By Matthew Penney and Mark Selden:
On April 12, 2011 the Japanese government officially announced that the severity of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster had reached level 7, the highest on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Before Fukushima, the only level 7 case was the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, whose 25th anniversary was marked on April 26. Two and a half months after the 3.11 catastrophe, the first to affect multiple reactors, TEPCO and the Japanese government continue to struggle to bring the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi under control. TEPCO estimates that the problems could be solved in six to nine months now appearing extraordinarily optimistic and plans have been announced to close nuclear power plants deemed of particularly high risk such as the Hamaoka facility.
Following the upgrade to level 7, Japan’s Prime Minister’s Office released a statement comparing Fukushima and Chernobyl. (Source)
The Japanese government argues that apart from children who contracted thyroid cancer from drinking contaminated milk, there have been no health effects among ordinary citizens as a result of Chernobyl radiation. Is this really the case? Given the Japanese government’s precautions against thyroid cancer in children, is there reason to believe that the Fukushima accident will take no lives except those exposed to the highest dangers in the plant clean-up? (Source)
On April 15, Kyodo, Japan’s major news service, ran an English language piece by Russian scientist Alexey V. Yablokov (source). Yablokov’s stern warnings about the threat of even low levels of radiation had been ignored by the major media but was reported in Japanese in the Nishi Nippon Shimbun. (Source)
The English only Kyodo piece, however, ties Yablokov’s extensive Chernobyl research with the unfolding Fukushima crisis. Under the headline “How to minimize consequences of the Fukushima catastrophe,” Yablokov observed that
Based on the Chernobyl experience, he made the following recommendations:
Yablokov is one of the primary architects of the 2006 Greenpeace report “The Chernobyl Catastrophe: Consequences on Human Health” and an extensive 2010 follow-up study Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment published by the New York Academy of Sciences, which makes the startling claim that 985,000 deaths can be attributed to the 1986 disaster.
This claim is startling because it differs so dramatically from a 600 page 2005 study by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the WHO, and the UN Development Programme, which claimed that fewer than 50 deaths can be attributed directly to Chernobyl and fewer than 4000 likely from Chernobyl-related cancers in the future. Indeed, the two works continue to frame much of the public controversy, with little progress toward resolution. Attempts to assess the consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster remain the subject of fierce debate over widely different estimates in both the scientific and policy communities. In the months since the Fukushima disaster, scores of reports have uncritically passed on the results of the IAEA/WHO or the Yablokov study published by the New York Academy of Sciences without seriously engaging the conflicting conclusions or moving the debate forward. Here we present the major findings of major studies across the divide that may help to clarify the likely outcomes of the Fukushima disaster. (1, 2)
Yablokov and colleagues assessed thousands of studies of the localities and people affected by the Chernobyl disaster in Russian and other Eastern European languages. They argue that these studies have been ignored by the Anglophone scientific community.
Critics, such as the British science journalist George Monbiot, have criticized Yablokov and his colleagues for attributing any increase in cancer occurrence in regions affected by Chernobyl to the radiation released in the disaster. Emphasizing the multiplicity of factors that may affect cancer rates, Monbiot states, for example, that none of the hardest hit areas subjected to Chernobyl radiation,show as dramatic a cancer increase in the 1986-2000 period as does Japan. The impact of Chernobyl radiation in Japan was negligible, yet the cancer rate there has nearly doubled since the disaster. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, at a time when many have moved to reject the nuclear power option, Monbiot announced that he had abandoned his former criticism to embrace nuclear power as a responsible component of a green energy policy.
Japanese government statistics in fact show large increases in screening rates for cancer during this period and this is one possible explanation for the increase in the number of cases reported. (1, 2, 3, 4)
Monty Charles of the School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Birmingham, reviewed Yablokov’s work in the journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry (Volume 141, Issue 1, 2010, pp. 101-104) and found the statistical conclusions far from clear and even contradictory:
If his work has been subject to trenchant critiques, Yablokov has offered a few of his own concerning the WHO/IAEA study discussed above. Yablokov’s work forms a major part of a document, “Health Effects of Chernobyl: 25 Years after the Reactor Catastrophe”, released by the German Affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War on the occasion of an international conference on Chernobyl held in Berlin between April 8 – 10, 2011. (Source)
The report contains a devastating critique of the low WHO and IAEA Chernobyl death toll estimates:
The report continues:
Even if Yablokov’s estimates for Chernobyl deaths are high, the WHO and IAEA numbers are almost certainly too low.
