CNN: Four months after three reactors melted down at the Fukushima plant following a devastating earthquake and tsunami, Hamako Watanabe and her husband lost their home, their jobs and the prospect of restoring their lives. She doused herself in kerosene and set herself on fire after slipping into depression. Her husband, Mikio Watanabe, found her charred body. “We lost everything,” her widower told CNN in 2012. “We were forced to evacuate. We lost our jobs. I lost my wife in such a terrible way. I really lost everything.”
Mikio Watanabe holds a portrait of his late wife Hamako at his home at Yamakiya district
At 14.46 Japan standard time on Friday March 11th, 2011 a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred off the east coast of Japan. The tsunami that struck the coast shortly after, which is reported to have reached heights of up to 40.5 metres in Miyako in Tōhoku’s Iwate Prefecture, killed over 15,000 people. It also caused an accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant that has so far resulted in six fatalities during cleanup operations, although none from radiation. (Note: I refer to Fukushima as an “accident” to avoid quibbles over whether it involved complete or partial meltdowns of Units 1, 2 and 3.)
Tsunami impacts Fukushima sea wall (The caption reads “4 to 5 m flooding height in the pacific side areas of the reactor buildings and machine houses”. Image credit Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.)
But the evacuation that followed the accident killed far more:
On March 12, the day after the powerful earthquake and tsunami, Japanese authorities began evacuating residents nearby the Fukushima nuclear power plant due to the release of radioactive elements into the environment. At least 210,000 people living with a 10-kilometer radius of the plant were told to evacuate the area. On March 15, three days after the quake, people living within a 20-kilometer (12.5-mile) radius of the plant were ordered to evacuate. This meant an additional 180,000 people—on top of the 200,000 already ordered to move—had to relocate, bringing the total of evacuees at that point to 380,000. In Mid April, the evacuation area around Fukushima nuclear power plant was extended to include some areas to the north and northwest of the plant that are beyond the 30-kilometer-radius evacuation zone. By this time it was not even known where a good chunk of the evacuees were. Local government said they didn’t know where 40 percent of the residents around the Fukushima nuclear power plant went …..
As of March 2014 the evacuation had claimed the lives of almost 3,000 people. More people from Fukushima Prefecture had in fact died as a result of the evacuation than were killed there by the earthquake and tsunami. One of them was Hamako Watanabe:
The latest report from Fukushima revealed that more people have died from stress-related illnesses and other maladies after the disaster than from injuries directly linked to the disaster. The report compiled by prefectural authorities and local police found that the deaths of 1,656 people in Fukushima Prefecture fall into the former category. That figure surpasses the 1,607 people who died from disaster-related injuries. Another 434 people have died since 3/11 in Iwate Prefecture and 879 in Miyagi Prefecture.
Fukushima evacuation center (image credit japanfocus)
These deaths were predictable. In 2005, six years before Fukushima, a UN study had found that the “most serious public health issue” arising from the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl was not radiation at all but the adverse effects on the mental health of the public caused by forced relocation:
Poverty, “lifestyle” diseases now rampant in the former Soviet Union, and mental health problems pose a far greater threat to local communities than does radiation exposure. Relocation proved a “deeply traumatic experience” for some 350,000 people moved out of the affected areas. Although 116,000 were moved from the most heavily impacted area immediately after the accident, later relocations did little to reduce radiation exposure. Persistent myths and misperceptions about the threat of radiation have resulted in “paralysing fatalism” among residents of affected areas.
The experts who served on the Great East Japan Earthquake Nuclear Disaster Group that was set up by the Japanese government to study the Fukushima accident reached the same conclusion:
Though scientific evidence suggests that no dramatic health consequences are expected, however the Fukushima accident, as any radiological event, causes significant psychological and social problems.
The potential risks from ionizing radiation, an invisible agent charged with many emotions from its military past and major disasters like Chernobyl are still poorly reflected by the media and the public. Unnecessary emotional stress and suffering may result in those affected or believing to be affected from the fallout from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.
The events at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant that followed the Great Tohoku Earthquake in March 2011 have caused great concern to the Japanese public. In part this has been caused by an inappropriate response by the World’s press and a general lack of understanding of the real risks of radiation exposure to human health. I hope that in writing this article I can help redress this balance and provide you with scientific facts rather than fiction, that can help dispel the fear that radiation from the accident will have a lasting effect on your health.
