(September 21, 2012) The Fukushima calamity claimed almost 16,000 lives, with another 3,500 missing and feared lost. This toll from one of the worst natural disasters of all time was then followed by a tragedy of another kind.
If a terrorist in New York or London exploded a dirty bomb, if a nuclear reactor near Toronto or Chicago suffered a meltdown, would we know how to deal with the danger of radioactive fallout? Evidence from the evacuation that followed the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in Japan last year says no.
The calamity claimed almost 16,000 lives, with another 3,500 missing and feared lost. This toll from one of the worst natural disasters of all time was then followed by a tragedy of another kind — the evacuation of 90,000 people in a broad swatch around nuclear reactors that were leaking radioactivity. According to Japanese government authorities, “disaster-related deaths” among the nuclear evacuees number more than 700, a number that continues to rise. Most of those deaths were needless, a man-made disaster born of human ignorance and incompetence.
These people died in a chaotic scramble to escape presumably deadly radiation. One example involved some 340 mostly elderly patients evacuated by bus from a hospital facility near the nuclear plant. During almost 12 hours on the bus, eight died. During the following three weeks in an evacuation centre, another 32 patients died, some from the lack of medical care, some from physical and psychological fatigue — afflictions scarring many of the 90,000 surviving evacuees. Based on studies of other traumas involving relocations, the number of Fukushima evacuees who will die from the consequences of severe stress could number in the thousands.
According to many nuclear experts, most of those 90,000 should never have been evacuated — radiation levels not only didn’t approach what are known as lethal doses, making them immediate threats, the radiation also didn’t approach levels that should ring alarm bells. A calculation by Richard Wilson, professor of physics emeritus at Harvard University, in Evacuation Criteria After A Nuclear Accident: A Personal Perspective, soon to be published by the International Dose-Response Society, finds that releases of Fukushima radioactivity last year that were presented as scary were anything but.
Based on actual measurements, a hypothetical resident who received a constant dose of radiation for a full year from the crippled nuclear reactor in one contaminated area — the Ibaraki prefecture — would absorb a dose of 876 mrems. “What does this mean?” Prof. Wilson asks in his study. “Many actions can give anyone a dose of 876 mrems,” he answers, including a CAT scan. An astronaut is allowed to absorb 100 times as much radiation as this hypothetical person would have received. Yet the Japanese authorities decided to evacuate 90,000 people, placing them in harm’s way when they were relatively safe, or entirely safe.
The authorities’ behaviour, Prof. Wilson believes, stems from an irrational phobia that the public has of radiation, coupled with politicians’ dread of the wrath of voters. “There is no politician who would not prefer a dead body to a frightened voter,” he writes, quoting a former head of the U.K.’s Health and Safety Executive. As a result, a politically correct standard has long been in place worldwide that requires exposure levels to radiation to be kept “as low as reasonably achievable.” This feel-good standard is technical in nature — it asks nuclear operators and government regulators to lower exposure whenever they’re able to, regardless of whether doing so can be demonstrated to save lives. By blind obeisance to this standard, the nuclear industry has set ever-tighter standards for itself that limit to ridiculously small levels the radiation the public can receive. In the case of Fukushima, this standard led to the decision to evacuate an immense number of people instead of the few who might have been in true peril.
Prof. Wilson suggests that a truly precautionary approach, one which would save lives, would see the allowable emissions increase by a factor of four in case of emergency. Others, such as Dr. Jerry Cuttler, a Canadian nuclear expert who is also about to release a study on the Fukushima disaster, would like to see it increase by a factor of 50, and to see the standard of “as low as reasonably achievable” replaced with “as high as reasonably safe” in the case of evacuations. These changes would greatly reduce the number of evacuees and thus the complexity of any evacuation that might be needed in future. The American Nuclear Society in its June annual meeting likewise supported a dramatic increase in permitted emissions in light of the perverse effects of today’s standards on public health.
This society, and these scientists, are going further, too. They are giving credibility to radiation hormesis, a fast growing body of science supported by an overwhelming number of studies that find low levels of radiation — unlike high levels, which are dangerous — to prolong life and health. Studies show, for example, that nuclear workers, or people who live in naturally radioactive regions of North America, log many fewer cancers and other diseases than those who work and live in low-radiation environments. Prof. Wilson calls such lives saved “negative” deaths.
Radiation hormesis, if accepted by the public and adopted by emergency-preparedness authorities, would not only reduce the size of evacuation areas, it would also be a wet blanket for terrorists. Their perennial goal of taking out a nuclear reactor would lose its appeal, as would detonating a dirty bomb — the radiation lacing the bomb could act to save lives down the road, making it less deadly than a conventional bomb and costing terrorists one of their preferred instruments of mayhem.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe.
This article was first published by the National Post.