Stop using Fukushima for scare mongering
Jim Green’s recent Punch piece on Fukushima accuses Barry Brook and I of having an “indifference to human death and suffering”. This is offensive and false.
Green’s attempt to support his accusation by cherry picking sections of the recent World Health Organisation (WHO) report into the radiation induced health impacts at Fukushima displayed considerable ignorance and bias.
Presumably Green considers the cancer risk figures calculated by the 35 authors of the WHO report as credible. Presumably, that’s because he understands that they are seriously expert in such matters. So why didn’t he present their judgement about what the numbers actually mean?
The first sentence of the associated WHO press release summarises their findings, but I prefer a shorter simpler sentence from the Summary and Conclusions in the body of the report (p.92): The present results suggest that the increases in the incidence of human disease attributable to the additional radiation exposure from the Fukushima Daiichi NPP accident are likely to remain below detectable levels.
What? Say that again ... “below detectable levels”?
How can those experts simultaneously calculate the cancer increases cited by Green but then conclude that health impacts should be below detectable levels?
But didn’t they detect levels? No.
The explanation for the apparent contradiction is so obvious to a Ph.D epidemiologist with 20 years experience that they don’t generally understand the need to explain. They should of course, and the WHO experts certainly tried, but I doubt many people will read their 172 page report, so here’s the short form.
Imagine you drop a rock in a nice flat pond. If your physics is good, you can calculate the maximum height of the ripple as it expands across the water. That’s what the WHO experts have done. They have calculated a possible size for the cancer ripple from the radiation rock in a perfectly still pond.
Now drop the same rock in the ocean. You can still run the calculation. No worries. But can you detect the ripple’s arrival standing on the beach watching the pounding waves caused by all the other much bigger causes of cancer?
Only if the rock it absolutely huge. The WHO expert conclusion, after page upon page of equations based on a sea of measurements, is that the rock is tiny and shouldn’t create a detectable ripple.
What’s a detectable cancer increase?
Let’s consider some “rocks” which, in contrast, do give detectable cancer increases. Things that you’ll see be able to detect among the breakers on the beach. By which I don’t necessarily mean you or me will see them, but epidemiologists with stacks of data will see them.
Smoking is easy. Introduce smoking into a population and the impact is a visible wave of cancer and other problems. The Fukushima rock is way smaller than that. Lung cancer increases due to air pollution in Japan are detectable, so the Fukushima rock is smaller than that also. Believe it or not, wood smoke is deadly.
The deaths and disease from wood smoke generated from cooking indoors with wood or cattle dung are detectable in countries where this happens. This is a 3.5 million death a year problem in places without enough electricity. So the Fukushima rock is way smaller than that.
I could produce a very, very long list of things far more dangerous than the radiation from this triple meltdown, but let’s just consider one last example from Japan. The Fukushima cancer rock is much smaller than the 500 percent rise in bowel cancers which occured in Japan over recent decades after they added red and processed meat to their diet. That’s a detectable increase of about 80,000 bowel cancers every single year. Now, that’s one mother of a rock! You need to train an extra army of oncologists and surgeons and build hospitals to deal with that rock.
Acts of TEPCO Vs God
The earthquake and tsunami may be metaphorically considered as acts of God, but their impacts were not.
TEPCO certainly screwed up. Had their sea-wall been high enough, then nobody would have heard of Fukushima outside Japan. But the Japanese coastline where the tsunami hit is lined with many such seawalls, all designed to stop a tsunami of some chosen size. Every single breached seawall represents an engineering screw-up.
Or perhaps engineers recommended one height and those setting budgets decided that money was better spent elsewhere so a compromise smaller wall was agreed. I’m quite sure there has been some serious rethinking of sea wall heights in Japan over the past couple of years.
Those other screw-ups cost 20,000 lives. Where is Jim Green’s outrage at those screw-ups? Is he indifferent to those deaths and injuries? The TEPCO seawall screw-up toll stands steady at 3 from the tsunami and quake with the radiation toll still at zero and holding.
On the credit side of the ledger are the many hundreds of worker lives saved by the nuclear reactors. They were still the safest place on the coast that day despite the sea wall screw-up. Had the workers been working behind any of the other sea-wall screw-ups, they’d be dead.
But to allocate the full responsibility for the suffering of the evacuees at Fukushima, we need to compare it with yet another screw-up.
The other explosion
Consider the Chiba refinery fire and compare it to Fukushima. Never heard of the Chiba fire?
The same quake and tsunami which crippled the Fukushima reactors caused a massive explosive fireball at the Chiba oil refinery. It was a far more spectacular explosion than those at Fukushima, but it made our TV screens once on the evening it happened and then vanished.
The heroism of the firefighters who battled for almost a fortnight to extinguish the blaze went unnoticed. The fire blanketed a vast but unmapped area with carcinogens and otherwise toxic compounds which will send a ripple of future disease and deaths through a huge area.
How big a ripple? Maybe some epidemiologist somewhere will start collecting data and crunching numbers, or maybe not. I’m pretty sure there will be, or have already been, investigations into this fire and design modifications to prevent future screw-ups. Nobody wants refinery fires.
But the event wasn’t covered by the media circus. There was no large scale evacuation. There are not 150,000 people sitting around wondering about their cancer future. There isn’t an army of people soaking up much needed resources scouring the region for carcinogenic dust from those plumes.
Without the past 50 years of anti-nuclear fear mongering, the Fukushima response could have been much more like the Chiba response and everybody would have been back rebuilding their lives long ago. Apart from the sea-wall screw-ups, the people most responsible for the ongoing suffering of Fukushima are Jim Green and his fellow fear mongerers.
The big picture
You could have Fukushima style meltdowns on an annual basis and still not come remotely close to matching the devastation of a single climate induced food shortage or cyclone. Cyclone Nargis killed 140,000 people in 2008 and the Pakistan floods of 2010 displaced 20 million and killed several thousand people and tens of thousands of animals.
These are the scale of event that drives my support for nuclear power. Nuclear has a solid track record as a low carbon very safe energy source and nothing else comes close.
To allow an event which will most likely cause no detectable increase in disease to dominate energy policy and place the planet in dire risk of further deterioration of the climate shows a profound indifference to the desperate suffering of vastly many more people than have been affected by the Fukushima screw-up.
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