Fukushima and NZ: Five years later – Expert reaction

Five years on from the Fukushima meltdown, the SMC asks if we have seen any effects in New Zealand. And have our attitudes towards nuclear power changed?

Aerial view of Fukushima nuclear power plant (Creative Commons).
Aerial view of Fukushima nuclear power plant (Creative Commons; updated from an earlier image)

It was the worst nuclear event since Chernobyl. In the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, a crippled Japanese nuclear powerplant went into meltdown, and the world watched as emergency workers scrambled to shut down and contain the reactors.

Following the disaster there was widespread concern, and sometimes panic, over the spread of radioactive material in the air and water. You can look back over the expert commentary and coverage from the SMC here. The World Health Organization has also issued a FAQ on the disaster and ongoing health risks.

Five years down the track, the Science Media Centre contacted New Zealand scientists and researchers to find out more about how the disaster changed how we look at food, environment and energy in New Zealand.

The SMC gathered the following expert commentary on the anniversary of the Fukushima disaster.

Dr Andrew Pearson, Senior Advisor Toxicology, Ministry of Primary Industries, comments:

“Confirming the safety of food for New Zealanders following the Fukushima-Daiichi accident has been a priority for the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and has led to a number of studies being undertaken.

“In the first two years after the accident MPI undertook monitoring of foods imported from Japan. A signature of Fukushima radioactivity was detected in imported tea and mackerel but levels were still far below the acceptable international limits for radionuclides in food after an accident. If you ate tea and fish with these levels as part of your diet for a year the dose would still be less than getting a single dental x-ray.

“In 2013, MPI in collaboration with the Institute of Environmental Science and Research and the University of Canterbury undertook a dietary survey to establish the levels of radiation in the normal diet of New Zealanders.

“No signal from Fukushima was recorded in this research. However, traces of the residual radioactivity from the nuclear weapons testing last century were found in a few foods as well as the naturally occurring radionuclides that are always present but these were well below acceptable limits and posed no food safety risks. An additional study was undertaken investigating radionuclides in different seafood species caught from around the coast of New Zealand. No traces of Fukushima radioactivity were found.

“This came as no surprise as published models of how the radionuclides will spread through the Pacific Ocean have shown that it will take 15-20 years before any contamination will reach New Zealand. These studies have also shown that when it does reach New Zealand it will be so dilute that any transfer into New Zealand seafood undetectable.

“The World Health Organization assessment of the Fukushima-Daiichi accident reported that there was likely no increased health risk to any country outside Japan. For most countries, including New Zealand, exposure to man-made radionuclides in the diet remains very low and there are no food safety concerns associated with this.

“Food is tested for radionuclides by detecting the characteristic radiation emitted by each individual radioisotope. Caesium-134, caesium-137 and iodine-131 for example are measured by detecting the emission of their gamma rays.”

Dr David Krofcheck, Senior Lecturer, Department of Physics, University of Auckland, comments:

“Watching the Fukushima tragedy live on CNN at home with my wife, I had an ominous realization that the events on our TV screen were only the beginning of a multigenerational tragedy for Japan.

“Five years ago Japan was hit with a triple whammy of catastrophes; a magnitude 9 earthquake; a subsequent tsunami ; and then the events with the greatest long term effects, the triple reactor core meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

“The meltdowns are actually a ‘slow motion’ disaster as the damaged reactor cores still require a constant source of cooling water to carry off heat from low level, ongoing nuclear reactions. Today approximately 800,000 tonnes of water are stored in casks near the reactor site, having gone through state-of-the art cleansing. I admire the Japanese technological efforts in collaboration with expertise from France and the USA. The Japanese have done the best they could have done.

“Living in New Zealand one can ask how the Japanese event could affect us. The short answer is that physically we have been only minimally affected.

“Studies sponsored by the Ministry for Primary Industries (June 2013) of tea imports from Japan and fish from the North Atlantic ocean showed no extra health risk from cesium-134, and strontium-90 produced during the reactor meltdowns.

