Fukushima's disease risk: A major fallout?

Children playing in waves Nakoso beach, 65km south of Fukushima Daiichi, opened for holidaymaking this week

What claims to be (and indeed appears to be) the first formal attempt to calculate numbers of cancer cases and deaths resulting from the Fukushima nuclear accident has just been published.

The Energy and Environmental Science journal paper calculates that total deaths will lie in the range 15-1,300, while cases will number 24-2,500.

These are deaths among the public, not among workers at the plant.

The calculations were done by Prof Mark Jacobson and Dr John Ten Hoeve from Stanford University in California.

One point they raise in the paper is that while these ranges may be big, even the minima are numbers above zero.

This contradicts statements made since March 2010 that the world's worst nuclear accident after Chernobyl would be likely not to produce a single radiation-linked fatality among the public.

(They also predict a small number of cancers - between two and 12 - among workers at Fukushima Daiichi.)

And the academics say the death and case numbers are lower than they might have been because of luck.

Only one-fifth of the radioactive material vented into the air from the stricken power station fell on land; more fallout on land would have meant a higher casualty list.

As intuition would suggest, the vast majority of the cancer cases would arise in Japan itself.

The estimate hasn't yet made any major headlines around the world; and in part, that's presumably because of the uncertainty ranges.

This kind of exercise is fiendishly difficult to do precisely.

The results depend heavily on what you put into your models, and two kinds of model are needed here - one of how radioactive material dispersed, the second relating exposure to that radioactive material with the subsequent risk of disease.

Anti-nuclear protest in Tokyo Protests against nuclear power continue in Japan, though one reactor has re-opened

Possibly the biggest uncertainty in all this concerns whether there's any added risk of cancer from exposure to low doses of radioactivity.

Theories that are in circulation encompass the idea that there is a risk but it decreases linearly with declining exposure; that there's no extra risk; and that low doses of radioactivity are actually beneficial, a notion known as hormesis.

The Stanford academics used the first of those ideas - what's called a Linear No-Threshold (LNT) model.

One question I raised with Prof Jacobson was whether, using their methodology, you could say what the rates would have been if there were a threshold - if low doses had no effect.

Currently that's not possible, he said, though the figures probably could be derived, given time.

Perhaps the study's most important point materialises when you hold the numbers up to the light of context.

The paper mentions that evacuating people from the power station's environs resulted in as many as 600 deaths - principally the elderly and seriously ill, for whom evacuation was too arduous.

But more context is given by cancer statistics.

The figures given in Prof Jacobson's paper are for lifetime risk - that is, the number of people who will die of cancer at some point.

If you try to make the effect as strong as you can, by assuming that all those deaths will occur in a 10-year period - which is almost certainly too tight - and take the highest end of the range, Fukushima would add 130 deaths per year.

By contrast, more than 350,000 Japanese die of cancer each year, according to the Japan Cancer Society. The disease will cause the death of about one-third of the population.

Fukushima fallout, then, would be adding less than 0.1% to the total cancer mortality. If the real numbers are at the low end of the Stanford range, it'll add less than 0.001%

The nuclear accident has proven a very big deal for Japan and for nuclear power around the world.

Several reasons for that are all too real. Does the added cancer risk amount to another one, from these numbers, or not?

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

Read full article


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 178.


    Hmm.. seems to me all nuclear power plants are 100% safe and reliable according to the nuclear power industry.. right up until the point they go wrong
    '..he joined the Central Electricity Generating Board and became
    press officer for four nuclear power stations. He'd write a book about his experiences if he thought anyone would believe it.'
    - excerpt from Sir Terry Pratchett's flyleaf bio

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    170 englishvote - It's not just oil companies that dislike fusion:

    There's not a "facepalm" image big enough to express the amount of fail in that article. If you ever need an example of how backwards, ill-informed & willing to lie Greenpeace are, then use that article; every point can be countered by a high school pupil

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    #172 englishvote
    I'm all for solar energy plants, but in orbit where they work 24/7,"

    You may yet get your wish. If planetary Resources can deliver one nickel-iron and one chondritic NEO to Earth or Luna orbit we'd have enough material for a fleet of orbiting solar arrays.
    Of course, the NIMBYs won't let you site the microwave revceiving antennae anywhere near SE England.

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    #171.Lamna nasus
    Modern plant design IS much safer. Fukushimas design was from the 60's and had intrinsic weaknesses. Modern designs are designed to passively cool if the power is cut. The EPR is even designed to cope safely in a full meltdown.
    Other future designs like gas core reactors sidstep the issue competely because they can be shut down in seconds - and you can't melt a gas. :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.


    Detail the problems with Biogas, given that no-one is going to face up to the expanding population issue.


Comments 5 of 178



Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.