Spinning Fukushima

Jim Green

Nuclear apologists around the world are peddling the following dishonest arguments concerning the Fukushima nuclear disaster:

  • it was caused by a natural disaster and no-one is to blame;
  • it resulted from problems specific to Japan and is of no relevance to nuclear power elsewhere;
  • it has not caused and will not cause any radiation-related deaths;
  • low-level radiation exposure is harmless;
  • the nuclear accident has caused a great deal of psychological suffering but that should be blamed on nuclear critics spreading ‘radiophobia’; and
  • lessons will be learned from the accident and nuclear power will be even safer than it already is.

Let’s take each of those arguments in turn.

An Act of God?

Spin: “It was therefore a sequence of extraordinary forces unleashed by an unprecedented natural disaster which caused the accident at the reactors, not any operating failure, human error or design fault of the reactors themselves.” − Uranium junior Toro Energy, 2011.

The 3/11 earthquake and tsunami were Acts of God but the nuclear disaster was an Act of TEPCO. The July 2012 report of Japan’s Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) concluded that the accident was “a profoundly man-made disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented” if not for “a multitude of errors and wilful negligence that left the Fukushima plant unprepared for the events of March 11”.

Made in Japan?

Spin: The fundamental causes of the Fukushima are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture.

The otherwise excellent NAIIC report makes the questionable claim that the disaster can be attributed to problems specific to Japan. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, Chair of the Commission, said: “What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan.’ Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.”

Certainly those factors were at work − but they are not unique to Japan. Academic Benjamin Sovacool has documented 99 accidents at nuclear power plants worldwide from 1952 to 2009 that resulted in the loss of human life and/or more than US$50,000 of property damage. Of those 99 accidents, 56 were in the USA, 10 in France, seven in both Japan and India, and the remaining 19 accidents in 11 other countries.

Chernobyl was dismissed as an aberration involving dated technology in a closed Communist society. Fukushima shows that nuclear disasters can happen in the most technologically advanced Western societies.

No radiation deaths?

Spin: “There have been no harmful effects from radiation on local people, nor any doses approaching harmful levels.” − World Nuclear Association, January 2013.

Long-term studies are unlikely to demonstrate statistically-significant increases in cancer incidence from Fukushima fallout, because of the high incidence of cancers in the general population. Nevertheless, some preliminary scientific estimates of the long-term cancer death toll are available, based on information about radiation releases and exposures. These range from a cancer death toll of 130 (a Stanford University study) to 3,000 (radiation biologist Ian Fairlie − ianfairlie.org).

Indirect deaths must also be considered, especially those resulting from the failure of TEPCO and government authorities to develop and implement adequate emergency response procedures. A September 2012 Editorial in Japan Times notes that 1,632 deaths occurred during or after evacuation from the triple-disaster; and 160,000 of the 343,000 evacuees were dislocated specifically because of the nuclear disaster. A January 2013 article in The Lancet notes that “the fact that 47% of disaster-related deaths were recognised in Fukushima prefecture alone indicates that the earthquake-triggered nuclear crisis at the Fukushima power plant caused extreme hardship for local residents.”

Low-level radiation exposure is safe?

Spin: “If the most highly exposed person receives a trivial dose, then everyone’s dose will be trivial and we can’t expect anyone to get cancer.” − US Health Physics Society

The Health Physics Society redefines the problem of low-level radiation exposure as a non-problem involving “trivial” doses which are, by definition, harmless. It would be too kind to describe that as circular logic − it is asinine.

The overwhelming weight of scientific opinion holds that there is no threshold below which ionising radiation is without risk. For example:

  • The 2006 report of the Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation of the US National Academy of Sciences states: “The Committee judges that the balance of evidence from epidemiologic, animal and mechanistic studies tend to favor a simple proportionate relationship at low doses between radiation dose and cancer risk.” It states that claims that low-level radiation exposure is beneficial are “unwarranted at this time”.
  • A 2011 report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation states that “the current balance of available evidence tends to favour a non-threshold response for the mutational component of radiation-associated cancer induction at low doses and low dose rates.”
  • And to give one other example (there are many), a 2003 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences states: “Given that it is supported by experimentally grounded, quantifiable, biophysical arguments, a linear extrapolation of cancer risks from intermediate to very low doses currently appears to be the most appropriate methodology.”


Spin: ‘Radiophobia’ spread by nuclear critics is responsible for most of the suffering resulting from the nuclear accident.

The spin is disingenuous but we should acknowledge a thin thread of truth − claims that the Fukushima disaster will lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths have no credibility and must be causing some distress in Japan.

However, vastly more suffering can be attributed to Japan’s corrupt nuclear industry and its many accomplices. As the NAIIC report notes, the Fukushima disaster was the result of “collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO” and evacuees “continue to face grave concerns, including the health effects of radiation exposure, displacement, the dissolution of families, disruption of their lives and lifestyles and the contamination of vast areas of the environment.”

Lessons learned?

Spin: Lessons will be learned from the Fukushima accident and improvements made. Nuclear power − already safe − will be safer still.

If the nuclear industry learned lessons from past mistakes, the Fukushima disaster wouldn’t have happened in the first place. Too often, lessons are learned but then forgotten, or learned by some but not by those who really need to know, or learned too late, or learned but not acted upon. The Chernobyl accident certainly led to improvements but complacency set in as memories of the disaster faded, and the same can be expected in the aftermath of Fukushima.

A report by the IAEA and the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency covering events from 2002-2005 states that “corrective measures, which are generally well-known, may not reach all end-users, or are not always rigorously or timely applied” and “operating experience feedback needs to be much improved in the international arena.”

There is no clearer example of the industry’s failure to learn than Japan’s nuclear industry. Countless subsequent accidents, incidents and scandals would have been averted had the lessons of the fatal 1999 Tokaimura accident been properly learned and acted upon (and Tokaimura wouldn’t have happened if earlier lessons about the need for adequate operator training had been acted upon). In 2002 and again in 2007, details of several hundreds safety breaches and data falsification incidents were revealed, stretching back to the 1980s. But nothing changed.

It has become increasingly obvious over the past decade that greater protection against seismic risks was necessary − especially in the aftermath of the July 2007 earthquake that caused radioactive water spills, burst pipes and fires at TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. But the nuclear utilities didn’t want to spend money on upgrades and they weren’t forced to act.

Nuclear apologists have learned the wrong lessons altogether. Dr William Sacks argues that an important lesson from Fukushima is the need to convince people that low-level radiation exposure is harmless. Rod Adams states: “The lesson that the world needs to take away from Fukushima is that it is okay to build hundreds or thousands of new nuclear power stations and to place them quite close to the backyards of millions of people.”

Tell that to the family and friends of the Fukushima farmer whose suicide note read: “I wish there wasn’t a nuclear plant.”

Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia. jim.green@foe.org.au