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Five lessons from Fukushima

Alarmist talk of a nuclear crisis in Japan reveals just how fearful modern society has become.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

Topics Science & Tech

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The world’s media has spent the past four days obsessing about one thing. No, not the deaths of thousands of people in Japan after the terrible combination of an earthquake and tsunami, with whole towns simply wiped out. Instead, the focus has been on what might happen at a Japanese nuclear power plant where no one has died, so far, and where the likelihood of serious harm seems remote.

Here are five lessons we really should learn from Fukushima:

1. Fukushima is not Chernobyl

The world’s worst nuclear accident, which occurred in April 1986 in the former Soviet Union (in what is now northern Ukraine) was utterly different from what is happening at the moment in Japan. The only connection is that Chernobyl and Fukushima are nuclear power plants. In Chernobyl, a safety test on an operating reactor went horribly wrong, leading to an explosion that exposed the reactor core. A fire burned for several days, lifting tons of radioactive material high into the air to spread over Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, with significant quantities carried over most of the rest of Europe.

In Fukushima, the reactors were all successfully switched off when the earthquake struck on Friday. However, the nuclear fuel will remain hot for a few days yet and must be cooled. The plant operators have suffered a series of problems with these cooling systems which has led them to release small amounts of radioactive steam into the atmosphere. One consequence of this has been a series of explosions of hydrogen gas that have blown the roofs off the buildings that enclose the reactor containment vessels. But these explosions have not been ‘nuclear’ in any way and the reactors themselves seem to be almost entirely intact.

As a result, radioactive emissions to date from Fukushima have been small and little different from doses we would normally ignore, like that from an x-ray. For example, comparison has been made between the radiation from Fukushima and that from eating bananas. (For the record, radioactivity readings at the plant have been around the one to two bananas per day level, went up to 30 bananas per day for a while, and then fell back down again.)

2. Chernobyl the reality doesn’t match Chernobyl the myth

The mere mention of the name ‘Chernobyl’ conjures up images of an irradiated wasteland in which nothing survives and tens of thousands of people died. In fact, the other reactors at the plant reopened just seven months later and thousands of people worked there safely for another 14 years (and some still do). The area around the plant is something of a nature sanctuary now.

The accident can only definitively be blamed for the deaths of just over 50 people. Experts have since tried to estimate the number of additional deaths in the surrounding regions and amongst the workers who were at the plant in the weeks and months after the accident. While the total looks large – 9,000 cancer deaths is the official estimate from 2006 – this is produced by multiplying a tiny additional risk per person over millions of people and over decades.

In truth, even this is a guess because the effect of the accident was so small that it made no impact on the health statistics except for one rare but usually treatable disease, thyroid cancer. The fact that the only serious accident that anti-nuclear campaigners can point to happened 25 years ago in a primitively designed reactor, incompetently run, in a highly secretive and dysfunctional state demonstrates that nuclear is far less dangerous than is widely believed – as does the fact that the fairly elderly reactors at Fukushima survived a massive earthquake and tsunami largely intact.

3. Fear is a bigger danger than radiation

The obsession with radiation can have numerous negative consequences. In the 2006 report on the Chernobyl accident, the most worrying outcome of the accident, for the researchers, was the powerful sense of gloom and helplessness it created in many of those affected, particularly those that were evacuated from areas where they had jobs, homes and social connections, never to return.

‘Psychological distress arising from the accident and its aftermath has had a profound impact on individual and community behaviour’, noted the report’s authors. ‘Populations in the affected areas exhibit strongly negative attitudes in self-assessments of health and well-being and a strong sense of lack of control over their own lives. Associated with these perceptions is an exaggerated sense of the dangers to health of exposure to radiation. The affected populations exhibit a widespread belief that exposed people are in some way condemned to shorter life expectancy. Such fatalism is also linked to a loss of initiative to solve the problems of sustaining an income and to dependency on assistance from the state.’

4. Media reporting has been schizophrenic

The response to events in Japan shows that newspapers and broadcasters take science more seriously than during past panics over such things as ‘mad cow’ disease and genetically modified crops (aka, ‘frankenfoods’). But while some of the reporting has managed to be well-informed, much of it has been downright alarmist. Headlines are littered with claims about ‘fallout’, ‘meltdown’ and ‘rising radiation levels’, sitting alongside reports of ‘thousands dead’. But the fallout is minute. A reactor meltdown just means a bigger mess to clean up afterwards. As the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the US showed, a meltdown may have little consequence for the wider environment. The deaths were caused by the earthquake and tsunami, not the nuclear leaks.

Yet read further on in many of these articles and you will find experts repeatedly saying that what is happening at Fukushima is not a big problem, is unlikely to cause any deaths, and the levels of radioactivity emitted so far are almost certainly harmless. On television, when experts have endeavoured to reassure viewers, interviewers have often responded in a ‘does not compute’ manner to the idea that there is nothing to fear. Some of the mainstream media coverage has been very informative. However, the mere fact that events at Fukushima have dominated the headlines leaves readers and viewers with the sense that something terrible is happening, when it is not. Indeed, much of the media seems to be hanging around in the hope that something really bad will happen.

5. Fear is being driven from the top of society

Overstating the dangers of radiation, either directly or by implication from over-precautionary government policies, could have practical consequences on the ground in Japan right now, further disrupting the already battered economy. Yet that’s exactly what ministers seem to be doing. For example the Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, has urged people to stay calm. Yet the authorities are also demanding that 140,000 people in the area around the Fukushima plant stay in doors, close the windows and leave their possibly irradiated laundry out on the line. This sends a mixed message that can only heighten anxieties.

The well-organised and calmly implemented response to the wider problems created by the earthquake and tsunami has been a credit to the Japanese people. But the government, like many current governments around the world, seems incapable of holding the line in its assessment of the risk from Fukushima, which in turn threatens to undermine the calm response of the population to date. Emperor Akihito even made a rare broadcast to the nation in which he said he was ‘deeply worried’ about events at the plant.

Nor is it just Japanese politicians who have stoked up fears. Günther Oettinger, Europe’s energy commissioner, said yesterday: ‘There is talk of an apocalypse and I think the word is particularly well chosen. Practically everything is out of control. I cannot exclude the worst in the hours and days to come.’ The German government shut down seven reactors while it reconsiders future nuclear strategy while the UK government has ordered a safety review. How an earthquake and tsunami in a seismic hotspot like Japan requires such a precautionary response in Europe, which very rarely suffers such problems, is anyone’s guess.

Of course, many different interest groups have piled in to declare that Fukushima represents ‘the end of nuclear’ in order to promote their own pet causes around renewable energy or even exploiting gas. The German government’s moratorium is as much about party politicking as real safety concerns.

The response to Fukushima illustrates very well some powerful trends in recent years. On the one hand, we have a society made up of individuals who have been told again and again that they are vulnerable and incapable. We have political leaders groping around for a sense of purpose who latch on to the fear of disaster as a means to justify their own existence. And we have a strong sense that humanity is the biggest threat to itself and the planet, so the obsession about possible manmade disaster far outweighs the reality of natural disaster.

It’s time to stop obsessing about the fate of one nuclear power station. If we give into the irrational fears that have been promoted in recent days, we could face an even bigger disaster: a loss of faith in humanity itself.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked and blogs about food at Panic on a Plate.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech

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