Risks and Effects of Radiation: Putting Fukushima in Context

The Health Physics Society panel held 1 March 2012 should be an excellent source of objective Fukushima risk assessment. The proceedings have not yet been published — meanwhile here is the HPS announcement:

As the world remembers the one-year anniversary of the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan and set off a tragic chain of events that included the nuclear reactor incident in Fukushima, the panel of leading scientific and medical experts reported on the risks and effects of radiation on the Japanese and other populations. A first-hand account of the impacts on the Fukushima population was provided by two members of the distinguished panel. The discussions included the health effects of radiation immediately following the event to present day and an analysis of future risks for the population.

The panel consisted of John Boice, ScD; Robert Emery, DrPH, CHP, CIH; Robert Peter Gale, MD, PhD, DS. (Hon); Kathryn Higley, PhD, CHP; and Richard Vetter, PhD, CHP. It was moderated by Howard Dickson, CHP, CSP, and CIH.

Members of the Washington panel agreed that while they considered the physical health risks from the exposure too small to measure, the accident would still have an impact. Psychological trauma from the evacuation and months away from home could end up being the biggest health risk from the accident.

Dr. Gale said he believed the exaggerated environmental and health risk claims from alarmists could backfire by making it harder for people in Fukushima Prefecture to resume their normal lives and businesses. “Already we see a stigmatization of people from that area or products from that area,” he said. “It’s very hard for them to survive. It’s quite unfortunate.”

While the quake and tsunami killed an estimated 20,000 people, radiation has not killed anyone so far, and members of the Health Physics Society, drawn from academia, medicine, and the nuclear industry, suggested that the doses were too small to have much effect. “There’s no opportunity for conducting epidemiological studies that have any chance of success,” said Dr. Boice. “The doses are just too low. If you were to do a proposal, it would not pass a scientific review.”

Members of the press asked several questions of the panel during the press conference and visited individually with panel members after the event.

A video of all the proceedings will be available in a few days. Watch for it on the HPS website (hps.org).

Nuclear Energy Overview summarized some of the presentations here:

(…) Dr. Robert Gale, visiting professor at Imperial College London, pointed out that although approximately 20,000 people died from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami, none of those deaths are attributable to radiation from the Fukushima accident.

However, Gale said, “The fact that everyone is here today, shows that the public’s focus is really on Fukushima. You hear very few things about the earthquake and tsunami.”

Gale presented preliminary data on the 10,000 inhabitants near the Fukushima plant thought to have received the highest doses of radiation showing that:

  • 5,800 received doses less than 1 millisievert (mSv).
  • 4,100 received doses between 1 and 10 mSv.
  • 71 received doses between 10 mSv and 20 mSv.
  • 2 received doses between 20 mSv and 23 mSv.

By comparison, each year a resident of the United States receives an average total dose from background radiation of about 3.1 mSv.

Gale said it was important to translate these doses into something the general public could easily understand. These radiation doses indicate an “incredibly small” increase in risk of death from cancer of only 0.001 percent for a member of the Japanese public, he said. The increased risk of cancer incidence would be only 0.002 percent for a member of the Japanese public.

Such a small increase in the cancer rate would make it very hard to scientifically verify an increase in cancers that could be directly linked to the Fukushima accident.

“The exposures to the population are very, very low,” said John Boice, professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and President Nominee of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements. “As such, there is no opportunity to conduct epidemiological studies that have any chance of detecting excess [cancer] risk. The doses are just too low.”

One thought on “Risks and Effects of Radiation: Putting Fukushima in Context

  1. In the interest of of “context”…the doses are low BECAUSE people evacuated and food is being monitored. If no one was at Hiroshima or Nagasaki when the bombs were dropped, the doses would be low too.

    Also, the fat lady hasn’t sung on Fukushima. People are still receiving doses, food is still being monitored and confiscated, etc.

    The health risks are still epidemiologically non-measurable, I’m not promoting fear mongering. But it’s not too logical to recognize a hazard, take steps to avoid it, reap the benefit of the steps, and then promote there wasn’t a hazard.

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