Japanese Nuclear Disaster Could Cause More Deaths
July 18, 2012

Japanese Nuclear Disaster Could Cause More Deaths

Connie K. Ho for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Based on recent findings, researchers from Stanford University believe that radiation stemming from Japan´s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster may eventually lead to anywhere from 15 to 1,3000 deaths, with 24 to 2,500 due to cancer, in the country.

The results of the project differ from previous studies that stated that the radioactive release from the nuclear disaster would not lead to significant health effects. The figures from the study are in addition to the 600 reported deaths that were related to the evacuation of areas near the nuclear plant following the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown.

The research highlighted in the paper is the first detailed analysis of the global health effects. The study, led by Stanford civil engineering professor Mark Z. Jacobson and recent doctoral graduate John Ten Hoeve, was recently published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science.

"There are groups of people who have said there would be no effects," commented Jacobson, also a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy and the Stanford Woods Institute for Environment, in a prepared statement.

In the paper, the researchers describe how the meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi was extensive and the radiation release created a “dead zone” that was hundreds of square kilometers around the planet. Scientists have even found low levels of radioactive material in places as far as Europe and North America. In particular, the radioactive material was deposited in the Pacific Ocean, with only about 19 percent dumped over land. As such, the population exposed to the radiation was small and groups like the United National Science Committee believed that there would be no significant risk due to the radiation.

The two researchers decided to test this claim utilizing a 3-D global atmospheric model that could determine the movement of radioactive material. They also used a standard health-effects model to measure the exposure of radioactivity to humans. With these two tools, the scientists found a possible span of death tolls and a range of cancer morbidities.

Jacobson and Ten Hoeve concluded that the people most affected were those living in Japan. They noticed small effects in the populations of Asia and North America. The United States, in particular, was estimated to suffer between 0 and 12 deaths and predicted to have 0 to 30 cancer morbidities.

"These worldwide values are relatively low“¦[they] serve to manage the fear in other countries that the disaster had an extensive global reach," noted Ten Hoeve in the statement.

The scientists believe that one possible reason the cancer rate is low is due to the Japanese government´s quick and coordinated response. For example, the Japanese government agencies immediately evaluated a 20-kilometer radius around the plant, gave out iodine tablets to prevent the absorption of radiation, and stopped the growing of crops above. However, the researchers also discovered that almost 600 deaths were due to the evacuation process; a large percentage of the elderly and chronically ill suffered fatigue and exposure. The evacuation limited the situation to 245 radiation-related deaths, but more lives could have possibly been saved. With these differences in theory, researchers believe it is best not to ruminate on the evacuation policy.

"You still have an obligation to evacuate people according to the worst-case scenario," remarked Jacobson in the statement.

Apart from their study on Japan, the investigators examined the possibility of a nuclear disaster in the United States. They created a hypothetical situation at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo, California. They found that that possible health effects was 25 percent larger as much of the radioactivity was deposited over land and in highly populated areas like Los Angeles and San Diego. However, these results do not stress the full impact of a nuclear disaster.

"There's a lot more to the issue than what we examined, which were the cancer-related health effects," Jacobson explained in the statement. "Fukushima was just such a large disaster in terms of soil and water contamination, displacement of lives, confidence in government oversight, cost and anguish."