The Fukushima disaster of 2011 was a defining moment for nuclear power. The mega-thrust earthquake and tsunami that damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex pummeled the price of uranium, turned uranium bulls into bears, and caused a major rethink of the safety of nuclear power for the first time since the Chernobyl incident 25 years earlier.
Four years on, the site is a cleanup project of massive proportions, with an astounding 12,000 people a day working on the decontamination efforts, according to Japan's Environment Ministry.
Decommissioning the plant is expected to cost tens of billions of dollars and last up to 40 years. The biggest challenge for TEPCO, the embattled owner of the debilitated nuclear reactors, has been dealing with the huge volume of water that is contaminated with radioactive materials and needs to be either treated or stored.
Around a thousand storage tanks have been placed around the complex, and last summer, TEPCO constructed an “ice wall” by flowing frozen liquid into the soil to freeze it and thus prevent the movement of groundwater through the plant. Still, that wasn't enough to keep up, and in January the Nuclear Regulatory Authority approved TEPCO's request to pump out the water, treat it and dump it into the Pacific Ocean.
Fukushima was certainly bad, but how bad was it? According to some media reports, Fukushima children have abnormal thyroid growths from radiation exposure, people living around the reactors will die from cancer, the food supply is contaminated and radioactive material continues to leak into the ocean, headed for the U.S. West Coast. Eventually, when it gets into local fisheries, we are all destined for a slow, painful death, if the media hyperbole is to be believed.
Official reports, however, tell a different story. In 2013 the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) published a statement saying that “Radiation exposure following the nuclear accident at Fukushima-Daiichi did not cause any immediate health effects. It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public and the vast majority of workers.” Related: OPEC Says US Oil Boom Will End This Year
The committee based its conclusions on work by over 80 scientists who analyzed the levels and effects of radiation exposure following the events of March 11, 2011 in Japan. “On the whole, the exposure of the Japanese population was low, or very low, leading to correspondingly low risks of health effects later in life,” the statement continues, adding that immediately evacuating the area resulted in 10 times less risk to the population. The committee noted there were no radiation-related deaths among nearly 25,000 workers, including TEPCO employees and contractors, involved at the accident site.
The Radiation Effects Association said recently that while decontamination workers cleaning up the hot zone around the Fukushima No. 1 power plant received as much as 13.9 millisieverts of radiation from 2011 to 2013, the average cumulative dose among the 26,382 workers tasked with decontaminating Fukushima prefecture was 0.6 millisieverts, well within government-mandated levels.
People living 20 to 50 kilometers from the plant received a radiation dose of between 0.89 and 2.51 millisieverts from their food, soil and air in 2012, one year after the accident, according to research reported in Japan Times – similar to the 2.09 millisieverts per year that Japanese people are exposed to from natural sources. Related: What Japan’s Nuclear Restart Could Mean For LNG Prices
As for evidence of higher childhood cancer, as the Breakthrough Institute points out, thyroid cancer rates of Fukushima children are actually lower than those in other regions of Japan.
In an investigate piece run four years after the Fukushima disaster, the Breakthrough Institute also reported finding seafood safe to eat, and the Fukushima evacuation zone mostly inhabitable: “The Japanese government’s safety limit for radioactive cesium in fish is 100 becquerels per kilogram (Bq/kg), an amount that’s roughly equal to the natural radioactivity of potassium and carbon isotopes present in all food. The Fukushima fishery easily meets that standard,” reporter Will Boisvert wrote.
Boisvert also used data from UNSCEAR to conclude that even if residents lived their whole lives in the evacuation zone, the cumulative effects of the radiation even in the worst-affected areas, would amount to around the lifetime radiation exposure of the average American.
But how about all the radioactive water that continues, albeit treated, to pour into the Pacific Ocean from the cleanup site? Have the oceans become radioactive? Related: Post-Fukushima Japan Turns To Wind As Solution For Energy Crisis
Evidence of radiation from Fukushima was indeed detected recently for the first time on the North American shoreline. While the samples taken off the west coast of Vancouver Island did contain trace amounts of Celsium-134 and Celsium 137 – two radioactive isotopes – they were at extremely low levels.
“For example, swimming in the Vancouver Island water every day for a year would provide a dose of radiation less than a thousand times smaller than a single dental X-ray,” Japan Times relayed from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution which conducted the research.
The last word goes to the World Health Organization:
“Outside the geographical areas most affected by radiation, even in locations within Fukushima prefecture, the predicted risks remain low and no observable increases in cancer above natural variation in baseline rates are anticipated,” the WHO concluded in a 2013 report assessing the health risks from the disaster.
By Andrew Topf of Oilprice.com
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