Japan is still dealing with the costs, and the uncertainties, following the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has commented ‘whether it be decontamination, managing people’s health, ensuring food safety and peace of mind, the reopening of schools and hospitals, or other matters, the responses to the issues facing Fukushima’s disaster areas are still only midway to completion’.
It certainly had a major social impact, in part as a consequence of the poor handling of the accident. Breakdowns in communication caused extra confusion and contributed to the distress of residents evacuated from their homes, according to a survey by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission for the Japanese Diet. Over 10,000 responded to it, some very bitterly.
A total of 146,520 residents were evacuated as a result of the government’s evacuation Orders, although others self evacuated. However, the Commission’s report notes, many residents in the plant’s vicinity evacuated without accurate information. ‘Unaware of the severity of the accident, they planned to be away only for a few days and evacuated with only the barest necessities. Evacuation orders were repeatedly revised as the evacuation zones expanded from the original 3-kilometer radius to 10 kilometers and later, 20 kilometers, all in one day. Each time the evacuation zone expanded, the residents were required to relocate. Some evacuees were unaware that they had been relocated to sites with high levels of radiation. Hospitals and nursing homes in the 20-kilometer zone struggled to secure evacuation transportation and find accommodations; 60 patients died in March from complications related to the evacuation.’ http://naiic.go.jp/en/
The survey found that delays in passing on information meant that awareness of the accident was initially very low amongst residents. Some residents did not realise they were being evacuated from their homes because of a nuclear accident and might not be able to return for a long time. Many reported fleeing in just the clothes they had on, without taking time to gather valuables, medical records or even to lock their homes, with some thinking they were being evacuated because of the risk of a further tsunami. Due to the confusion, some then ended up having to move several (4-6) times. This was particularly hard for older people, especially those with medical conditions, some of whom succumbed.
In its report on the ‘Lessons of Fukushima’, Greenpeace painted an even more tragic picture. It said that some hospitals in Fukushima Prefecture ‘had to suspend services because hundreds of doctors and nurses in the area resigned to avoid radiation. Patients from one hospital and a nearby home for the elderly were sent to shelters: 45 of 440 patients died after staff fled. In another incident, more than 90 elderly people were left without caregivers’. It reported that, according to a survey by an association of Fukushima Prefecture hospitals conducted in late July, 125 full-time doctors had resigned from 24 hospitals in the prefecture, or 12% of all doctors working at those institutions. Tragically, it also reported delays in administering iodine tablets. www.greenpeace.org/international/en/publications/ Campaign-reports/Nuclear-reports/Lessons-from-Fukushima/
The Fukushima disaster clearly left may people distrustful. Many respondents referred to TV reports that there were no immediate health risks. So now evacuees didn’t trust the media or assurances that they could return home. Residents said they had often been assured of the safety of nuclear power, and thought that an accident could never occur. Now they knew better, so it is hardly surprising that opposition is so high in Japan.
Events since the accident may not have done much to regain their trust, with the complex and long drawn our compensation process raising further hackles. Moreover there is the ever present worry about the potential impacts of radiation exposure
In May this year TEPCO almost quadrupled its initial estimates of total Iodine-131 releases from Fukushima - from 130 Peta Bq to 511PBq. Iodine-131’s half-life is 8 days, so it is so not worrying as the releases of Caesium 137, which has a 30 year half life. TEPCOs estimates for releases of Caesium 137 were raised from 6.1 to 13.6 PBq .
An interim UN-World Health Organisation study said that in the most affected areas of Fukushima prefecture, thyroid doses from iodine-131 were estimated as between 10 and 100 mSv apart from one area which was lower, at 1 to 10 mSv, and one that was higher for infants at 100-200 mSv. In the rest of Fukushima, adults received 1 to 10 mSv to their thyroids while children and infants received 10 to 100 mSv, the study estimated. For comparison, it said young people in the vicinity of the Chernobyl accident received on average doses of 300 to 1400 mSv to their thyroids. www.world-nuclear-news.org/RSWHOonFukushimadoses_2405121.html
So what might be the impact of this exposure? In a paper on the Energy & Environmental Science web site (17/7/12), meteorologist John Ten Hoeve and environmental engineer Mark Jacobson, both at Stanford University in California have calculated that, based on estimates of the radioactive nuclides released at Fukuhima, a three-dimensional global atmospheric model for radioactive fallout patterns and the linear no-threshold (LNT) model for resultant cancers, there would be between 15 and 1100 linked cancer deaths, with their best estimate being 130 deaths. In addition, there would be 24 to 1800 non-lethal cancers, with 180 being their best estimate, almost all, in both cases, being in Japan. This was on top of the 600 or so deaths that had, they claim, resulted from the stress and dislocation of the mass evacuation programme, mostly amongst the elderly and infirm.
Given that and uncertainties about the location/exposure of evacuees and also the reliability of the LNT model at low doses, they say that upper bound mortalities and morbidities could be increased to 1300 and 2500, respectively. They add that ‘radiation exposure to workers at the plant is projected to result in 2 to 12 morbidities’. http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2012/07/is-nuclear-power-good-for-you.html?ref=em and http://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2012/ee/c2ee22019a
Recriminations and proper compensation aside, the focus now must be on ensuring that this never happens again, which for many people implies that we must move away from nuclear power. That certainly is the overwhelming feeling in Japan, and it hasn’t reduced since the accident. In June and July, there were mass protests, of up to 170,000 people, when the Japanese government decided to restart two nuclear plants - so far all the rest remain shut down. Up to 45,000 people are turning up to weekly vigils outside the Prime Minster’s official residence calling for a rethink. As I reported in my last blog, there are good prospects for alterative approaches, and a new national energy plan is due out soon. http://environmentalresearchweb.org/blog/2012/07/greening-japans-energy.html
Earlier this year I completed a book on the impact and implications of Fukushima, stressing the alternative energy options available in Japan and elsewhere, which will be out in the autumn as part of Palgrave Macmillan’s new Pivot e-book initiative.
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