The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) reported to the General Assembly in December 2012. The content of this report will provide the basis for advice on national radiation safety policies, and, as such, it could be extremely significant in the future development of nuclear power around the world.
The UN expert report began with some detailed assessments of the health consequences of the March 2011 nuclear accident at Fukushima. For readers of earlier commentaries on this site, the committee’s conclusions will come as no surprise. On the other hand, for those who depend on the main-stream media it might produce shock and utter perplexity.
This morning, as I write this first blog of the New Year, Radio New Zealand is repeating a 45 minute interview with Richard Broinowski (of Sydney University) , which, broadly, repeats the ‘We all die’ narrative that I commented on in a column in June of last year. There were no searching questions asked and Radio New Zealand hasn’t thought it important enough to carry anything about the UNSCEAR findings. That is a pity, since they are significantly at variance with the Broinowski account.
UNSCEAR is clear: “No radiation health effects have been observed in Japan among the public, workers or children in the area of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. This is in line with studies already published by the World Health Organisation and Tokyo University that showed that people near the damaged power plant received such low doses of radiation that no discernible health effect could be expected.” The report then goes on to discuss the range of radiation exposures which might give rise to harm (and in what circumstances), and the difficulties of establishing a cause-effect relationship at exposures that lie within the range of natural variation around the globe. It also notes that 170 workers at the plant received doses of over 100 mSv, during their time tackling the emergency, and six workers received 250 mSv, with ‘no ill effects’ in any case. This is to be compared with global average background levels in the range 2-20 mSv. It can also be compared with the dose above which adverse effects have been unequivocally observed: this is 1000 mSv.
There is an exception to all this and it is concerns the particular vulnerability of children to radioactive Iodine-131. This isotope is produced in nuclear reactors and was present around the Fukushima plant after the accident. If ingested it is particularly taken up by the thyroid gland and can cause thyroid cancer. There is a simple preventative measure and this is to swamp the system with the non-radioactive isotope of iodine (through iodine pills) which limits any take-up of the radioactive form. This was done promptly in Japan but it wasn’t done in the Ukraine following Chernobyl, as a result of which child thyroid cancer ‘was the only major radiation-related health effect of the Chernobyl accident’ (UNSCEAR report).
There are a number of significant implications of all this for the future of civilian nuclear power. The most obvious of these is that, notwithstanding the monumental outbreak of nuclear phobia that swept the world following the accident in northern Japan, nuclear power is very safe. It is also very reliable (contrast wind, solar and hydroelectric), as well as economic, especially for countries (like Japan) that are, in significant ways, resource-poor, and need to import most of their energy needs. Japan also has enormous investments in its civilian nuclear-power infrastructure. It is hardly surprising that the new government (elected December 16) has reversed the policy of its predecessor, which was to phase out nuclear power. Indeed, it is talking of ‘new build’.
The Japanese authorities are presently around 30% of the way through a massive clean-up of the contaminated areas around the Fukushima plant, including the capital of the prefecture, Fukushima City. The radiation levels range from hotspots, showing a radiation level of above 20mSv per year to an average for the City, itself, of 5-10mSv. The anticipated cost is 31 billion Yen ($500 million). It may be asked whether this is money well spent. To be sure, present ambient levels of radiation are as much as ten times higher than they would have been in that region without the accident. On the other hand, they are within the range of natural radiation and two orders of magnitude below exposures that have been shown to cause harm.
But, it might be said, there is a risk, however small, of an adverse health event (cancer, perhaps) sometime down the track. The question now becomes: Can the magnitude of that risk be established (UNSCEAR thinks that it can’t be at the exposures being considered), and who will pay? The second question is important because I suspect that, if you asked the average citizen of Fukushima prefecture whether it would be worth spending some 100,000 yen (and losing the use of his house for up to six years) in order to avoid a possible loss of life-expectancy of (say) a few weeks, he might not take the deal, figuring that there are a lot of other factors (including life-style factors) which bear on this question. Of course this is highly speculative but there are professional risk assessors who can do this kind of calculation. It may be that if it wouldn’t be worth it to the individuals concerned to engage in this expenditure, on cost/benefit grounds (he wouldn’t buy the ‘insurance’), perhaps it isn’t worth it for the government or a nuclear company either.
Of course, the UNSCEAR experts did not go as far as this but there is little doubt that a crucial factor in the cost of nuclear power, generally, is the imposition of (or companies’ acquiescence in) precautionary expenditures, which are not well justified in terms of contemporary understandings of the risk. It is nettle which needs to be grasped if we are to make the best use of what is a very valuable energy resource.