Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

With the second anniversary of the Fukushima disaster approaching, nuclear propagandists around the world are peddling the following dishonest arguments:

  • the nuclear accident was caused by a natural disaster and no-one is to blame;
  • the accident has not caused and will not cause any radiation-related deaths;
  • low-level radiation exposure is harmless;
  • the accident has caused a great deal of psychological suffering but that should be blamed on nuclear critics spreading 'radiophobia'; and
  • lessons will be learned from the accident and nuclear power will be even safer than it already is.

Let's take each of those arguments in turn.

An Act of God?
Spin: "It was therefore a sequence of extraordinary forces unleashed by an unprecedented natural disaster which caused the accident at the reactors, not any operating failure, human error or design fault of the reactors themselves." − Uranium junior Toro Energy, 2011, www.wnd.com/markets/news/read/18642038/toro_energy_limited_

The 3/11 earthquake and tsunami were Acts of God but the nuclear disaster was an Act of TEPCO. The July 2012 report of Japan's Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission concluded that the accident was "a profoundly man-made disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented" if not for "a multitude of errors and wilful negligence that left the Fukushima plant unprepared for the events of March 11" (NAIIC, 2012).

No radiation deaths?
Spin: "There have been no harmful effects from radiation on local people, nor any doses approaching harmful levels." − World Nuclear Association, January 2013, www.world-nuclear.org/info/fukushima_accident_inf129.html

Long-term studies are unlikely to demonstrate statistically-significant increases in cancer incidence because of the high incidence of cancers in the general population. Nevertheless, some preliminary scientific estimates of the long-term cancer death toll are available, based on information about radiation releases and exposures, and applying a risk estimate derived from the Linear No-Threshold (LNT) model.

These estimates include a "very preliminary order-of-magnitude guesstimate" of "around 1000" fatal cancers (von Hippel, 2011), and a Stanford University study that estimates "an additional 130 (15–1100) cancer-related mortalities and 180 (24–1800) cancer-related morbidities incorporating uncertainties associated with the exposure−dose and dose−response models used in the study" (Ten Hoeve and Jacobson, 2012).

Better estimates will emerge in future as more accurate (and updated) information becomes available. No doubt there will be higher estimates of the death toll as attempts are made to quantify the many and varied radiation exposure pathways.


The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) and the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) recommend against using collective radiation dose figures and LNT risk estimates to estimate total deaths because of the uncertainties of that approach (even though UNSCEAR itself uses the same approach to estimate up to 4,000 long-term cancer deaths among people who received the highest radiation doses from Chernobyl). (Chernobyl Forum, 2005)

The problem with the recommendation from UNSCEAR and the ICRP is that there is no other way to arrive at an estimate of the death toll from Fukushima given the limitations of epidemiological studies. By all means we should acknowledge uncertainties associated with the use of a risk estimate derived from the LNT model. As the 2006 report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences states, "combined analyses are compatible with a range of possibilities, from a reduction of risk at low doses to risks twice those upon which current radiation protection recommendations are based." (BEIR VII, 2006)

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences makes the important point that the true risks may be lower or higher than predicted by the LNT model − a point that needs emphasis and constant repetition because nuclear apologists routinely conflate uncertainty with zero risk.

Indirect deaths must also be considered, especially those resulting from the failure of TEPCO and government authorities to develop and implement adequate emergency response procedures. A September 2012 Editorial in Japan Times notes that 1,632 deaths occurred during or after evacuation from the triple-disaster; and 160,000 of the 343,000 evacuees were dislocated specifically because of the nuclear disaster (Japan Times, 2012). A January 2013 article in The Lancet notes that "the fact that 47% of disaster-related deaths were recognised in Fukushima prefecture alone indicates that the earthquake-triggered nuclear crisis at the Fukushima power plant caused extreme hardship for local residents." (Ichiseki, 2013)

Low-level radiation exposure is safe?
Spin: "If the most highly exposed person receives a trivial dose, then everyone's dose will be trivial and we can't expect anyone to get cancer." − US Health Physics Society, www.hps.org/publicinformation/ate/q525.html

The Health Physics Society redefines the problem of low-level radiation exposure as a non-problem involving "trivial" doses which are, by definition, harmless. It would be too kind to describe that as circular logic − it is asinine.

The overwhelming weight of scientific opinion holds that there is no threshold below which ionising radiation is without risk. For example:

  • The 2006 report of the Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation of the US National Academy of Sciences states: "The Committee judges that the balance of evidence from epidemiologic, animal and mechanistic studies tend to favor a simple proportionate relationship at low doses between radiation dose and cancer risk." It states that claims that low-level radiation exposure is beneficial are "unwarranted at this time". (BEIR VII, 2006)
  • A report by UNSCEAR (2011) states that "the current balance of available evidence tends to favour a non-threshold response for the mutational component of radiation-associated cancer induction at low doses and low dose rates."
  • And to give one other example (there are many), a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences states: "Given that it is supported by experimentally grounded, quantifiable, biophysical arguments, a linear extrapolation of cancer risks from intermediate to very low doses currently appears to be the most appropriate methodology." (Brenner et al., 2003)

Spin: 'Radiophobia' spread by nuclear critics is responsible for most of the suffering resulting from the nuclear accident.

The spin is disingenuous but we should acknowledge a thin thread of truth − claims that the Fukushima disaster will lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths have no credibility and must be causing some distress in Japan. However, vastly more suffering can be attributed to Japan's 'nuclear village'. As the Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission report notes, the Fukushima disaster was the result of "collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO" and evacuees "continue to face grave concerns, including the health effects of radiation exposure, displacement, the dissolution of families, disruption of their lives and lifestyles and the contamination of vast areas of the environment." (NAIIC, 2012)

Lessons learned?
Spin: Lessons will be learned from the Fukushima accident and improvements made. Nuclear power − already safe − will be safer still.

