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Friday, 27 January 2012

Fukushima is going to kill us all

Did you hear about the radiation cloud that was spreading out from Fukushima and coming to kill us all? I haven't heard too much about that recently, probably because it wasn't true. That map up there was a hoax. But there was a cloud that spread out from Fukushima and it's far more dangerous than one of fallout - it's a cloud of ... dun dun dun... fear! Wah! Sorry, that was just appalling. I do apologise.

Fukushima was a very odd story in our news. Very few facts were reported and the word "could" crept up way more that was healthy. For instance, we heard that hundreds of workers could be killed trying to get the reactor under control. We heard that tens of thousands of people across Japan could die. Or that areas of Japan could be poisoned by radiation forever. Yeah could, could, could. Not blood likely, but vaguely possible. Do you know how many people have died so far? None. Well, one worker at the nuclear plant was killed. But he was killed falling off his crane when the earthquake hit.

But just how many people is Fukushima going to kill? That's an interesting question and a difficult one to answer. The best estimate so far is 1,000. And it's not that it's going to directly kill them; that figure is for early cancer deaths. 1,000 people could die from cancer slightly earlier than they might have done otherwise. It's an increase of 0.1% in the incidence of cancer. In other words... fuck all. Compare that with the 20,000 people who died in the earthquake and tsunami. 160,000 people were evacuated and the disruption to their lives and the stress associated with it is likely to drive more than a thousand of them to an early grave. So a thousand people dying a little bit earlier isn't much to bear at all.

Fukushima Daiichi power plant in happier times
We keep hearing that Fukushima was the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. And we all know Chernobyl was really bad. It exploded and the Soviets initially tried to cover it up. Man, that was bad. So how many people does the UN say have died because of Chernobyl? Sixty four. Shit, but that's probably just directly attributable deaths, isn't it?. You can use epidemiological calculations to work out the rise in cancer deaths and stuff like that. So how many are going to die? Well, the World Health Organisation reckons that the total deaths will be around 4,000 early cancer deaths.

These death tolls sound surprisingly low, don't they? Weren't these massive accidents? The simple truth is that ionising radiation is a surprisingly weak carcinogen. Although newspapers are full of breathless articles about how Fukushim residents may never be able to return to their homes (like this one in the Guardian), that's more to do with the Japanese government playing it safe than any real danger from nuclear contamination. After all, over a million people each year visit the spot where the bomb hit Hiroshima and suffer no ill effects. Among the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs (known as Hibakusha), the incidence of illness caused by the radiation and subsequent fallout is just 1%.

When it comes to news stories, news programmes always have an agenda. I'm not suggesting the stuff of tin foil hat conspiracy theories, but that the news is slanted in a certain way, mostly for reasons of pragmatism. Firstly, the news programmes select which stories they will cover. They have to decide which stories will be of the greatest importance and/or interest to their audience. Fair enough, you would no doubt think. It gets more difficult when the stories are far away. And Fukushima was pretty far away and in the corner of a country that had just had two disasters smash it about a bit so getting there and getting around were going to be tricky. News programme producers had to decide if they were going to send reporters and how many to send. And to do this, they have to decide how they think the story is going to pan out. There's no use sending just one reporter if it turns out to be a massive story and there's no use sending sixty if it turns out that nothing happens. So the news producers decided that Fukushima was going to be a big story and that there was going to be a big disaster. It had the word "nuclear" after all.

When news programmes decide how they think a story is going to pan out, they have a tendency to look for evidence that backs up their suspicions and to ignore stuff that doesn't. The power station incident was a good story. People had been a little confused about how to react to the earthquake and tsunami. A previous tsunami in the Far East had had the good sense to happen on Boxing Day when there was no other news. The countries that were hit were places like Indonesia, Sir Lanka and Thailand. They were mostly dirt poor and people all over the world responded with money and assistance. But when Japan was hit, people weren't really sure what to do. Sure it seemed like a disaster, but Japan was wealthy - was there any point in sending money? Japan could fix itself, couldn't it? People just didn't know. So the impending nuclear disaster was a great story. It kept the public interested and the best was yet to come; a meltdown would lead to a massive explosion and would be captured live on screen. When it later transpired that there had been a meltdown quite early on and we'd all missed it because nothing really happened, that was disappointing.

Chernobyl had been a great news story (if you were a producer), but it had lacked in visual appeal. There weren't any cameras filming when it went pop, so the subsequent news reports we dedicated to the ruin of the reactor or people's reactions as trying to film invisible radiation was a bit tricky. We were already scared of nuclear stuff, but Chernobyl really helped freak us out properly. Cancer is random killer that is quite a concern, especially as more and more of us are living long enough for it to be almost inevitable for use to get cancer. Combine the randomness of cancer with the insidious creeping invisibility of radiation and you've got an excellent basis for unreasoning fear. Yay! Great news if you're a news producer as the public will just keep staring at your coverage, keeping your ratings nice and high.

Roy Castle the trumpet-playing entertainer was certain that the lung cancer that killed him was as a result of him playing in smoke-filled jazz clubs, but he was the only one who was sure. That's the trouble with cancer - it's so random; there are plenty of lifelong smokers who won't get lung cancer and plenty of non-smokers who will. Millions of people will die of cancer in the years after the Fukushima incident, but how many cancers will demonstrably be caused by it? Uh.... the only way that the death rates can be estimated is by looking at the number of cancer deaths that would have happened anyway and comparing it to the actual rate. No one will die knowing that it was because of the Fukushima accident.