“Additional radiological studies on muttonbird chicks by Landcare Research and Te Papa, in collaboration with the Rakiura TiTi Committee, have also shown no trace of these same isotopes. This is important as the muttonbird winter migration waters are off the coast of Fukushima. My own studies of New Zealand soils have shown no sign of cesium-134, which could only have been produced from Fukushima.

“Our own normal background radiation from uranium decay in our soil, and any medical radiation treatment, are by far the largest contribution to our annual radiation dose.”

Dr Rebecca Priestley, Science in Society group, Victoria University of Wellington, is a science historian and co-editor of the recently published book The Fukushima Effect. She comments:

“I spent the morning of March 12, 2011 glued to the television set, watching the incredible footage of the tsunami wave breaching sea walls alternating with scenes from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

“The Fukushima nuclear disaster impacted on attitudes to nuclear power around the world – but in different ways in different countries. The disaster led to a freeze on Japan’s nuclear industry and major setbacks to that country’s planned future of nuclear energy development. Germany, Switzerland and Belgium made decisions to phase out nuclear power. Taiwan – which, like Japan, is in a region of high seismic hazard – shut down construction of its fourth nuclear power plant. In contrast, nearby Korea, China and India continued to expand their nuclear fleets. While France planned to reduce its nuclear commitments by 25%, and decommissioned some of its older reactors, other countries, including the US, UK, Finland, and the countries of the former Soviet Union, showed a minimal Fukushima effect.

“New Zealand, as a non-nuclear nation, is different. Green Party Politician Keith Locke probably expressed the immediate sentiment of many New Zealanders with his statement, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, that he was “so glad our country is nuclear-free.” But the Fukushima disaster did little, if anything, to change pre-existing narratives about nuclear power in New Zealand. As recounted in my chapter about New Zealand in The Fukushima Effect, there is still a significant minority – around 30% – who think nuclear power would be a good idea for New Zealand, and preferable to alternatives such as wind farms.

“The World Nuclear Association now says that ‘Nuclear power remains an option for New Zealand, using relatively small units of 250-300 MWe each, in power stations located on the coast near the main load centres. New Zealand will find it increasingly difficult to avoid considering nuclear power. Nuclear is a sustainable option, able to enhance the country’s desired image. With minimal aesthetic impact, it would provide the power for Auckland’s continued growth, including energy-intensive industry’.

“When the Fukushima disaster happened five years ago, New Zealand media – me included – found it hard to find scientists who were informed and available to be interviewed. If at some time in the future, in response to a massively growing population or changing economics of nuclear power, a New Zealand government proposes to introduce nuclear power to New Zealand we will need scientists who are permitted to speak out on the issue.”

These comments are an abridged version of  guest  post by Dr Priestley on Sciblogs.co.nz .

The UK Science Media Centre collected the following commentary in response to ‘Fukushima – Five Years On’ – a special edition of Clinical Oncology with an editorial ‘Radiation Exposure and Health Effects – is it Time to Reassess the Real Consequences?’

Prof. Malcolm Sperrin, Director of Medical Physics and Clinical Engineering at the Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust, said:

“A vast amount of research has been conducted into the release of radiation from the Fukushima power plant and to date there has been no unambiguously attributable death as a result of exposure to the radiation. However, there is evidence that suggests that some cancers are highly likely to have developed as a result of the release. It must be borne in mind that the deaths following the tsunami were not as a result of the radiation but arose as a consequence of the tidal wave. There are subtleties that need to be identified when examining the risk to the population which include the psychological impact of a destructive event and also the non-radioactive effects of chemical toxicity.

“A further consideration is the additional medical support given to the affected population which will benefit from enhanced health screening for many years. One consequence of this would be to pick up cancers earlier than would otherwise be the case and hence are likely to be more responsive to treatment and secondly conditions independent of any causality with radiation would be identified and treated. That is not to say the radiation effects and risks are negligible, but to re-emphasise that the risk to the population is complex and demanding of much further study.”

Prof. Jim Smith, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Portsmouth, said:

“This special issue of Clinical Oncology is a very important and timely contribution to our understanding of the consequences of Fukushima and of nuclear issues in general. The key message is that, such is people’s (understandable) fear of radiation, that the social and psychological impacts of the Fukushima nuclear accident are likely to outweigh the direct health impacts.

