Fukushima and Chernobyl: Myth versus Reality
(Transcript edited by Ken Adachi)
Narrator: On the 11th of March 2011, following a massive earthquake and tsunami, a nuclear accident occurred at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in Japan. Radioactive material was released into the environment over several days.
(Japanese voice of emergency worker in background)
The Japanese authorities took precautions to protect the public. A 20 km exclusion zone was set up; and restrictions were imposed on the consumption of products grown around the plant. But these actions only seemed to add to the mood of public anxiety and confusion fed by a global media frenzy.
(Newspaper headlines shown)
The common assumption was that many Japanese people would suffer long-term cancers from the radiation. As for the workers still at the plant, they were seen as “dead men walking”.
But with the eyes of the world on Fukushima, an important anniversary was taking place, one which offered lessons on the public-health impacts of nuclear events. It was the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear accident.
(Title shown on screen: Fukushima and Chernonyl, Myth versus Reality)
Narrator: UNSCEAR – the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation – was set up by the UN General Assembly in 1955. For the last 25 years, it has examined in detail the impact to health and the environment of the Chernobyl accident.
UNSCEAR’s principal officer is British scientist, Dr Malcolm Crick.
Malcolm Crick: "After Chernobyl, the only public health impact that we have seen has been the more than 6,000 thyroid cancers amongst those people who were children at the time of the accident, drinking contaminated milk. Of those 6,000 or more cases, perhaps 15 have died. It’s not a very fatal disease – thyroid cancer – if it’s caught early and treated properly. Then when we think about other effects, actually there’s no really good persuasive evidence of any public health impact due to radiation from the accident, other than the thyroid cancers. Most people find that kind of hard to believe, but in fact that’s the case."
Narrator: Professor Gerry Thomas, from London’s Imperial College, is a world authority on molecular pathology. She's also a Director of the Chernobyl Tissue Bank, an international initiative to collect biological samples from those exposed to radioactive iodine in childhood – work that has led Dr Thomas to reassess her views on nuclear energy.
Gerry Thomas: "The health consequences of a nuclear power accident may not be as bad as we first thought. I was anti-nuclear until I started working on Chernobyl. Now, no problem at all."
"The results of the studies that were carried out post-Chernobyl, which were big international studies, have not been what we might have expected from the outset. Those studies have shown that there is only one thing that we can pin down to being due to radiation and that’s the sharp increase of thyroid cancer in those who were very young at exposure to the Chernobyl accident."
Abel Gonzalez: "In the case of Chernobyl, there was a lot of iodine being released, and, very important, nobody told the population that this iodine was there and that the milk was contaminated with this iodine."
Narrator: Professor Abel Gonzalez, from Argentina, is Deputy Chairman of the International Commission on Radiological Protection, a body of the world’s leading scientists and policy makers which, since 1928, has set guidelines for governments around the world.
Abel Gonzalez: "Mothers, who didn’t know that an accident had happened, these mothers were giving contaminated milk to their children; very heavily contaminated milk. Not surprising, the children had a very high dose of radiation in their thyroid, and not surprising, a lot of children – mainly in Belarus, but also in Ukraine and in Russia - got thyroid cancer that can be attributed to Chernobyl."
Malcolm Crick: "If we think of the emergency workers after Chernobyl, there were 134 people who got acute radiation sickness from the first few days of very high exposures after the accident. And 28 of those people died within the first month or so. Then when we look further on in time, those people who've got problems with skin injuries still and they’ve got problems with cataracts, but only about 19 or 20 people have died in the period since the accident and not all of those deaths can be attributed to radiation; In fact, many of them are clearly not due to radiation."
Narrator: So the voice of leading scientific bodies is clear. The only observable public health impact due to radiation after Chernobyl has been the more than 6000 thyroid cancers, of which only around 15 have proven fatal. As for the emergency workers who received the highest doses, fewer than 50 have died.
These numbers – while significant - represent a fraction of the hundreds of thousands if not millions of victims predicted after the accident. Frequently misunderstood by the public, radiation dose is determined by the type and amount of radiation we are exposed to. It’s measured in the International Standard Unit of millisieverts.
