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.

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  • 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.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    Chernobyl is unique, using graphite as moderator. Three mile's is old gen reactor. Modern pressurized reactor is designed to be able to shut down by itself in case of blackout like the one happened to Fukushima's. Then with nuclear arms race becoming obsolete now, there's no reason to stick to current 3rd gen reactors. I'm all for renewables but putting all eggs in that basket is reckless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    If research can make the wind blow on demand or the sun shine at night then maybe it would be worthwhile.

    There are fundamental problems with most of the renewables that make them uneconomic no matter how clever the tech gets.

    Personally I'm all for solar energy plants, but in orbit where they work 24/7, and are horrendously expensive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    @167 ..'Modern nuclear plant is much safer than..' - Muramasa

    That's what they said after Chernobyl..and Three Mile Island..and Windscale..it doesn't change the fact that its actually human error that is the problem..commercially viable fusion would be interesting.. thorium isn't.

    Strange how research is impossibly complex for renewables but will solve any problem for potential nuclear tech, eh?

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    The lack of investment means Fusion will be a very long time coming, which obviously suits the oil companies and their lobbyists

    Fission could supply all of our needs for thousands of years at least, so no great rush
    But yet again funding will slow this down as well, which again suits the oil companies and their lobbyists

    No doubt the politicians will be happy. As will the oil companies

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    162. John Campbell

    Exactly what point are you trying to get across???

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    Again another nuclear debate with very little but heat and fire. I'm not even very pro nuclear. I think fusion is a far better solution, and the more I look at it the more certain I am that with enough investement (eg $1 trillion) we could bring the introduction of the first working plants down to 10 - 15 years. Ultimately the main tech needed is very large scale high prescision steel fabrication.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    Renewable wont take off unless efficiency is much more improved and groundbreaking electric storage method (esp that dont require rare-earths) is invented. In reality future energy will be hybrid of many sources. Japan shud overcome its kneejerk nuke-phobia. Modern nuclear plant is much safer than fukushima's, and there's other potential methods like thorium cycle and traveling wave reactor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.


    Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

    I don't know where to begin...

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.


    We already have a broad range of power supply technologies and as I pointed out earlier Nuclear is only approx 16%
    The reason its 16% is the Private sector nuclear industry wants you, the tax payer to pick up the gargantuan cost of waste storage and decommissioning (not to mention cleaning up any disasters).. successive governments have correctly decided that's a really bad business deal..

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    156.Entropic man

    "...The pregnant women bit always struck me as one conspiracy theory too far..."


    So much so, apparently, that President Clinton set up mechanisms for the survivors' grievances to be heard, and to allow them redress.

    The US was not alone. The UK deliberately contaminated drinking water with strontium 90 in Staffordshire Moorlands around the same time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    The Scientist has never been born that can fail to prove something.
    Ditto,,The Scientist has never been born that can fail to disprove something.
    Suspect people who study science have the same level of intelligence as their fellow humans.
    Some of them get lucky.
    The rest of them,just like us have to work for a living.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.


    So wave, wind, Tidal, solar and biogas will be used to generate our energy needs, along with many flooded valleys to make up for the intermittent supply. And obviously masses of new pylons to shift that intermittent power about.
    It all comes up short of the required GW's though

    My point is nuclear works & is certainly massively cheaper than that profusion of intermittent generation

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.


    I would need to research the citations as you say EM, I posted the link since it appeared to confirm there might be some evidence

    Interestingly the MOD appeared rather slack on the whole health and safety issue for military personnel, during our own nuke testing program.. which allowed for a medical 'check-up' program afterwards..Cynical?..Moi?

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.


    My post at 117 says absolutely nothing about providing the UK with all its power 24/7 and 365 from Wind, Photovoltaic and Tidal etc.. it specifically refers to 'optimising' that tech for efficiency, it makes absolutely no claims beyond that, except in your imagination
    I will repeat (for the second time) as far as I am concerned the most interesting Renewable tech is Biogas (Not Biofuel)


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