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Japan nuclear threat: The tsunami is the bigger tragedy
21 March 11 05:55 ET

By David Spiegelhalter
Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk, Cambridge University

The apocalyptic visions of destruction brought by the Japanese earthquake and subsequent tsunami have been largely replaced in the media this week by reports of the struggle to control radiation from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant.
This provides a gripping narrative - a brave team battling to contain the threat, warnings of catastrophe and claims of incompetence, families desperate to protect their children and leave the area.
But perhaps the media coverage tells us more about ourselves than it does about the threat of radiation.
Psychologists have spent years identifying the factors that lead to increased feelings of risk and vulnerability - and escaped radiation from nuclear plants ticks all the boxes.
It is an invisible hazard, mysterious and not understood, associated with dire consequences such as cancer and birth defects. It feels unnatural.
Perception and reality
In contrast, few in the west of England seem concerned at the natural radiation they are exposed to from the earth in the form of the gas radon, even though it is estimated to lead to more than 1,000 cancer deaths a year in this country.
But if radiation comes from an accident and has been imposed on us unwillingly, we feel we can't control it or avoid it.
It is therefore not surprising that the psychological effects of man-made and unintended radiation exposure, or even its possibility, are strong.
Many of the thousands of servicemen exposed to A-bomb tests suffered lifelong disability similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, and any effects of Three Mile Island were psychological, rather than caused by the minimal radiation exposure.
It has been estimated that 17 million were exposed to significant radiation after Chernobyl and nearly 2,000 people have since developed thyroid cancer having consumed contaminated food and milk as children.
This is very serious, but nothing like the impact that had been expected, and a UN report identified psychological problems as the major consequence for health.
The perception of the extreme risk of radiation exposure is also somewhat contradicted by the experience of 87,000 survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who have been followed up for their whole lives.
By 1992, over 40,000 had died, but it has been estimated that only 690 of those deaths were due to the radiation. Again, the psychological effects were major.
Radiation does, however, feel acceptable when used in benign circumstances such as medical imaging. You can pay £800 ($1000) and get a whole-body CT scan as part of a medical check-up, but it can deliver you a dose equivalent to being 1.5 miles from the centre of the Hiroshima explosion.
Because more than 70 million CT scans are carried out each year, the US National Cancer Institute has estimated that 29,000 Americans will get cancer as a result of the CT scans they received in 2007 alone.
Barrage of opinions
Given extreme public concerns, risk communication in a crisis is vital.
The accepted wisdom is for governments to be open and honest, without denial or premature reassurance, to own up to risks and uncertainties, and to keep up a constant flow of consistent information while giving people clear instructions and something to do.
The Japanese authorities are struggling.
The electricity company appears to be as secretive as its reputation suggested and although the Japanese media are mostly giving the government an easy ride, individuals able to follow western sources are faced with a barrage of conflicting opinions.
The EU Energy Commissioner may have his own reasons for making extraordinary statements about apocalypse and imminent catastrophe.
The UK government's Chief Scientific Adviser Sir John Beddington, meanwhile, has had to revise his previously optimistic assessment to include the "worst case scenario" of radiation reaching Tokyo, albeit at a level which could be protected against.
Even under this worst case, though, the direct health consequences of the nuclear accident would be very small compared with the thousands already killed by the earthquake and tsunami, let alone the continued suffering of the survivors.
Maybe we should wait and see what happens before we decide what lessons to learn.
The Daily Mail science editor, Michael Hanlon, has already boldly claimed that "what has happened in Japan should in fact be seen as a massive endorsement of nuclear power", given the success of most Japanese plants at withstanding a disaster they were never designed for, but others will use exactly the same information to reach the directly opposite conclusion.
Yesterday I asked an audience of 800 sixth-formers their opinion and, although they were pleased they weren't in Tokyo, the majority still thought nuclear was a sensible option for future energy.
Maybe the generation who know nothing of the Cold War are growing up with a different perspective on radiation?
David Spiegelhalter is Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University and a Senior Scientist in the Medical Research Council's Biostatistics Unit.
UPDATE: A new UN report on the effects of Chernobyl has been released, which concludes that contaminated milk "led to a substantial fraction of the more than 6,000 thyroid cancers observed to date among people who were children or adolescents at the time of the accident (by 2005, 15 cases had proved fatal)". It adds: "To date, there has been no persuasive evidence of any other health effect in the general population that can be attributed to radiation exposure."
Some of your comments:
I admit having fled the Tokyo area for a while to friends in Kyushu myself, but the media craze about the Fukushima plant in the US and European countries has nothing but amazed me. People thousands of miles away are more hysteric than we here in Japan. It is hard to remain objective in the middle of the disaster and I am very grateful for this so far one and only voice that I have found in the media that is calm and tries to put things into perspective.