One area of continuing debate is the fate of the “liquidators” at Chernobyl. A major difference between Fukushima and Chernobyl is government handling of the aftermath. While the Japanese government can be criticized for the speed of evacuation and the limited evacuation radius, the seriousness of the issues was immediately recognized and efforts made to send people away from the stricken plant. In the case of Chernobyl, even as the state suppressed information about the catastrophe, between 600,000 and 1,000,000 people termed “liquidators” were sent to the most heavily irradiated zone to work to contain the effects of the meltdown, many with limited protection and unaware of the risks.
Some research, such as the article “Thyroid Cancer among ‘Liquidators’ of the Chernobyl Accident” published in the British Journal of Radiology (70, 1997, pp. 937-941), suggests relatively limited health effects (fewer than 50 cases of thyroid cancer in a group of over 150,000 liquidators followed in the study). (Source)
The article “Chernobyl Liquidators – The People and the Doses”, published by the International Radiation Protection Association, likewise concludes that across the majority of the liquidator group, “The health consequences from these radiation doses are too small to be identifiable in any epidemiological study, which does not target specific sub-groups with potentially higher exposure.” (Source)
Support groups for liquidators, however, claim that 25,000 have died and over 70,000 are disabled. (Source)
The issue cannot be limited to fatalities. The German Affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War “Health Effects of Chernobyl” report presents extensive evidence of widespread crippling disability among liquidators. As in the case of the Chernobyl death toll, the plight of liquidators is a hotly contested topic with radically different figures emerging from different quarters.
Some commentators have presented data that suggests a way out of the deadlock over the health and death consequences of Chernobyl. Peter Karamoskos, a Nuclear Radiologist and public representative on the Radiation Health Committee of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency argues in “Do we know the Chernobyl death toll?” that despite uncertainties about the numbers, “The weight of scientific opinion holds that there is no threshold below which ionising radiation poses no risk and that the risk is proportional to the dose: the “linear no-threshold” (LNT) model.”
Drawing on the 2006 report of the Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation (BEIR) of the US National Academy of Sciences. Karamoskos points out: “The … view that low-level radiation is harmless, is restricted to a small number of scientists whose voice is greatly amplified by the nuclear industry (in much the same way as corporate greenhouse polluters amplify the voices of climate science sceptics).”
Karamaskos then turns to Fukushima, observing that
Yablokov’s Chernobyl research and the dire prediction of as many as 400,000 radiation-related cancers in the Fukushima region if wider evacuation is not considered, deserves consideration, scrutiny, and debate as the Japanese government deals with radiation releases from Fukushima Daiichi. The same is true of alternative methodologies, particularly as the “linear no-threshold model” described by Peter Karamoskos. Despite recent efforts to evacuate people from high radiation areas outside of the 20 km evacuation zone, however, Japanese newspapers reported on April 20 that at the same time, the Japanese government had increased the permissible hourly radiation dose at schools in Fukushima Prefecture to 3.8 microsieverts. The Mainichi describes this as “a level that would see students absorb the internationally recognized maximum of 20 millisieverts per year.” See “Save the Children: Radiation Exposure of Fukushima Students,” link.
What are the risks of such doses? Thomas L. Slovis of the Society for Pediatric Radiology writes in Pediatr Radiol (2002:32:225-227)
Uncertainty about the long-term health effects of even low levels of radiation was further highlighted by David J. Brenner in the April 5 issue of Nature. (Source)
In recent weeks, the issue of radiation and the 300,000 children of Fukushima has moved to the center of debate in assessing Japanese government handling of the Fukushima meltdown, even as the seriousness of radiation issues has grown with the belated disclosure by TEPCO of the multiple disasters experienced at the outset, and still far from under control, in Fukushima Daiichi.
