'Fukushima' was worse than an atomic bomb - but not because of the radiation

When the realisation sunk in that the 2011 evacuation of 100.000 people from Fukushima for fear of radioactive fallout had taken 1600 or more lives (here). the question arose whether it might have been better to not evacuate at all.  Radiation had claimed no lives but radiation scientists knew that the released radiation could never have caused so many casualties, the panicky evacuation itself was the culprit. Just how many lives would have been lost should the people have been asked to stay home and just sit through the fallout? There now is an answer to that question. Spoiler: none.

A recent study (attached)  compares the event in Fukushima with those in St George in the American state of Utah where in the 1950ies a lot of fall out came down from nuclear tests in neighboring Nevada. In general, the fallout (from the 100 tests) was rather limited, but 'Harry', a bomb of 32 kilotons (about twice Hiroshima) that was detonated on May 19, 1953, stood out and was therefore called 'Dirty Harry'. St George was not evacuated, though the population was asked to stay inside.

The authors of the study, Antone Brooks and Bruce Church, are both professor, the first dealing with the medical consequences of radiation and the other specializing in the cleanup of radioactive waste. Both grew up in Washington County in south Utah, the area where a lot of the fall-out landed. Church in Hurricane and Brooks in St George. Brooks remembers:  

As a young boy my dad would get us up early some mornings and tell us that they were going to shoot off another A-bomb in Nevada.  The morning sky would light up and we would count and see how long it took for the shock wave to hit.  We could calculate how far the shot was away from St. George and thought that was very exciting and interesting.  In 1953 when I was a young teenager the fallout cloud from the nuclear test “Dirty Harry” went right over St. George so I am a so-called “down winder.”   In St. George there was a small truck with speakers on the top that would go around town and tell us if there was a ball game, dance or other special event.  On that day the speaker told us that there was a fallout-cloud over town and advised us all to go into our homes.  I remember thinking that is very interesting but I was not concerned enough to stop the basketball game and go home.  This was the general attitude of the people of St. George at that time.Source ) See also the two videos on this page. .    

  

The main impact on St George seems to be the fact that the cars had to be washed afterwards, life continued as usual. The health of the residents of Washington County didn't suffer from the nuclear tests. Cancer death statistics in Utah belong to the lowest in the US and those for Washington County are the lowest in Utah. Utah is by many considered a super healthy state because of the large proportion of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) who maintain a spartan lifestyle, but even if that is the explanation of the low cancer statistics, the fallout didn't negatively influence that.  No extra cancer, no extra leukemia, no extra thyroid cancer.   

In Fukushima radiation also killed nobody and the WHO does not expect it ever will, but radiophobia took a heavy toll. After the evacuation, the Japanese suffering did not stop for the 'rescued'. Japan closed all nuclear power plants but the replacing energy source was more expensive and this led to 'energy poverty' that killed 4500 people in the country, bringing the total of casualties from the relief to 6100 ( here ).  And just as was seen after the Chernobyl accident, psychological problems, divorces, alcoholism, suicides added to the misery. Although Utah in the fifties lived through the bom tests with relative ease 35 years later media and activists suggested that people might have gotten cancer from the bomb-tests. Scientifically there was no evidence for this, but nevertheless a compensation fund was established wherefrom two billion dollars have now been distributed.     

The difference between St George and Fukushima is in the radiation standards that define the radiation level that necessitates evacuation. In 1953 the US applied a standard of 39 milliSievert per year (converted from the Roentgen value of the time) for St George. In Fukushima, 1-20 milliSievert was used. It is said that international authorities recommended a 20 mSv limit, (possibly as a result of the negative consequences that the 1mSv limit that was used in Chernobyl had brought), but that Japanese authorities went for the stricter limit. 

How much radiation did people actually receive? Below a table from Brooks and Church, simplified by yours truly.

 

Fukushima     

St George  

 

Comments

Released radioactivity

1.5 x 1017Bq

3.6 x 1022Bq 

'Dirty Harry' spread 100,000 times more radioactivity than "Fukushima"

Norm

  1 mSv

39 mSv

 

Maximum dose rate

(how much radiation per hour)

1-10 mSv / hour

0.045 mSv / hour after a few days

3.4 mSv / hour 

after a few days 0.05 mSv / hour

In Fukushima the first days could not be measured due to the power failure. The indicated value is from a few days later and 40 km away. The lower values ​​correspond to what I (TR) myself have measured in Guarapari and Chernobyl, not disturbing but a considerable breach of the norm. 

Final year dose

10 mSv

25-29 mSv

So two to three times the dose that was given in Fukushima.

Evacuation standard

1-20 mSv

250-500 mSv

 

 

 These are external doses, the radiation comes from outside. It is believed that the people in St George also ingested or inhaled substantial amounts of radioactive dust. There are no reliable data on this, but according to Brooks and Church the actual radiation load in St George is probably much higher. 

There were many more nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site in the period 1951-1958 and Washington County therefore had to endure much more fall-out. However, the wind was usually good so the total exposure for that period was limited to 35.7–36.4 mSv .    

If the Fukushima residents had stayed at home, they would probably have received around 50 milliSievert of radiation, so comparable to the dose received in St George. Others have calculated  that the avoided exposure by evacuation amounts to 70 mSv, both in Chernobyl and Fukushima. Radiation scientists do usually not consider these levels to be harmful, eg cancer causing, regardless of the fact that the limits are exceeded. It is therefore not surprising that no additional cases of cancer are found or expected in either St George or Fukushima. 

It is interesting to consider another fall-out example: the Castle Bravo bomb that exploded on the island of Bikini in the Pacific Ocean in 1954. It was 15 megatons and therefore about 500 times more powerful than 'Dirty Harry'. The tuna fishingboat Fukuryu Maru  had unknowingly penetrated about 100 kilometers the forbidden area at the time. The 23-person crew got the full load of fall-out and when the ship returned to the harbor after a week, all suffered from Acute Radiation Syndrome. That meant that they would have received a dose of at least 1000 milliSievert. The case received a lot of publicity. One crew member died, but it is said that he was already sick before the bomb and the rest of the crew recovered and apparently led a normal life (at least 1 of them turned 92). They supposedly had an increased risk of cancer, but there are no reports about that.      

The fallout of Castle Bravo on the Marshall Islands proper was considerable and so was the radiation it produced and here extra cancer was found ( here ). The Marshall Islands have a population of 25,000 and 10,600 of them are expected to develop cancer, that is in absence of an atomic bom test.. The test is supposed to be responsible for 170 of those 10.600 cases of cancer..  

Brooks and Church believe that the radiation standards are far too conservative and that they do not understand the reason for that. They do more harm than good and above all cause a lot of fear. They are in favor of a standard of 100 milliSievert per year, a hundred- fold increase..  

 

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