Professor Thomas on the doses received by residents living around the Chernobyl plant:
Gerry Thomas: "Now this is the figure that – when I saw it – made me think: that nicely puts it into perspective. The whole-body doses to 6 million residents is about 9 millisieverts. So each person got about 9 millisieverts. And 80% of that lifetime dose was delivered by 2005. Now, 9 millisieverts is about what any of us will get when we go and have a CT scan. Do we sit there and panic about having a CT scan? No, we don’t. And we need to make sure that we keep that in mind when we think about accidents like this. We expose ourselves to radiation voluntarily. We can’t avoid it; we live in a radioactive world."
Narrator: Naturally occurring background radiation is the main exposure to radiation for most people globally. Levels typically range from 1.5 - 3.5 millisieverts per year. However, there are several places in India, Iran and Europe, where doses can be more than 50 millisieverts a year. Medical procedures, such as X-rays, account for most of the remaining 12% of a typical person’s annual dose.
(voice of Japanese emergency worker in background)
So what of Fukushima Dai-ichi?
Gerry Thomas: "In real terms, I doubt that there’ll be any radiological consequences to the population at all."
Abel Gonzalez: "The second big impact of Chernobyl was the famous thyroid cancers in children. And these thyroid cancers have happened because the children were drinking contaminated milk. Well this is not the case in Fukushima. The mothers knew, and children were not given contaminated milk. The milk was controlled. Therefore, we should expect, basically, not a thyroid impact in Fukushima.”
(Japanese emergency worker voices in gackground)
Narrator: By comparison with the front line workers tackling Chernobyl, the safety provisions were very different for the Fukushima workers.
Abel Gonzalez: "They were very well protected. They had very proper clothes, they had a record of doses, they had controls."
Gerry Thomas: "Now they have had higher doses of radiation than the population outside, but they are an order of magnitude less than the doses received by the fire-fighters and helicopter pilots in Chernobyl. so I think it’s highly unlikely that they’ll suffer any long-term consequences going forward with the doses that they’ve probably received.”
Narrator: So thanks to measures taken by the Japanese authorities, expert opinion is that we can expect no health impact on the population around Fukushima due to radiation. As for the workers at the site, they too can expect to avoid ill effects from the exposure they received. So if the health consequences are not what they are commonly believed to be, what are the consequences of a serious nuclear accident like Chernobyl?
Malcolm Crick: "When we think then about the non-radiation impact, clearly this has been a tremendous trauma for the people in terms of the stress and anxiety and the concern that the radiation environment has caused them, and the countermeasures that have been made that have disrupted their lives."
Abel Gonzalez: "Chernobyl was a real catastrophe for the people of the region. They changed the politics of the region, they changed all the social infrastructure, they changed all the economy of the region; but [it] was not a health impact. What the media have been saying about that were simply wrong statements produced by misinformed people. "
(newspaper headlines shown)
Narrator: In the confusion and disruption that follows a nuclear accident, the social and economic consequences become far greater than those relating to public health.
So what can be done?
Malcolm Crick: "Well I think the scientific community has to do a much better job of communicating to the public or to the lay person. Decisions are being made all the time on fairly important issues that relate to the understanding of the science, and I think the understanding is hindered by the quality of the communication that we – the scientific community – have given in the past. And I think we’ve got to do a better job at this. We have to have this in our programmes of work for the future; some really thoughtful consideration of how we communicate better rather complex ideas to the public and decision-makers so that they can really assimilate and appreciate what we are talking about."
Gerry Thomas: "I don't think we should blame the media completely for what happens. Scientists have a responsibility as well. It’s important to be able to get a public understanding of the science of a situation like what happened at Fukushima, out there, so that the public can make a judgement for itself. And if nobody is willing to talk to the media on the science side, or a government representative, for example, being put forward who understands the science and can answer the questions, then that feeds people’s fear.
Communication is actually extremely important in a disaster like that, and if communication had been better post-Chernobyl, if communication had been better post-Fukushima, maybe we wouldn't have done the psychological damage that we appear to have done to those populations.”
(Text shown on screen following spoken dialog)
"Scientists, industry and governments must work harder to dispel widespread myths about the radiation effects of nuclear accidents.
For the people of Fukushima, the question of when they can return home should be determined by rational science-based judgments
Nuclear power holds great potential to meet growing worldwide energy need in the 21st Century
Fulilment of this potential will depend on better public understanding of radiation."
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