Regina Glei, Kawasaki, Japan
There are no long-term solutions to the storage of spent fuel. To me, that sounds like the biggest problem in Fukushima, they have hundreds of tons of radioactive material that they can no longer control. The radioactivity will hurt not only the people sickened by this accident, but their progeny. I don't understand this comparison of a one-time problem in the aftermath of the tsunami versus the ongoing problems with the spent fuel, that will ruin land and lives for generations.
Joe Parks, Takoma Park, United States
The real crisis is the hungry, thirsty homeless and every effort should be put into helping them. This is what should be reported. In the terrible catastrophe and its aftermath the focus of reporting is wrong.
Mike Fricker, Sevenoaks, England
More people die of road accidents around the world in a year than the total deaths due to nuclear accidents inluding the bombs of Hiroshima/Nagasaki. Nobody demands stoppage of automobile production!
U C Mishra, Bhubaneswar, India
I think the media coverage tells us far more about the media than anything about ourselves.
Matt Harvey, Cambridge, UK
Mr Spielgelhalter misses something. Many of us 'public' do understand. The consequences we fear include the psychological ones. They include the problems which would be caused by people not wanting to live in an area for generations. We also know that humanity has a long history of big mistakes which couldn't be undone.
RobertW, Glasgow, UK
The reality is that all radiation is harmful and can cause cancer - period. We don't get disturbed by the radon gas in England because we don't know about it - in what way does this mean that we shouldn't be worried about a meltdown in 4 reactor cores in Japan ?
Rideforever, Hove
It is not 'radiation' that is the concern in a nuclear accident. It is the release of radioactive particles that can then be ingested either directly or months later in food. If that happens, the radioactivity will be permanently lodged in your body to become part of your bones, teeth and organs. Then you will be continuously exposed to radiation for the rest of your life - nothing like a quick visit to the X-Ray department for a broken bone.
Tony Duffin, Didcot, UK
As an ex nuclear physicist, who graduated 51 years ago, I try to explain to my friends that the poor Japanese people are in more danger from the cold and lack of food or water, but radioactivity IS difficult to explain to non scientists.
Ceda Anne, Hampshire
The media is blitzing the nuclear reactor story because it is fast-developing, ongoing, and rare. The earthquake/tsunami event is over. Developments will be slow from now on. All that is left to report is the death toll and the suffering. Who wants to read about that?
Eric Denemark, Bryan, Texas
I live in Tokyo and work at a Japanese company, and although my colleagues are very concerned for the people near the plant, and keep a close eye on developments, nobody is even considering leaving Tokyo. We resumed work on Monday, motivated by the fact that if all business were to halt, Tokyo would indeed become a ghost town, despite there being no actual threat. We need to keep the economy up and running, and do what we can to help those who were actually affected by the disaster.
Cecilia Albertsson , Tokyo, Japan
The world is not, never has been and never can be risk-free. Everything we do, collectively or as individuals, has a risk 'downside'. Life is about making reasoned and informed judgements as to what is acceptable. The difficult bit is becoming informed - a process greatly impaired by inaccurate,sensationalist and speculative media coverage. By the way, those of us living in the granite areas of the West country do know about Radon and the associated radiation risks; we chose to accept these as worthwhile in the context of being able to enjoy such a stunning environment.
Iain Rice, Bridestowe, Devon, UK
All forms of energy production produces risk. The risk should be understood and minimised in the planning. But who could justify planning for a magnitude 9 Richter and a ten-metre tsunami... a one in a thousand years event.
RHG, London
I still fled Tokyo to protect my two young children. I think it's important to listen to your heart so you don't have to be faced with guilt or any psychological damage in an event the worst case scenario does happen.
Melrose Feldroc, Japan
Those people who have fled Japan, taking long-distance flights to Europe or the US, have probably received larger radiation doses on their flights than if they had stayed where they were. (Natural radiation at flying altitude is significantly higher than at ground level).
Neill Taylor, Aix en Provence, France
By far the bigger story would seem the apparent breach in procedure at the Fukushima plant. Normally, there would never be enough fuel stored in a storage pond that it could go critical should the pool go empty in an accident. TEPCO's announcement that a re-criticality potential existed in the pool was truly remarkable, and indicated that the plant may have been operated outside of its safety envelope.
Michael Garland, Bradenton, FL, USA
Instead of talking about "what ifs" we need to be given cold hard facts like day to day radiation levels by area. If I could see they werent rising or,indeed were falling I could move on. It's very easy to say we're worrying too much when you're not here.
