Stanford Researchers Reveal the True Human Cost of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster
By Max McClure
Radiation from Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster may eventually cause approximately 130 deaths and 180 cases of cancer, mostly in Japan, Stanford researchers have calculated.
The estimates have large uncertainty ranges, but contrast with previous claims that the radioactive release would likely cause no severe health effects.
The numbers are in addition to the roughly 600 deaths caused by the evacuation of the area surrounding the nuclear plant directly after the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and meltdown.
Recent PhD graduate John Ten Hoeve and Stanford civil engineering Professor Mark Z. Jacobson, a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy and the Woods Institute for the Environment, are set to publish their findings July 17 in the journal Energy and Environmental Science. The research constitutes the first detailed analysis of the event's global health effects.
The Fukushima Daiichi meltdown was the most extensive nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Radiation release critically contaminated a "dead zone" of several hundred square kilometers around the plant, and low levels of radioactive material were found as far as North America and Europe.
But most of the radioactivity was dumped in the Pacific—only 19 percent of the released material was deposited over land—keeping the exposed population relatively small.
"There are groups of people who have said there would be no effects," said Jacobson.
A month after the disaster, the head of the United Nations Science Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, for example, predicted that there would be no serious public health consequences resulting from the radiation.
Evaluating the claim, Ten Hoeve and Jacobson used a 3-D global atmospheric model, developed over 20 years of research, to predict the transport of radioactive material. A standard health-effects model was used to estimate human exposure to radioactivity.
Because of inherent uncertainties in the emissions and the health-effects model, the researchers found a range of possible death tolls, from 15 to 1,300, with a best estimate of 130. A wide span of cancer morbidities was also predicted, anywhere from 24 to 2,500, with a best estimate of 180.
Those affected according to the model were overwhelmingly in Japan, with extremely small effects noticeable in mainland Asia and North America. The U.S. was predicted to suffer between 0 and 12 deaths and 0 and 30 cancer morbidities, although the methods used were less precise for areas that saw only low radionuclide concentrations.
"These worldwide values are relatively low," said Ten Hoeve. He explained they should "serve to manage the fear in other countries that the disaster had an extensive global reach."
The Japanese government's response was much more rapid and coordinated than that of the Soviets in Chernobyl, which may have mitigated some of the cancer risk.
Japanese government agencies, for example, evacuated a 20-kilometer radius around the plant, distributed iodine tablets to prevent radioiodine uptake and prohibited cultivation of crops above a radiation threshold—steps that Ten Hoeve said "people have applauded."
But the paper also notes that nearly 600 deaths were reported as a result of the evacuation process itself, mostly due to fatigue and exposure among the elderly and chronically ill. According to the model, the evacuation prevented at most 245 radiation-related deaths—meaning the evacuation process may have cost more lives than it saved.
Still, the researchers cautioned against drawing conclusions about evacuation policy.
"You still have an obligation to evacuate people according to the worst-case scenario," said Jacobson.
If it happened here
To test the effects of varying weather patterns and geography on the reach of a nuclear incident, the two researchers also analyzed a hypothetical scenario: an identical meltdown at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, near San Luis Obispo, Calif.
Despite California's population density being about one-fourth that of Japan's, the researchers found the magnitude of the projected health effects to be about 25 percent larger.
The model showed that rather than being whisked toward the ocean, as with Fukushima, a larger percentage of the Diablo Canyon radioactivity deposited over land, including population centers such as San Diego and Los Angeles.
Jacobson stressed, however, that none of the calculations expressed the full scope of a nuclear disaster.
"There's a lot more to the issue than what we examined, which were the cancer-related health effects," he said. "Fukushima was just such a large disaster in terms of soil and water contamination, displacement of lives, confidence in government oversight, cost and anguish."
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.