a more cautious approach and said that if one in 20 of a town's inhabitants lost this much life expectancy, then the whole settlement should be moved, it would still only mean the evacuation of 72,500 people. The 220,000 people in the second relocation lost at most three months' life expectancy and so none of them should have been moved. In total, only between 10% and 20% of the number relocated needed to move away.

To support our research, colleagues at the University of Manchester analysed hundreds of possible large nuclear reactor accidents across the world. They found relocation was not a sensible policy in any of the expected case scenarios they examined.

More harm than good

Some might argue that people have the right to be evacuated if their life expectancy is threatened at all. But overspending on extremely expensive can actually harm the people it is supposed to help. For example, the World Heath Organisation has documented the psychological damage done to the Chernobyl evacuees, including their conviction that they are doomed to die young.

From their perspective, this belief is entirely logical. Nuclear refugees can't be expected to understand exactly how radiation works, but they know when huge amounts of money are being spent. These payments can come to be seen as compensation, suggesting the must have left them in an awful state of health. Their governments have never lavished such amounts of money on them before, so they believe their situation must be dire.

But the reality is that, in most cases, the risk from if they stay in their homes is minimal. It is important that the precedents of Chernobyl and Fukushima do not establish mass relocation as the prime policy choice in the future, because this will benefit nobody.


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Nov 21, 2017
It is important that the precedents of Chernobyl and Fukushima do not establish mass relocation as the prime policy choice in the future


It is already established, as forced relocation is used for propaganda against nuclear power in a circular argument. The opposition is lamenting how bad a nuclear accident is based on how many people were relocated, and use that to argue future risk assesments.

Basically, "A nuclear accident is always a holocaust because we act like it is, therfore we cannot build nuclear power."

The actual choice to evacuate is based on arbitrary guesswork that relies on outdated models of radiation health effects, and this new study is unlikely to shift opinions on those because the choice to believe the old models are correct is a political one.

Nov 21, 2017
[sarcasm]
Great...Let's just not care about environmental disasters anymore. Why even bother telling people about it if no one is going to do anything?

Give the industry carte blanche to pollute at their will
[/sarcasm]

Even if the evacuation might cost more lives it has side effects: viz. People notice that someone is playing with their lives. If we forgo evacuations then industrialists will never change anything (because there'd be no pressure to hold anyone responsible)

On a different note: Governments are required to safeguard their citizens. Not just on a statistical but on an individual level.

How about asking people whether they feel that an evacuation is worth their while instead of a statistical shortening of their lifespan by a hypothetical accident? See how that goes down.

Nov 21, 2017
What am I missing here? I can leave the area of the nuclear accident and reduce my personal chances of dying by rotting slowly to death from a cancer caused by radiation to 0, if I am given fair warning.

Or, I can listen to these muppets, stay behind and have a statistically shortened life which equates to an increased chance of personally dying by rotting to death slowly from a cancer caused by radiation for no f***** good reason whatsoever and that I could have avoided entirely.

Might I suggest moving your families next door to the reactor, I'm sure your statistics will be a great comfort. I sometimes wonder if humanity deserves to survive, certainly common sense is becoming an increasingly rare commodity.

Nov 21, 2017
434a . . . your chance of reducing your radiation induced cancer risk to zero is . . . zero. Your best bet though, is to not move to a higher altitude location (or ever fly anywhere), or a place where there is granite in the ground, or into a brick house or one with a with a basement, or anywhere downwind of a coal powerplant. Also avoid breathing air, and don't eat bananas (or really, anything containing carbon). Oh, and no x-rays, CAT scans or MRI's.
And I'm serious about the coal plant. Those stacks are a steady source of trace uranium, along with mercury, cadmium and lead. Also basements. Get yours checked (if you have one) for radon.

Nov 21, 2017
434a . . . your chance of reducing your radiation induced cancer risk to zero is.


Then, please, take up the challenge, move yourself and your family to a little pad in Fukushima. I'm certain there's plenty going spare or with owners only too happy to sell.

Nov 21, 2017
In addition to what antialias and 434a said, the analysis is bad because it equates money with quality of life (just like eikka and mr166 and others do).

Quality of life is how one feels about life as it is being lived. If I have to sit in a puddle of anxiety all day because I or my kids are being exposed to radiation or other poisons, that affects my quality of life. No amount of money can ever make up for that.

If your child lost one month of life because of this sort of thing, would you look at your bank account and say, hey, I saved some money?

skystare, you only give arguments for closing all coal-fired plants immediately and making the owners pay for clean-up, not for avoiding nuclear accident sites.

Nov 21, 2017
Or, I can listen to these muppets, stay behind and have a statistically shortened life which equates to an increased chance of personally dying

Or governemnets could just find ways to reduce accidents to (near) zero...like using autonomous transport?

Nov 21, 2017
The rationale behind this argument is depraved. It seems not to understand the full impact of these events and dismisses offhand the degradation to life quality implicit in being exposed to serious radioactive contamination. It's scary to think there are people trying to pass off this slight-of-hand morality with a straight face. I don't want to live in their world, that's for sure.

Nov 22, 2017
Quality of life is how one feels about life as it is being lived. If I have to sit in a puddle of anxiety all day because I or my kids are being exposed to radiation or other poisons, that affects my quality of life. No amount of money can ever make up for that.


Yes it can: enough money for you to move out of there.

That's the point. It's asking whether people do feel so anxious that they would pay the price of the evacuation. You see, the price of the evacuation is also anxiety and misery over lost property, lost jobs, difficulty in adjusting to a new life elsewhere - which can be higher than the cost of staying put - so the question is about whether forced evacuations is a solution worse than the problem.

Great...Let's just not care about environmental disasters anymore.


That's childish. The argument of the article was to apply measures which are proportional to the disaster instead of over-reacting hysterically and causing more damage.

Nov 22, 2017
The rationale behind this argument is depraved. It seems not to understand the full impact of these events and dismisses offhand the degradation to life quality implicit in being exposed to serious radioactive contamination.


One major point of the article is that the full impact and degradiation to quality of life doesn't come solely from the accident itself, but by people telling porkies about how bad the accident really is, convincing the victims of their terrible fate, treating them like lepers etc. etc.

In other words, half the reason why they're having such a bad time is because other people keep making them believe so, becuse they have a political agenda of making nuclear power look as bad as possible.

It's scary to think there are people trying to pass off this slight-of-hand morality with a straight face. I don't want to live in their world, that's for sure.


If you want to argue about morality, first be truthful yourself.

Nov 22, 2017
the full impact and degradiation to quality of life doesn't come solely from the accident itself, but by people telling porkies about how bad the accident really is, convincing the victims of their terrible fate, treating them like lepers etc. etc.

In other words, half the reason why they're having such a bad time is because other people keep making them believe so, becuse they have a political agenda of making nuclear power look as bad as possible.

If you want to argue about morality, first be truthful yourself.


What magical thinking is this? If someone is speaking untruth, than deal with the untruth by exposing them to the light of day, knowledge, reason, and good. Denials of existential truth are a deplorable degradation of human dignity and equality.

This isn't about politics, this is about objective reality. We're not living in a post-facts reality, friend. Waving your hands around in some attempt at a Jedi Mind Trick won't work. We were not born yesterday.

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