One of the most marked effects of Fukushima was the desire of people to react to it, especially politicians. "This must never happen again" and phrases like that spilled from the lips of politicians all around the globe, even though it had bugger all to do with them. But it's easy to score a few political points when you say that something bad is, well... bad. There's no chance of being wrong and that's a hell of a luxury in the ever-shifting political world. The trouble has come with just how far they've gone. A lot of people got a bit carried away and have made decisions that will kill a lot more than a thousand people.

In the wake of the Fukushima accident, Germany announced that it wouldn't be building any more nuclear power stations and that it would decommission its existing ones by 2022. In the UK, various energy companies had been awaiting government approval to build new nuclear power stations, but that permission has not come and now maybe never will. Lots of countries have now decided that their future electricity needs will not be met with nuclear power.

For politicians, it's easy to promise not to do something - you're not required to actually do anything. So promising not to build nuclear power stations gets a good boost of popular support without having to spend any money, raise any taxes or piss anyone off. And that's where the trouble comes in.

Our energy needs are continuing to rise every year requiring more and more power stations. There are a few different choices of generation method: oil, coal, gas, nuclear, hydro, geothermal, biomass, solar, wind and wave. Although the recent rise in alternative generation methods has been jolly nice, it's not terribly useful. The electrical grid relies on generating the same amount of power as is needed at the same time as it's needed - there aren't any giant batteries ready to store an excess or make up any shortfall. Solar, wind and wave are all too intermittent to be able to supply more than a third of our power at best as they rely on other generation methods to back them up. Burning oil isn't a great method thanks to the increasing scarcity of oil and its concomitant high price. Geothermal is terrific, but there are very few places (Iceland mostly) where it can be used. Hydro-electric suffers from location problems as well and that just leaves us with coal, gas and nuclear. And if our political leaders are all too scared to build nuclear power stations, it's all down to burning coal and gas. And gas is a bit pricey too, so coal it is.

There are technologies out there to try to reduce the levels of air pollution caused by installations like coal power stations, but there's only so much that filters can snatch from chimneys. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is talked of a lot, but doesn't work yet and only deals with CO2 - it's aimed at tackling greenhouse gases rather than the particulate matter that will kill us all a lot sooner.

Coal comes in various grades and is rated according to the amount of sulphur it contains. Obviously, coal with a higher sulphur content will cause more pollution. Guess what level of sulphur content there is the cheap, plentiful type of coal used in power stations? We never get lucky on these things, do we?

Air pollution is an oddly acceptable killer. London had been famous for its thick fogs which turned out to be smog. It killed thousands of people in the capital every year and no one seemed to mind terribly much. In 1952, a change in weather led to the worst smog yet and over 10,000 people died in just a couple of weeks. Parliament passed the Clean Air Act and efforts were finally made to clean up the air.

So how much air pollution does it take to kill someone and just how much of that pollution is contributed by power stations? In the UK over 50,000 people every year die prematurely because of air pollution. Really? Yes, really. To be fair, a lot of that pollution is caused by traffic, but how much is caused by power stations? A 2007 study published in The Lancet worked out that for every terawatt-hour of power generated in European coal power stations, twenty five people die. And Europe generates 1,000 terawatt-hours of electricity from coal every year.

This oil refinery fire caused by the earthquake will kill more people than Fukushima Daiichi

So that's 25,000 people dying from the pollution caused by coal-powered power stations in Europe every year - and that's just with existing power stations. Compare that to the 5,000 people killed by nuclear power over thirty years. And remember that these coal figures are for Europe only (I can't find reliable figures for other continents).

So because people are terrified of the random killing power of radiation-induced cancer and because so many of our political leaders are cowards that are desperate for public approval, we're going to end up with a new generation of coal-fired power stations which will kill tens of thousands of people every year. And all because of our unreasoning fear of the word "nuclear". And that's the very real fallout from the Fukushima accident.

If I haven't bored you to tears already, PBS (the American public broadcaster) has a very good programme examining this issue. Click here to view it.


  1. I thought that Fukushima was a riveting news story, actually, even though I felt I had a fairly realistic idea of the likely effects even if the containment efforts filed entirely (and, as you point out, they weren't anywhere near as bad as news media liked to think). It felt like an old fashioned story, where saturated coverage wasn't possible because of the exclusion zone, and that made the few images compelling. Interestingly, the most dramatic sequence - the hydrogen explosion that demolished the outer structure of Reactor 3 - didn't propogate that quickly. I remember finding the grainy images on Russia Today after the initial reports, and being slightly shocked at how long it took other sources such as the BBC to start playing it. Tangentially, I've been rather disappointed with BBC News over the last year. I thought their coverage of the Egyptian uprising was pretty unimpressive, even after John Simpson jetted in to knock some shape into it. I spent a couple of weeks watching Al-Jazeera pretty much non-stop :/

  2. Not to mention the fact that coal power is worse even when it comes to radiation (and the air pollution is much more critical):

    PS: Cool blog... Pretty sure it's funnier than Shapi. ;-)

    1. Thank you, Alan (Tan..., I'm presuming it's you).

      I hadn't even considered the radiation from coal and that's an excellent SciAm article. Thank you!

      (The blog has suffered lately because of the popularity of the article about the DayZ computer game taking up all my effort.)

    2. Yeap, it's me matey - hope you are well!