This is a reprint of an article published in HP News, an official publication of the Health Physics Society (www.hps.org). Neither the Health Physics Society nor the author of the article have any affiliation with Atomic Insights.
Barbara Hamrick, CHP, JD, HPS Fellow
At 2:46 p.m. Japan Standard Time (JST) on 11 March 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, and 41 minutes later it was followed by a massive tsunami. Together these events took the lives of over 15,000 people. Many thousands more were injured, lost family and friends, and lost homes and businesses. As one of our colleagues, Matt Moeller, recently said to me, discussions of the events following the tsunami at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (NPS) should always be prefaced by honoring those who lost their lives in one of the greatest natural disasters in recorded history. So, before I begin, I would like to ask you, the readers, to take a moment and reflect upon all those who lost their lives and loved ones that day.
Over the last couple of years I have had the honor and privilege of serving on the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Committee on Lessons Learned From Fukushima.1 A prepublication report was made available at the NAS website in July 2014 (download a free PDF version of the report by clicking on the blue tab on the right side of the web page). The report provides detailed findings and recommendations relating to nuclear plant safety, risk assessment, and emergency response, among other areas.
My focus here is on emergency response. Emergency responders in Japan were already undertaking a massive response to the devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami when at 7:03 p.m. JST on 11 March 2011 the prime minister gave public notice of the occurrence of a nuclear emergency situation. The electrical power and communications infrastructures were severely damaged, and there was extensive damage to buildings, roads, and highways. Despite all this turmoil, evacuations began within a 2-km radius of Fukushima Daiichi NPS at about 8:50 p.m. JST the evening of 11 March 2011.
At that time, there was no knowledge of actual or imminent release, because there was no electrical power to allow dissemination of real-time information on the state of the plants. By 16 March 2011 approximately 140,000 people within a 30-km radius of the plant had been evacuated. In Japan at the time of the Fukushima Daiichi accident (as it is known in the United States), there were no official limits (for either dose or activity) to make decisions with respect to resettlement of the evacuated areas.
As of March 2014, three years after the accident, over 80,000 evacuees still lived in shelters or other temporary locations. Notwithstanding the estimated 100–500 PBq of I-131 released to the environment as a result of the accident, the World Health Organization anticipates that disease incidence resulting from the releases is likely to remain below detectable levels.
Conversely, as reported by Evelyn Bromet in Health Physics (February 2014), follow-up studies of populations impacted by the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl show long-term negative impacts on mental well-being, and it is likely the same effects will appear in the population impacted by the Fukushima Daiichi accident. Also, in a study by S. M. Yasumura and colleagues in Journal of Epidemiology (2012), it was reported that there may have been as many as 109 excess deaths in the elderly institutionalized population attributable to the evacuations.
The NAS committee recommended that industry and emergency response organizations in the United States should “assess the balance of protective actions” taken in response to a nuclear emergency and specifically noted that attention should be given to special populations (e.g., the elderly); to long-term social, psychological, and economic impacts; and to the development of resettlement
The issue for our profession and our society is how one makes that balance. Perhaps the hypothetical risks of low-level radiation exposure should at some point give way to the manifest detriments of death by evacuation, depression, chronic anxiety, and economic losses that go beyond simple economic solutions—e.g., losing the family business. While it is integral to our policies on risk management in this country that individuals have the right to make their own decisions related to what is an acceptable risk and what is not, if the decision is not adequately informed by the facts, then the right to make it cannot be fully exercised.
We, as health physicists and radiation safety specialists, must contribute to the conversation on risk, including, and perhaps especially, by acknowledging the competing risks in any given circumstance. When our focus becomes too narrow, we diminish the value of our information. In reality, nothing is perfectly safe, and context is everything. If emergency response organizations undertake an effort to revisit the balance of protective actions, with full stakeholder input, the starting point should not be “is it safe,” but “what is safe enough” in the full context of competing risks.
1 Barbara Hamrick serves as a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council Committee on “Lessons Learned From the Fukushima Nuclear Accident for Improving Safety and Security of U.S. Nuclear Plants.” This commentary, however, should not necessarily be construed as the committee’s representative position.