What (not) to do after a nuclear accident (4, end): When evacuation is a big mistake
(Photo: Douglas Sprott/Flickr)
And then there is the evacuation.
The International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends evacuation in case of additional exposure to 100 mSv in an emergency situation. This was not the case at Fukushima. The Japanese government lowered that standard to areas where the annual dose of radiation in the air, just above the ground, amounts to 20 mSv: a level you would be exposed to if you were outside 24 hours a day.
Now those in power could do something and start moving out hordes of people.
The appetite for evacuation was insatiable. Even from areas that remained below the new standard, people were forced to relocate. As late as June 2011, when it was long since clear that the darkest scenario had not materialised and the radiation level was already falling on its own, people were summoned to leave. Not all were able to stay in the Fukushima province, which is larger than half of Wales. Some had to move again and again, endlessly dragging themselves from shelters to temporary housing.
Vast areas were declared uninhabitable due to a radiation level that countless people in Finland, the Czech Republic, England, Brazil, China, India, Australia, Iran and numerous other countries live with on a daily basis without any adverse health effects.
The appetite for evacuation was insatiable. Even from areas that remained below the new standard, people were forced to relocate
The Japanese government stipulated that residents could not return until the annual radiation dose did not exceed 1 mSv above the previous level after the clean-up. If it were really only safe to live below the new radiation level at Fukushima, many millions of people around the world would have to move.
According to conventional models, a little extra radiation can slightly increase the chances of one day dying of cancer. From 100 mSv, 1 extra mSv is estimated to mean an extra risk of 0.005 per cent. Then it takes 20 years before the chance becomes 0.1 per cent, on top of the normal chance of about 30 per cent.
Probability is complicated for many people. All those percentages... We can also calculate the harm to our health in the number of days we would die prematurely. One can use mathematical models to work out how many days life is shortened on average, for example if we smoke, eat fatty foods or live in a city with a lot of air pollution. The same can be done for exposure to a certain dose of radiation. It’s equally possible to calculate how many days life is extended by avoiding radiation through relocation.
For example, the inhabitants of Tomioka, the village near the nuclear plant with the highest radiation levels, who were less exposed to radioactive particles thanks to the evacuation, extended their lives by two months, three weeks and one day.
For other areas, it was less. Thanks to their evacuation from Naraha, noodle restaurant owner Satoru Yamauchi and his fellow villagers extended their lives by no more than a few days.
In 2019, the International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP) ruled that an evacuation should preferably be limited to a week
The figures come from Philip Thomas, a professor of risk management at the University of Bristol. He led a study conducted by a number of universities. The conclusion: the evacuation at Fukushima was excessive. He wants to prevent the Japanese government’s response from becoming the prevailing policy choice after a nuclear accident.
According to Thomas (no relation to Geraldine), it is defensible to evacuate the immediate area after a nuclear accident – say, a radius of a few kilometres around the plant. But after a few days or at most a few weeks, everyone should be able to return; a short evacuation has the least impact on well-being. The longer it takes, the greater the disruption.
In 2019, the International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP) ruled that an evacuation should preferably be limited to a week.
What to do about the impulse to run? Philip Thomas has a radical plan: provide information. With information – about what radiation is and what it does, about the doses and the millisieverts, about the effects on health and longevity – people can make their own choice whether to stay in the area. If they want to leave, there should be a financial settlement: not a monthly payment that could lead to dependency, but a decent, one-off compensation.
‘With hindsight, we can say the evacuation was a mistake,’ Thomas said in an interview with the Financial Times. ‘We would have recommended that nobody be evacuated.’
‘With hindsight, we can say the evacuation was a mistake. We would have recommended that nobody be evacuated’ - Philip Thomas
What to do when it becomes clear that the accident turned out differently than you expected? What if you realise that 120,000 people had to move unnecessarily and that they have lived in uncertainty for years, that their lives have been severely disrupted, their health undermined?
What if you were among the experts or journalists who appeared to know so well what was going on? What if you were in government when all of this happened?
What if you were the Prime Minister of Japan at the time?
Naoto Kan said in 2016, five years after stepping down, that the situation in Fukushima was so dire that he had considered martial law. ‘The future existence of Japan as a whole was at stake,’ he said weightily.
Kan considered evacuating a 250-kilometre radius, including the metropolis of Tokyo. The moment almost came when he had no choice. It was only a hair’s breadth away, Kan said, and it was all thanks to the courage of his people who risked their lives to contain the nuclear plant, indeed, to save their country.
Truly, it was tremendously clever how he had averted an almost inevitable catastrophe.
Nuclear power? Naoto Kan wanted no more of it. ‘Next time, we might not be so lucky.’
Indeed, with such politicians, journalists and energy companies, how lucky people like noodle chef Satoru Yamauchi have been.
Marco Visscher is a Netherlands-based journalist, and author of several books on energy and environment. He’s involved with RePlanet as its editor-in-chief. This article is an edited excerpt from his 2022 book Waarom we niet bang hoeven te zijn voor kernenergie (Why we need not fear nuclear power).