Roger Sonnex, Tokyo, Japan
A professor of risk might muse why this installation was NOT designed for what is a 1000 year event. I am sure that he knows - given the high cost associated with failure - how stupid that was. Could it be because we do not know HOW to design to survive a magnitude 9.0 with tsunami? Let us not forget that nuclear fuel has to be stored for 10's of thousands of years before it is safe. I shudder to think what a 10,000 year event would be!
Paul Harwood, Singapore
Why would the Japanese government, in the midst of a huge earthquake and tsunami disaster, have ordered the evacuation of over 130,000 people from the area around Fukushima? Surely not just from a hysterical over-reaction to the threat of radiation?
Mike Gatehouse, Brecon, South Wales
The biggest threat to human health from the incidents at the Fukushima power station arises from the lack of electricity to parts of Japan. The loss of power is likely to cause ill-health and some deaths from cold and lack of clean water, far outweighing the tiny effect of slight exposure to radiation. But is any reporter writing scaremongering articles about lack of electricity?
David Norman, Cheshire, UK
I think it's a good thing countries are evacuating their people. If anything, it will put less stress on the already strained electrical and food supply in Japan. And I can understand the Company's not getting much communication out. They're in the middle of working the problem, and probably been feeling the effects of the radation for a few days now.
Cara, Chicago USA
The estimation of risk due to radiation exposure is traditionally based on the 'no threshold, linear model'. However, various alternatives have been suggested since this model does not reflect the experience of Chernobyl and the hazard of natural radiation. Scientists now think that there is a threshold below which the radiation risk is not increased.
David Cavalla, Cambridge
These events happen because of the weakest link in the chain, the human involvement. Decisions which should not be made are made and then we all face the consequences. Nuclear will always be only as secure as the quality of the decision making at all sites, and as we all know, people differ everywhere!
Greg Dance, Stroud
The reasoning about physiological vs psychological effects of radiation seems fine, except that it does not consider the long-term consequences of the Fukushima fallout. An area roughly as large as 100 km in diameter will be offlimits for maybe centuries. In my opinion this has direct tangible, not just mental, effects on the lives of millions of people.
Alessandro Colizzi, Montreal, Canada
The fact I find most alarming from this report is the statement that 29,000 Americans, from one year alone, could develop cancer as a result of CT scans. i suppose this is only 0.04% and is therefore an acceptable risk, I guess it all comes down to the rewards vs the risk.
Terry Greathead, Cambridge ON, Canada
I think many people use the reactor and radiation scare to avoid having to confront the terrible reality of the sheer scale of the devistation and the suffering those communities have to overcome before they can return to some normacy again. The article is right - the true tragedy here is the lives and communities lost and thats where the focus should be. The reactor issue, when all said and done, is secondary.
Jonathan Scott, Kyoto, Japan
As a submariner I slept and lived within 30m of a nuclear reactor for almost 10years and actually received less radiation then someone living in dartmoor. When the media report levels of radiation 30 times normal for tokyo - I would just like to point out that 30 times nothing is still nothing! Yes the accident in Fukishima is very serious but compared to the effects of the tragedy of the tsunami on Japan it is neglligble.
Charles Ellis, London
In general, people are not good at understanding risk. Driving a car in traffic is far riskier than living near a nuclear power plant, but people do it because they FEEL in control of that risk. Of course, this feeling of security is false. If you're in a collision, it likely will be due to circumstances beyond your control. The safe choice would be to never get in a car.
Fred Glazer, Vermont, USA
I feel the opposite. After several day has passed since the disaster, TVs and radios talk much about the situation of the refugee, and only a few about the nuclear accident. However, the situation of the accident is not optimistic at all and they are still fighting a long uncertain struggles.
KH. Moriyama, Mito, Japan
Isn't the real problem that this man made radiation adds to the existing levels of exposure from natural and medical sources? I don't understand how this cannot be considered a real risk, especially once it enters the food chain.
M Gehring, Cambridge, UK
My husband stays in Saitama which is about 170km from Fukushima. I know the radiation scare has been blown out of proportion by the media. But the mind tends to catch and concentrate on the negative even if there is one single sentence mentioned about a possibility of a catastrophe.
Monica Shukla, Mumbai, India
Yet another example of our distorted view of risk and the way it is reported: 18th March 1979 Golborne Colliery fire left ten dead, 28th March 1979 Three Mile Island leak, no dead and probability of cancers resulting from the leak so small as to be undetectable. Guess which got the greater media coverage. The perception is nuclear power is dangerous while coal is safe.
S Badrick, England
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