If the nuclear industry learned lessons from past mistakes, the Fukushima disaster wouldn't have happened in the first place. Too often, lessons are learned but then forgotten, or learned by some but not by those who really need to know, or learned too late, or learned but not acted upon. The Chernobyl accident certainly led to improvements but complacency set in as memories of the disaster faded, and the same can be expected in the aftermath of Fukushima.

A report by the IAEA and the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency covering events from 2002-2005 states that "corrective measures, which are generally well-known, may not reach all end-users, or are not always rigorously or timely applied" and "operating experience feedback needs to be much improved in the international arena." (IAEA/NEA, 2006)

There is no clearer example of the industry's failure to learn than Japan's nuclear industry. Countless subsequent accidents, incidents and scandals would have been averted had the lessons of the fatal 1999 Tokaimura accident been properly learned and acted upon (and Tokaimura wouldn't have happened if earlier lessons about the need for adequate operator training had been acted upon). In 2002 and again in 2007, details of several hundreds safety breaches and data falsification incidents were revealed, stretching back to the 1980s (FoE, 2012). But nothing changed.

It has become increasingly obvious over the past decade that greater protection against seismic risks was necessary − especially in the aftermath of the July 2007 earthquake that caused radioactive water spills, burst pipes and fires at TEPCO's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. But the nuclear utilities didn't want to spend money on upgrades and they weren't forced to act.

Nuclear apologists have learned the wrong lessons altogether. Dr William Sacks (2011) argues that an important lesson from Fukushima is the need to convince people that low-level radiation exposure is harmless. Rod Adams (2012) states: "The lesson that the world needs to take away from Fukushima is that it is okay to build hundreds or thousands of new nuclear power stations and to place them quite close to the backyards of millions of people."

Tell that to the family and friends of the Fukushima farmer whose suicide note read: "I wish there wasn't a nuclear plant."

Adams, Rod, 2012, 'Least informed piece on Fukushima yet', http://atomicinsights.com/2012/03/least-informed-piece-on-fukushima-yet.html
BEIR VII − US National Academy of Sciences, Committee to Assess Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation, 2006, 'Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation: BEIR VII Phase 2', www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11340
Brenner, David, et al., 2003, 'Cancer risks attributable to low doses of ionizing radiation: Assessing what we really know', Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, November 25, 2003, vol.100, no.24, pp.13761–13766, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14610281
Chernobyl Forum, 2005, 'Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts', www.iaea.org/Publications/Booklets/Chernobyl/chernobyl.pdf
FoE − Friends of the Earth, Australia, 2012, 'Japan's Nuclear Scandals and the Fukushima Disaster', www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/nfc/power/japan
Hirsch, Helmut et al., 2005, "Nuclear Reactor Hazards: Ongoing Dangers of Operating Nuclear Technology in the 21st Century", www.greenpeace.org/international/press/reports/nuclearreactorhazards
Ichiseki, Hajime, 19 January 2013, 'Features of disaster-related deaths after the Great East Japan Earthquake', The Lancet, Vol.381, Issue 9862, www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2813%2960091-4/fulltext
IAEA/NEA, 2006, 'Nuclear Power Plant Operating Experiences from the IAEA/NEA Incident Reporting System 2002−2005', www-ns.iaea.org/downloads/ni/irs/npp-op-ex-02-05.pdf
Japan Times, 19 September 2012, Editorial: 'Slow road to reconstruction', www.japantimes.co.jp/text/ed20120919a1.html
MIT − Massachusetts Institute of Technology Interdisciplinary Study of Nuclear Power, 2003, http://web.mit.edu/nuclearpower/pdf/nuclearpower-full.pdf
NAIIC, 2012, 'The Official Report of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission', http://warp.da.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/3856371/naiic.go.jp/en/
Sacks, William, 2011, 'Lessons About Nuclear Energy from the Japanese Quake and Tsunami', http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/04/07/lessons-nuclear-quake-tsunami/
Ten Hoeve, John E., and Mark Z. Jacobson, 2012, 'Worldwide health effects of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident', Energy and Environmental Science, June, www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/TenHoeveEES12.pdf
UK Royal Society, October 2011, 'Fuel cycle stewardship in a nuclear renaissance', http://royalsociety.org/policy/projects/nuclear-non-proliferation/report
UNSCEAR, 2011, 'Report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Ionising Radiation 2010', www.unscear.org/docs/reports/2010/UNSCEAR_2010_Report_M.pdf
von Hippel, Frank, 2011, 'The radiological and psychological consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi accident', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October, vol.67 no.5, http://bos.sagepub.com/content/67/5/27.abstract

More information on nuclear hazards
Hirsch et al. (see above).
M. V. Ramana, 2011, 'Beyond our imagination: Fukushima and the problem of assessing risk', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, http://thebulletin.org/web-edition/features/beyond-our-imagination-fukushima-and-the-problem-of-assessing-risk
Mycle Schneider et al., 2007, 'Residual Risk: An Account of Events in Nuclear Power Plants Since the Chernobyl Accident in 1986', http://archive.greens-efa.eu/cms/topics/dokbin/181/181995.residual_risk@en.pdf
International Panel on Fissile Materials, 2010, 'The Uncertain Future of Nuclear Energy', Frank von Hippel (ed.), www.fissilematerials.org/blog/rr09.pdf
Antony Froggatt, 2006, 'Potential Environmental Risks of the Next Generation of Nuclear Power Plants', www.no2nuclearpower.org.uk/reports/gp-safety-af.pdf

Source and contact: Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia. jim.green[@]foe.org.au