“Significant psychological and social problems”. “Unnecessary emotional stress and suffering”. “A general lack of understanding of the real risks of radiation exposure”. How much radiation exposure did Fukushima actually cause? The experts are in agreement on this too. Not enough to worry about. Following a detailed study by 80 international experts the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) concluded in May 2013 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.” The Great East Japan Earthquake Group concurred:
Acute health effects which can be caused by exposures to ionizing radiation have not been observed during the first years after the accident. Judging from the world-wide clinical experience with radiation accidents and radiotherapy as well as from experimental data with human tissues, cells as well as with other mammals no acute effects could be expected from the estimated radiation doses. These radiation doses are below the threshold doses for such acute radiation effects.
In summary, the international experts have concluded that this catastrophic accident has providentially resulted in very small radiation doses in general and therefore in no discernible health effects. I should finally add that, the most affected areas are experiencing radiation doses that are smaller than natural radiation doses in many areas of the world which have been inhabited since prehistoric times by healthy people.
Measurements confirm the absence of a serious radiation threat. The graphic below shows the US National Nuclear Safety Administration’s estimate of first-year radiation doses around Fukushima Daiichi. The >2,000 millirem (>20 millisieverts) red-shaded area exceeds the safe limit ultimately established by the Japanese government, but radiation at this level increases cancer risks only marginally and residents of the area would have received the full radiation dose only if they had spent all their time outdoors, which they would be unlikely to do. (There are also places where natural background radiation is far higher. Values of 17,500 millirem, caused by the high thorium content of the beach sands there, have been recorded at Guarapari in Brazil):
That summarizes the basic facts. A tsunami caused a nuclear accident at Fukushima. The accident released radiation that was predicted to have, and which so far has had, no significant health impacts. But the evacuation the accident prompted triggered the deaths of 3,000 people, one of whom was Hamako Watanabe. So who was responsible for these deaths?
The obvious candidate would appear to be Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the Fukushima plant. The designers built it well enough to withstand a magnitude 9 earthquake – no mean achievement – but they didn’t see a ~15m tsunami coming, and in hindsight they should have. Allegations of incompetence have also been leveled against TEPCO for its failure to limit or prevent radiation releases after the tsunami struck, and some of them may be true. But TEPCO can argue that Hamako Watanabe’s death was unrelated to the radiation releases, which of themselves had no serious impacts. It was occasioned entirely by the Japanese government’s reaction to them, which was something beyond TEPCO’s control.
Let us now consider the involvement of the Japanese government. There is no doubt that the evacuation it ordered ultimately resulted in the deaths of thousands, and it can at least be held culpable for not having recognized its error and taken steps to rectify it:
However, the radiation levels in most of the evacuated areas were not greater than the natural radiation levels in high background areas elsewhere in the world where no adverse health effect is evident, so maintaining the evacuation beyond a precautionary few days was evidently the main disaster in relation to human fatalities.
Or can it?
There’s no question that evacuating an area around a nuclear plant that has suffered a potentially serious radiation leak is a logical precaution. But why did the government delay the return of evacuees to areas that according to radiation experts posed no significant health threat, devoting its resources to the removal of millions of tons of topsoil and leaves instead?
At an estimated cost of over a trillion Yen the Japanese government are attempting to decontaminate the areas of Fukushima affected by the explosions and meltdowns at Fukushima Daichi nuclear power station caused by the March 11th 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Around 13% of Fukushima Prefecture is scheduled to have the top 3 or 4 centimetres of its soil removed. Farmland and residential area will be cleaned first followed by forested mountain slopes that will have leaf litter and undergrowth removed ….
It can be argued that it was simply going by the book. The Japanese government is legally bound to protect the safety of its citizens, so before it could allow the evacuees to return to their homes it had to decontaminate them to safe levels. This posed a problem because Japan had unthinkingly adopted the international radiation standard of 1 mSv (millisievert)/year before the accident, and it soon became obvious that this limit was not practically achievable. So in June 2011 it raised it to 20 mSv/year, a “safe” threshold endorsed by the International Commission on Radiological Protection. This action shortened the cleanup timeline but had no immediate impact on the growing number of deaths among evacuees. It also confirmed the suspicions of many Japanese that the Fukushima radiation release was much worse that the government was willing to admit.
Nevertheless the cleanups have progressed to the point where all of Fukushima Prefecture outside the 20km Exclusion Zone around Fukushima Daiichi is now “clean”. A map of real-time radiation levels published by Fukushima Prefecture shows no station in the Prefecture with radiation levels anywhere close to the government’s 20mSv/year limit (the highest reading on August 17, 2015 was 0.300 μSv/hour, or 2.6 mSv/year, at Nomaoi-no-sato, about 20 km north of Fukushima Daiichi). Not only is most of Fukushima Prefecture clean but evacuees have been at liberty to return there for some time, and now they are being allowed to return to some parts of the 20 km Exclusion Zone as well. It seems that the government is finally doing its best to make sure that no more evacuees die unnecessarily.