“I find it depressing that this is precisely the same conclusion as was drawn by the WHO/IAEA report 20 years after the Chernobyl accident. It seems like the lesson is a difficult one to learn. It’s not, of course, that radiation isn’t dangerous, it’s just that the doses experienced by people after a nuclear accident are low, and similar to radiation doses from diagnostic X-rays or natural radiation in many places worldwide.  Radiation to people affected by Fukushima presents a very low risk, but it’s very difficult to communicate this risk to people, especially in the aftermath of what everyone acknowledges was a terrible accident.

“The authors of this special issue are right that scientists must learn to communicate better. But those who counter the scientific consensus on radiation risk need to take some responsibility. Science is far from perfect and we need to keep questioning the scientific consensus. But those who question the radiation risk consensus based on flimsy evidence, or exaggerate the risks for political or ideological ends, need to realise that their actions have important consequences. If the critics are wrong, and I think they are, they are contributing to an exaggerated fear of radiation which has clear consequences for people’s lives.”

Dr Barrie Lambert, retired radiation biologist formerly of St Bartholomews Hospital Medical College, said:

“These papers concentrate on the health effects of the fear of radiation. This has been a problem several times in the past particularly after the Three Mile island incident and is difficult to assuage.

“Advice to the public is not going to stop panic in such situations unless the message comes from an unimpeachable source. Reassurances – or alternatively, messages of doom – usually come from either the nuclear power management or the anti-nuclear lobby groups, both of which come with ‘baggage’. In Japan with so many nuclear power plants it would be hoped that there would be an ongoing programme of honest information about the risks of radiation exposure in comparison to the other risks of living in an industrialized society, provided by an ‘independent’ source. By ‘honest’ I mean info which acknowledges the risk but puts it into context.”

Prof. Mike Thorne, consultant on radioactive waste management, said:

“A key issue highlighted by this special issue is a need to treat major accidents at nuclear installations as unlikely but reasonably foreseeable.

“There is a need to avoid overstating the risks, since this would lead to an inappropriate level of concern in local communities, but also to emphasise that those risks are real, so that those who live or work close to nuclear installations are prepared to take appropriate actions in the event of an accident. The Fukushima accident emphatically demonstrated the conventional risks to individuals associated with evacuation and it is well-known that sheltering is often preferable. However, ensuring that sheltering is the response that actually occurs in the event of an accident requires substantial precautionary planning. In the UK, arrangements under the REPPIR (2001) regulations ensure that persons living within the Detailed Emergency Planning Zone of a nuclear licensed site are appropriately informed of what to do in the event of an accident. However, this zone typically extends only up to about two miles from the centre of the site.

“In the aftermath of Fukushima, it would be prudent to give consideration to the extent to which detailed emergency planning, including the provision of information and guidance to members of the public, should be extended to greater distances, rather than relying on a general requirement that emergency plans should be extendable, as required, beyond the Detailed Emergency Planning Zone.”

Prof. Richard Wakeford, Professor in Epidemiology at the University of Manchester, said:

“Five years on from the serious accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station in Japan, it has become clear that the psycho-social effects of the accident (and presumably of the earthquake and tsunami) represent an area of health research that needs more attention.  A lot of time and effort has been spent on examining the potential effects of radiation exposure, and it looks like any such effects will not be detectable above background disease rates, so it is appropriate to draw attention to the (potentially much greater) non-radiation health effects of the accident.

“Following the dramatic increase in thyroid cancer incidence following the high levels of exposure of children in the former USSR to radioactive iodine in Chernobyl fallout, it is understandable that this should be a subject of concern after Fukushima, although thyroid doses in Japan were much lower.  There have been some wild claims about thyroid cancer in Fukushima Prefecture, unfortunately some in scientific journals, but these are highly suspect.  There is every reason to believe that the previous detailed scientific assessments, concluding that any additional thyroid cancer cases will be undetectable, remain valid.”

Edit: This post initially carried an image of natural-gas storage tanks burning at the Cosmo oil refinery in Ichihara city after the Tokohu quake. This was not the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.