The Fukushima Aftermath: Cancel the Four-Alarm Headlines

Kudos are due to Bryan Walsh, energy and environment writer for Time magazine, for offering a sober and serious piece of reporting on the de minimis risk posed by the radioactivity released from the destroyed Fukushima reactor in Japan last year.  Walsh’s reporting stands in sharp contrast to the New York Times and other media outlets that hyped the worst-case scenarios that planners ordered up just in case of a . . . worst case scenario.  The Times ran the headline “Japan Weighed Evacuating Tokyo in Nuclear Crisis.”  The story’s breathless copy didn’t bother to explain the actual risk assessment.  (Just to be doubly fair, though, a separate blog post by the Times’ Matthew Wald does get the story much better.)

Walsh, who tends to align himself in most of his stories with conventional environmental opinion, is having none of it:

Yet there’s something about nuclear power that seems to make the media and others go straight to the worst-case scenario—without pausing to evaluate how likely it really is. . .

As it happens, scientists have begun to compile early assessments of the health impacts of Fukushima—and the conclusions are less than catastrophic. Researchers speaking at a conference for the Health Physics Society said that the health threat to Japanese from radiation exposure looks to be extremely low. Even the brave workers who stayed behind at the plant had radiation exposure that was more than 10 times lower than that levels received by the half-million people who helped entomb the Chernobyl reaction more than two decades ago. They estimated that the risk of getting cancer for those exposed would increase 0.002%, and the risk of dying from cancer would rise by 0.001%. “I received more radiation on my transcontinental flights from Tokyo to Washington than I did at the reactor site,” said John Boice, a professor at Vanderbilt University and the incoming president of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements.

Obviously there’s uncertainty to those estimates, in part because it’s hard for researchers to know exactly how much radiation workers and other near the plant may have received. But it’s almost certain that it will be impossible to distinguish cancer cases that may be connected to Fukushima to the background rate of cancer, which eventually hits 41 out of every 100 people.