Monday, March 14, 2011

No need to panic over nuclear meltdowns in Japan

The air is understandably thick with fear, as the on-going crises surrounding the damage sustained by Japanese nuclear power plants resulting from the recent monster earthquake unfolds. The prospect of a catastrophic reactor meltdown and the possible release, as a result, of radioactive material into the atmosphere was described in an early news report as a disaster that could possibly affect a large swath of the Asia-Pacific region. Images of the plight of survivors of nuclear disasters such as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster tend to come up whenever the word "radiation" is heard or read.

The Chernobyl disaster reportedly resulted in 237 people suffering from acute radiation sickness of which 31 died. These were mostly people who formed part of fire and rescue teams and therefore experienced close direct exposure to lethal doses of radiation. Because of this disaster being so recent there is still no reliable statistics on the incidence of cancer related to the general population affected by the fallout coming from this accident.

However, the survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 66 years ago have been extensively studied. The study revealed that out of an estimated 100,000 survivors of those atomic explosions [known as hibakusha among the Japanese], an estimated 500 died prematurely from cancer directly related to radiation exposure. This translates to a 0.5 percent probability of developing cancer as a result of exposure to radiation. However, in absolute numbers, that statistic is still significant. It puts 4,000 people out of the 800,000 estimated to have been exposed to radiation coming from the Chernobyl disaster as being likely to die from cancer in the coming years.

To put these figures in perspective, consider that 8,000 Americans are killed by skin cancer caused by excessive exposure to the sun's radiation every year. Particulates and other derivative pollutants coming from fossil fuel combustion could also be signficant contributors to hundreds of thousands of deaths every year.

These figures related to the risks of radiation exposure deaths in the event of a catastrophe in Japan though moderately comforting do not take into account effects of radiation on women who happen to be pregnant at the time of exposure...
We also know that many of the children of hibakusha women pregnant at the time they were exposed suffered horrible birth defects. Studies of the atomic bomb survivors have also taught us, however, that there is apparently no generational genetic impact from radiation exposure. Kids born to parents who got pregnant after the exposure, were normal.

Indeed, in the bigger scheme of planetary life, the fact that wildlife is now observed to be thriving in the immediate areas around Chernobyl (which were made off limits to humans since the accident) is a testament to the reality that direct human presence represents a far bigger hazard to nature than nuclear reactor meltdowns.


  1. I think the IAEA settled on a figure of 56 deaths directly attributable to Chernobyl, and acknowledged there were a variety of radiation-induced impacts on the environment and people in Eastern Europe, but that these were hard to quantify and were in any case likely not nearly as serious as most estimates.

    The thing that is conveniently forgotten by most doomsayers about nuclear power as it relates to Chernobyl is that it was a very poor design that would absolutely never be approved in any western country, that safety and control procedures were lax and poorly-enforced, and that at the time of the accident they were experimenting with the reactor in a way that even their own engineers knew was risky. So when people say, "Oh, we can't have nuclear because we might have (or at the moment, 'Japan might have') another Chernobyl," no, that's not possible.

  2. Indeed. It's also most likely that how much (or how little) of a factor radiation exposure was to a large set of people subject to evaluation of its effects can never be reliably established. Too many variables and too much uncertainty.

    In any case, in the industrialised world specifically, a need to go nuclear -- or for that matter, a need to scrounge around for energy sources, each form with their accompanying risks to health and security -- comes down to a society's lifestyle choice. The huge appetite for energy brought about by the demands of the "standards of living" of affluent societies is, in the bigger scheme of things, a choice to live with the risks of sourcing, transporting, generating, and distributing large amounts of energy whether it is petroleum- or nuclear- based.

  3. last night on CNBC - Suze Ormond was making a pitch - that Americans shouldn't just live within their means - rather, they should live below their means.