But still the question remains. Given the overwhelming evidence pointing to the absence of a serious radiation problem, why weren’t they allowed to go back earlier? Presumably because the 20 mSv/year limit hadn’t been met, and until the Fukushima Daiichi reactors were contained there was of course always the possibility of further releases. But most of the evacuees would have refused to go back anyway. Many still do:
The Miyakoji district of Tamura city in Fukushima Prefecture became the first area within a 20-kilometer radius of Fukushima No.1 plant to have an evacuation order completely lifted. Local residents can live in their homes without any restrictions. Still, there are no prospects that residents will return home because their radiation fears still remain.
Last month, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (adopted) a plan that would permit two-thirds of evacuees to return by March 2017, the sixth anniversary of the disaster. But while some evacuees have cheered this chance to return, many more have rejected it. Thousands from Iitate and elsewhere have joined lawsuits or organized groups to oppose the plan by the government, which they say is trying to force residents to go back despite radiation levels that are still far above normal.
So finally we get to the root of the problem. The fear of radiation.
Why do people fear radiation? Because they have been conditioned by years of anti-nuclear propaganda to fear it. Radiation is an invisible but lethal force that invades your body from the outside in and eventually kills you. Or it invades the food you eat and kills you from the inside out – you and your children too. It turns your surroundings into an uninhabitable wasteland. You have no protection against it. No level of radiation is safe. Every malfunction at a nuclear plant is a potential disaster. And the propagandists, aided and abetted by a press eager to sell newspapers, pulled no punches in their efforts to stoke the public’s fears of radiation in the aftermath of Fukushima:
A new Chernobyl ….. Extremely serious levels of radiation ….. Radioactive cesium of mind-boggling 370,000 becquerels per kilogram in the mud of the Myotoishi reservoir .…. A radiation hot spot with levels so high it could kill a person within a few hours ….. Cancer rates soar in Fukushima children ….. Iodine detected in Tokyo water supply ….. A nightmare with no end in sight ….. PM lying to the Japanese people ….. Foreigners stream out of Tokyo …..
And this from the US:
Fukushima radioactive ocean plume (Image credit: NBC)
Fear of Fukushima radiation was not confined to the Japanese public. Foreign governments also hit the panic button. The UK, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Australia, Serbia and Turkey issued evacuation warnings to their nationals residing in Japan and the US, France, China and South Korea (which installed monitors at its airports to make sure passengers arriving from Japan were not radioactive) began to fly people out. Croatia announced plans to move its embassy from Tokyo to Osaka. To say that the Japanese government panicked too would be going too far, but at one point it was seriously considering the possibility of a demonic chain reaction: If Fukushima collapsed and released enough radiation, it was “possible that other nearby nuclear power plants would have to be abandoned and could also collapse, thereby necessitating the evacuation of one of the world’s largest cities”. Certainly shutting down every nuclear reactor in Japan was not a rational response. (Nor for that matter was the reaction of Germany, a country unlikely ever to suffer a magnitude 9 earthquake followed by a 15m tidal wave, which in response to Fukushima took eight nuclear plants off line and committed to get out of nuclear altogether by 2022, but that’s a separate issue.)
And more than four years after the Fukushima accident there are still no confirmed radiation casualties. Compared to the damage inflicted by the tsunami Fukushima was a non-event. But many Japanese evacuees still live in fear of the high levels of radiation that the government isn’t telling them about:
April 01, 2015: Hundreds of residents here plan to sue the central government for lifting evacuation advisories near the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, saying the decision endangered their lives because radiation levels remained high around their homes. During the decontamination process for areas around the plant, the government initially wanted to lower annual radiation exposure doses to 1 millisievert. After that goal proved impossible, the target became 20 millisieverts. “The government has selfishly raised the limit on annual public radiation exposure from 1 millisievert set before the nuclear crisis to 20 millisieverts, having residents return to their homes still exposed to high doses of radiation,” said Kenji Fukuda, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. “This is an illegal act that violates the residents’ right to a healthy environment guaranteed by the Constitution and international human rights laws.”
The bottom line that emerges from the Fukushima accident is this. Radiation doesn’t kill people; the fear of it kills people. Clearly the efforts of the propagandists to scare people to death have once more borne fruit, and this time literally.
So once again, and for the last time, who killed Hamako Watanabe?
Her bereaved husband Mikio decided it was TEPCO, went to court and won substantial damages. And who can begrudge him the money? He deserves compensation from someone for the agony and loss he has suffered, and TEPCO was the obvious target. But viewed from the standpoint of who was morally responsible for his wife’s grisly death he was going after entirely the wrong people.