Health impacts of nuke-plant accidents go far beyond radiation, research finds

REUTERS/Issei Kato
Kimiko Koyama, 69, inside her house with portraits of her deceased parents in the background, after she returned to her home in Tamura, Fukushima prefecture, on April 1, 2014.

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.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Alan Muller on 08/14/2015 - 11:35 am.

    There is lots more…..

    Good article.

    The Lancet article refers to “437 nuclear power plants….” I think this means that many commercial power reactors. In many cases there are more than one reactor at a site. For example, is Prairie Island, with two reactors, one “nuclear power plant” or two?

    There is no real consensus on the amount of death and disease caused by nuclear accidents. For instance, the official death toll at Chernobyl maybe be 28 or 41 or something like that. and that may reflect immediate or short-term fatalities. But credible estimates of the total death toll, mostly from cancers, range in the tens of thousands. See this, for example:

    Health effects of radiation releases in the normal operations of power reactors are denied by the industry, but some studies are finding positive correlations between living near a reactor and health problems. Some discussion of that there:

    And, of course, to be honest we need to consider the health impacts of uranium mining, fuel preparation and reprocessing, and so on. The more one looks, the nastier the overall picture becomes.

    The point about the health effects of burning coal is valid, but fortunately, with the development of cleaner alternatives to both coal and nuclear, there is no more reason for people to be whipsawed between two horrible alternatives.

  2. Submitted by Alan Muller on 08/15/2015 - 08:35 am.

    “Judge Gives OK to Uranium Mine at Grand Canyon”

    Just one example of the broader impacts of nuclear power:

  3. Submitted by Jim Million on 08/15/2015 - 07:12 pm.

    With respect to other major evacuations?

    So, you choose nuclear incidents to pick on nuclear energy, or why else? That’s OK in isolation, I guess, but as “environment, energy and science subjects as [your] major concentration,” should you not honestly also give us some category examples of other significant crises, for example, hurricane or flood evacuations?

    It seems likely many of these noted health effects are shared by all such dislocation trauma. Perhaps people are better adjusted to natural catastrophe, perhaps not. Perhaps people have been propagandized with respect to nuclear power plants. You should produce a few comparisons to prove what appears to be your thesis: nuclear trauma is significantly more traumatizing.

    Wouldn’t survivors of a Boulder Dam rupture be similarly endangered by traumatic stress and other health issues? What of the newly emergent Plague in the West?

    Fukushima fell victim to a predictable natural disaster, having been built in a known flood zone, as it were. Even given that, the cooling system backups likely would have held had they not been subject to incompetent generator location, and consequent flooding. I hate to believe you are picking on nuclear trauma simply because it sells.

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