I’ll admit I braced for an Onion-style parody when I saw this headline and first sentence last week in the Inquisitr:
Nuclear Power – Study Says Fear of Energy Source Is Much Worse Than Any Possible Radiation Effects.
In a series of studies on nuclear power published in The Lancet, researchers have discovered that the fear of a nuclear reactor or power plant malfunctioning or overheating causes many, many more health problems than the actual, physical effects of an actual malfunction or meltdown.
But no. The studies are real and they appear in one of the world’s top medical journals. The findings might seem at a glance to support the notion that making electricity from fission is comparatively benign from a public health perspective, but the researchers came to rather an opposite conclusion:
It’s true that relatively few people have been killed or sickened by radiation exposure in nuclear accidents. But the massive evacuations they require and the particularly fearful risks they create have other adverse health consequences – both mental and physical – that appear both severe and long-lasting, and until recently have been essentially unstudied.
Consider Fukushima. Although five workers died of nonradiation causes while struggling to contain the reactor meltdown in March 2011, and many more were injured – including 16 hurt by hydrogen explosions at the reactors as the meltdowns proceeded, “no acute effects of radiation exposure … were reported.”
Emergency workers seem to have been successfully protected from radiation. However, for emergency workers with radiation exposure of more than 100 mSv [an international standard for maximum exposure], a small increase in incidence of cancer attributable to radiation exposure might be expected.
Good news on radiation
Among people living near the power station, radiation measurement was difficult because of the mass evacuation and, it must be remembered, other consequences of the tsunamis that started the reactors on the road to meltdown. However, where readings were taken, the doses in general were quite small.
There remains significant disagreement about the lifetime increase in cancer risk associated with these exposures, but the uncertainty seems to be over whether they will be slight or very slight, which under the circumstances is surely good news.
There is also concern about future exposure via radioactive cesium consumed in vegetables, mushrooms and meats contaminated by the accident, as well seafood from coastal waters that received massive amounts of irradiated water pumped through the cores to cool them. But again, the health consequences are hard to predict.
On the other hand:
- More than 50 hospital patients and nursing-home residents are known to have died of such causes as hypothermia and dehydration after the meltdowns forced their evacuation.
- Mortality among elderly evacuees increased threefold over normal levels in the first three months after the accident and remained high for some time; women accounted for 70 percent of the deaths, and the main cause was pneumonia.
- Adults who were surveyed for psychological distress posted scores indicating “substantial problems” at rates three to five times what’s “normal” in Japan, and this continued for at least two years beyond the meltdowns.
- In contrast to the children living near the Chernobyl plant at the time of its core explosion in 1986, who seemed to show great resilience throughout the mass relocations, the Fukushima region’s children were twice as likely as Japanese children generally to be assessed as facing “substantial risk of clinically significant mental health problems.”
Evacuation’s lasting burden
As for family and social relationships, the study found that the meltdown and its aftermath led to
Displacement, fear of radioactive exposure, compensation, employment, and other personal factors [that] caused rifts among residents and communities …
First, different perceptions of the radiation risk result in discordance among family members. Parents with young children are especially susceptible to conflicts: mothers might prefer to move to other regions for their children’s sake, whereas fathers might be reluctant to do so.
Second, conflicts between families in the community result from disparities in governmental restrictions and compensation. Third, frustrations arise between evacuees and residents of communities to which large numbers of evacuees relocate.
The paper had more to say about the problems of enduring social stigma and “lifestyle-related problems” like negative changes in diet and exercise patterns, but you get the idea: Radiation sickness isn’t the only cause for concern when a reactor heads toward meltdown.
Elsewhere in the same issue of The Lancet you can find discussion of the lasting impact of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, of exposures during weapons testing, and of the four other accidents joining Fukushima in the top tier: Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, of course, but also Kyshtym in the U.S.S.R. and Windscale Piles in the UK, largely forgotten in today’s discussion.
These are the accidents that rate at level 5 or higher on an international severity scale; both Fukushima and Chernobyl posted 7s, Kyshtym a 6, TMI and Windscale Piles scored 5s. (Kyshtym and Windscale Piles were military installations and both accidents occurred in the fall of 1957, when the world was more worried about radiation let loose by war than by mechanical failure.)
440 mishaps in 70 years
Further down the scale, The Lancet notes, “more than 440 major radiation accidents have occurred worldwide” in the last 70 years.
But Fukushima gets most of focus, not only as the most recent but also the one that has been most thoroughly studied. Surprisingly little seems to be known about the public-health impacts of the others, although more people were evacuated at TMI (195,000) and Chernobyl (220,000) than Fukushima’s 170,000.
The TMI evacuations were short-lived, Chernobyl’s were essentially permanent. Nobody really knows how long the suffering of Fukushima’s evacuees will continue. It is not comforting to consider that more than one-third of the world’s present fleet of nuke plants have more people living within a comparable evacuation zone than the Fukushima station.
In a way I suppose it should have always been obvious that the health consequences of a major nuclear accident would reach far beyond radiation exposure, but I really don’t think I’ve ever heard it discussed with real data before.
I’ve heard it specifically ignored, however, when nuclear-power proponents make the case that these accidents have caused far less death and illness than the air pollution produced by burning coal.
That’s a reasonable point, as I’ve acknowledged here before.
But fair is fair: If we’re going to evaluate coal-fired power on the basis of all its public-health impacts, then we need to use the same accounting for nuclear, too.