Fukushima: Thinking Back

By: Dr. Andrew Karam

Anniversaries are important dates. They mark the return of the Earth to its previous position against the firmament – the completion of a year – they give us the opportunity to reflect on events that were important in our lives, on their significance, and how these events have affected us. March 11 – this Sunday – will mark the eighth anniversary of the great earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan, setting into motion the events that culminated in multiple reactor meltdowns. These events are chiseled into the consciousness of virtually everyone who follows the news and these events have served to engrave even more deeply the fears that so many have of nuclear power.


It is a shame that the world’s focus remains on the reactor plant accidents and the perils of nuclear energy – in spite of the fact that nearly 20,000 were killed are remain missing by the earthquake and tsunami while the reactor accidents have yet to claim a life. From the start the world has focused on the least of the problem facing Japan, leaving the Japanese to find and bury their dead, find homes for those who lost everything, and rebuild tsunami-ravaged cities.

Photo Credit Greg Webb / IAEA

I spent 10 days in Japan in April 2011, part of a small team that visited Sendai and Fukushima (along with Soma, Minimasoma, and Iidate – all of which were also hit hard by the events of March 11; when we landed at the Sendai airport we could see the water damage and we were all moved to tears when we saw how entire neighborhoods had simply vanished. Seeing the damage ourselves, smelling the mud and the decay, visiting the evacuation shelters, and meeting so many people whose lives had been upended – being there in person after having watched the news coverage was like standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon after seeing a photo spread in National Geographic. As a good health physicist I took radiation measurements in addition to wearing my trusty dosimeter (a Mirion Technologies InstaDose badge, for those of you who might be interested) – I picked up more radiation on the flights to and from Japan than I did in our time on the ground in the vicinity of Fukushima and nowhere did I see any radiation doses that were dangerous. Having said this I have to acknowledge that we only visited a few locations, all of which were outside the 20-km radius that was evacuated. But the fact is that radiation from the reactor accident hasn’t killed anyone and is not likely to do so in the future – a fact that is easily overlooked by those of us watching the continuing news coverage.


I am not trying to downplay the severity of the reactor accidents – three reactors melted down and a huge amount of radioactivity was released into the environment. This is the second-worst reactor accident in history – and it has yet to cause a single fatality. Over three hundred people have been evacuated from the contaminated areas, contaminated livestock have been slaughtered, contamination showed up in the Tokyo drinking water – and there hasn’t been a single fatality from radiation. For all the severity of this accident – for all of its impact on Japanese society and on the world’s views of nuclear energy – there has not been a single radiation-related fatality from this accident.

Photo Credit Greg Webb - IAEA

One other thing bears mention – it is likely that the Japanese weathered the reactor accident far better than would Americans. The shelters we visited, for example, were still clean and orderly. Items set out to be taken and used on the honor system were taken sparingly and returned after being used. Most of the people being sheltered were (of course) unhappy, but they also followed the shelter’s rules and they did their share to keep the shelters running effectively.


So with the perspective of time, what have we learned – what can we reflect upon – as the first anniversary of this tragedy approaches?


· One thing we have recognized is that anyone – at any level of government – can make knee-jerk reactions. Germany and Switzerland both announced early on that they were shutting down their nuclear reactors and Japan announced its determination to add new capacity in the form of alternative energy sources.


· We have seen that radiation phobia is as potent as ever. In spite of the utter lack of evidence of adverse health effects in Japan there are those claiming the existence of deaths in the United States and awaiting a flurry of deaths among those exposed in nearby cities.


· It appears as though public knowledge of radiation and its effects leaves much to be desired. Fears in Asia, the United States, Japan, and Europe are all exaggerated compared to the actual threat and there are still many who are worried about what fate might befall them from exposure to this radiation.


· This fear is largely due to a woeful lack of understanding on the part of the public and this lack of understanding is the fault of governments, who fail to provide their citizens with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions when it comes to radiation. Absent actual knowledge citizens are going to make decisions based on misinformation, lack of information, and their resulting fears.


· We have been reminded that “sexy” stories trump all else – otherwise we would be hearing news stories about the recovery from tsunami damage, rebuilding infrastructure destroyed by the natural disasters, energy conservation measures required by the loss of the nuclear reactors, and the like.

The reactor accident warranted global attention, just as the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl warranted global attention. But this attention was appropriate only in a world experiencing “typical” tragedies – the earthquake and tsunami were utterly devastating and caused far more damage, death, and destruction than the reactor meltdowns. In a just world the reactor accidents would have been recognized as significant accidents that paled in comparison to the natural tragedy that unfolded. In an adequately informed world the world’s attention would have focused on the homeless, the lost, and the dead – not on an accident that placed nobody at risk. And in such a world we would recognize that nuclear energy takes a lower toll on human health and on the environment than does the continuing use of fossil fuels. It is a shame that, because of our lack of understanding and our fears, we have taken our eye off the ball – that we have concentrated on the least deadly part of the tragedies that unfolded on March 11, 2011. Certainly we must be careful with both radiation and nuclear energy – but we must give them only the respect and the attention they are due; to do otherwise is to shortchange those who need our help the most.

Photo Credit Greg Webb - IAEA

One final note: While the earthquake and tsunami affected a huge swath of Japan Soma City was particularly hit – over 40 children were orphaned, several of them the children of firefighters who lost their lives while helping their fellow citizens reach safety. The word “hero” is often overused but I doubt that anyone can argue that a person who knowingly heads towards danger to save others is a hero. The firefighters and others who died saving the lives of citizens after the earthquake and during the tsunami were certainly heroes.


Andrew Karam is a radiation safety professional with 35 years’ of experience in his profession, beginning with the eight years he spent in Naval nuclear power. During his career Dr. Karam has worked for state and local governments, for an environmental consulting firm, and at two universities. He has a PhD in Environmental Science and is board-certified in health physics. Dr. Karam has served on two committees of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements and on a committee of the National Academies of Science. He has participated in several international missions on behalf of the International Atomic Energy Agency and, most recently, he travelled to Japan a month after the reactor meltdowns as part of a team that worked with physicians and emergency responders caring for victims exposed to radiation. Andrew Karam is the author of 16 books and 20 scientific papers as well as 200 encyclopedia articles. He has also written several hundred articles, editorials, and essays for both professional and general audiences. He formerly worked for the NYPD Counterterrorism Division as the Director of Radiological Operations.