March 11, 2011: The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, sometimes called the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. And the resulting mess at The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Fukushima nuclear disaster: did the evacuation raise the death toll?
People are scared to death of radiation, so it isn’t surprising that governments make boneheaded decisions about what to do in the aftermath of something like this. But the truth is that radiation from Fukushima Daiichi didn’t kill anyone. The fear, and the regulations imposed – in particular the evacuation – killed a lot of people. Mostly elderly people.
But first lets deal with what didn’t happen.
The result that did not materialise was sickness from radiation. “At present, there are no cases of cancer relating to radiation, and that includes workers at the plant,” says Dr Tanigawa. Among 173 workers exposed to radiation above occupational safety limits, there may eventually be a handful of incidents of cancer, he says. But the maximum dose to Fukushima residents was below those levels. “Statistically speaking, there should be no detectable increase in cancer in the general public.”
That hasn’t stopped the fear-mongers from doing what they do.
Say it again. NO DEATHS from radiation. And yet people keep trying to compare this incident to Chernobyl. Which is comparing jumping off a chair (no big deal) with jumping off a cliff (a very big deal). They both involve jumping, right.
But this paragraph caught my attention. One evacuee and his family were listening to rumors.
“My children were saying: ‘We don’t want to die from radiation. Let’s go to Tokyo. Let’s go to Tokyo.’”
So the family moved to the Japanese capital, 200km away, which is where their troubles really began.
Now the Japanese government and The Tokyo Electric Power Company did an incredibly bad job of providing information after the tsunami. But rumors and children’s fears shouldn’t be the basis for how you live your life. But those childhood fears – multiplied across the region – basically became government policy. Incredibly stupid government policy.
2,202 died as a result of the evacuation. This is from stress, lack of medical care, and suicide. Of those 1,984 were people over the age of 65.
The question is rather whether people should have been kept away for weeks, not years. “With hindsight, we can say the evacuation was a mistake,” says Philip Thomas, a professor of risk management at the University of Bristol and leader of a recent research project on nuclear accidents. “We would have recommended that nobody be evacuated.”
The excess radiation that would have accrued to people living in the MOST affected villages was a dose that was allowed in the industry as little as 30 years ago. You could have educated those people and given them a choice of what to do. (Free choice? Individual liberty and individual responsibility? We can’t have that!)
This all goes back to a general ignorance about radiation and risk. And the persistence of the Linear No-Threshold Theory of radiation exposure. Which wasn’t even state-of-the-art in 1946 when it was proposed.
See also Fukushima’s Refugees Are Victims Of Irrational Fear, Not Radiation
For some radiation info, consider The Banana Equivalent Dose, or Your Food is (always has been) Radioactive and xkcd’s great Radiation Chart, which points out a few things. Like people who mostly sleep next to another person get a higher yearly radiation exposure than people who mostly sleep alone.