On April 28, Kosako Toshiso, a radiation specialist at Tokyo University, resigned his position as Special Advisor to the Cabinet. Kosako had earlier gained notoriety for his role in helping to deny the extension of benefits to some radiation victims of the atomic bombs in a 2003 court case. After Fukushima, however, Kosako made an impassioned and courageous stand against what he saw as a government taking the potential health effects of long-term radiation exposure too lightly. In a press conference, Kosako castigated the Kan cabinet for its decision to increase permissible radiation exposure for Fukushima children:
(Translation by Tanaka Izumi) Complete translation available here.
On April 29, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War appealed to the Japanese government to recognize the risk that students of Fukushima would be exposed to, citing widely accepted scientific principles for radiation effects:
Text available online.
On May 12, the Japan Medical Association, in the wake of the Kosako resignation, criticized government indifference to the exposure of Fukushima children to radiation. (Source)
The Mainichi also reports protests from various corners.
Indeed, coverage has spread to corners of the mass media hardly known for political critique. Journalist Hirokawa Ryuichi, known for his coverage of the plight of Palestinian children, Unit 731, and Chernobyl, takes on the 20mSv issue in the May 26 issue of Josei Seven (Women’s Seven), a weekly known mostly for paparazzi-style star stalking, but now including more political criticism as mothers nationwide consider the implications of the government’s 20mSv for children decision. (Source)
Hirokawa argues that while the Soviet government may have been irresponsible in its initial approach to the Chernobyl radiation release, it undertook a massive effort to evacuate children from Kiev, 120 kilometers away from the crisis zone, between May and September 1986. Fukushima City is just over 50 kilometers away from Fukushima Daiichi. At the currently approved 20mSv, Hirokawa points out, Japanese children could be exposed to four times the radiation of children in Ukraine in 1986. He writes, “… an hourly rate of 3.8 microsieverts is a number not all that different from readings at the dead ruins of Pripyat. I don’t want to imagine Japanese children running and playing in this ruined shell of a city.” Pripyat, built originally to house Chernobyl workers, is the abandoned city at the heart of Ukraine’s “Zone of Alienation”.
While comparisons between Chernobyl and Fukushima abound, there are many who point to the contrasts. In the latest issue of the Journal of Radiological Protection, radiation, Professor Richard Wakeford of the University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute points out flaws in the International Nuclear Event Scale, “Since Level 7 is the highest rating on INES there can be no distinction between the Fukushima and Chernobyl accidents, leading many to proclaim the Fukushima accident as ‘another Chernobyl’, which it is not….” He asserts that as of early April, Fukushima had released but one tenth of the amount of radiation expelled in the Chernobyl disaster and praises Japan’s official response,
We have, likewise, noted important differences in the handling of the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Yet it is important to note that Wakeford’s praise ignores the most important revelations of TEPCO’s and the Japanese governments cover-ups and recklessness, as in its decisions to expose Fukushima children to 20 mSv of radiation on a long-term basis.
As the nature of the Fukushima crisis relative to Chernobyl continues to be contested, the important issue of radiation exposure of Fukushima school children remains at the center of public debate. To date, the Japanese government has failed to respond effectively to critics of policies that pose long-term risks to the nation’s children.
Matthew Penney is an Assistant Professor at Concordia University in Montreal and a Japan Focus associate. He is currently conducting research on popular representations of war in Japan. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Mark Selden is a coordinator of the Asia-Pacific Journal and Senior Research Associate in the East Asia Program at Cornell University. His recent books include Chinese Society: Change, Conflict and Resistance; China, East Asia and the Global Economy: Regional and historical perspectives, The Resurgence of East Asia: 500, 150 and 50 Year Perspectives, and War and State Terrorism: The United States, Japan, and the Asia-Pacific in the Long Twentieth Century. His homepage is www.markselden.info.
Recommended citation: Matthew Penney and Mark Selden, What Price the Fukushima Meltdown? Comparing Chernobyl and Fukushima, The Asia-Pacific Journal Vol 9, Issue 21 No 3, May 23, 2011.