Radiation Covers 8% of Japan, Fukushima Crisis “Stunting Children’s Growth” (Though Not Directly Due to Radiation)

NOTE:  I am updating this post to reflect some of the comments, further research, and input by experts.

Japan’s science ministry says 8 per cent of the country’s surface area has been contaminated by radiation from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant.

It says more than 30,000 square kilometres of the country has been blanketed by radioactive cesium.

The science ministry defines places with a concentration of more than 10,000 becquerels per square meter as “areas affected by the nuclear accident”….  The science ministry fine-tuned its methods by subtracting levels of naturally existing background radiation.

Fukushima, like most international stories, has a very short half life in the U.S. media — a lot shorter than that of radioactive cesium.  As the NY Times noted back in March, “Over the long term, the big threat to human health is cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years.”

So the two stories that make today’s mash up headline come from ABC — the Australian Broadcasting Company, that is.  The lead story is “Radiation covers 8pc of Japan”:

The ministry says most of the contamination was caused by four large plumes of radiation spewed out by the Fukushima nuclear plant in the first two weeks after meltdowns.

The government says some of the radioactive material fell with rain and snow, leaving the affected areas with accumulations of more than 10,000 becquerels of caesium per square metre.

As you can see from the map above (posted here), a large fraction of the affected area received 60,000 to 600,000 becquerels per square meter, which is a range that, I think, should cause concern.  If you are in that zone, it is probably prudent to take steps to determine if you live, work or send your kids to school in places at the high end of that range — and, if so, take steps to avoid prolonged outdoor exposure.

As you can see on page 24 of “Fukushima Accident: Radioactive Releases and Potential Dose Consequences,” 300,000 becquerels per square metre is 5 milliSieverts in the first year and the 10 year dose is 19 mSv — considerably higher than 1 mSv per year.  The International Atomic Energy Agency clearly states, in its “Radiation Safety” booklet:

The dose limits for practices are intended to ensure that no individual is committed to unacceptable risk due to radiation exposure. For the public the limit is 1 mSv in a year, or in special circumstances up to 5 mSv in a single year provided that the average does over five consecutive years does not exceed 1 mSv per year.

It is true that  people do not spend all of their time outdoors and the  additional cancer rates at these levels are quite small.

But based on my conversations with experts, including NRDC’s Tom Cochran, anybody who lives in that area of 60,000 to 600,000 becquerels per square metre has a legitimate cause for concern — since they don’t really have any way of knowing whether they are in the low range zone or the high range zone.  They should  certainly take steps to acquire more information about the radiation exposure for themselves and their family, and then  make decisions on their own about the risk they are willing to take.  I will do a post on this later in the week.

The NYT noted the danger of cesium:

Cesium-137 mixes easily with water and is chemically similar to potassium. It thus mimics how potassium gets metabolized in the body and can enter through many foods, including milk. After entering, cesium gets widely distributed, its concentrations said to be higher in muscle tissues and lower in bones.

Climate Progress previously reported on one of the impacts of all that radiation (see Fukushima Surprise: Radioactive Rice “Far Exceeding” Safe Levels Found in Japan).

It must be pointed out that according to the best scientific evidence, it is prudent to avoid even low levels of radiation:

A preponderance of scientific evidence shows that even low doses of ionizing radiation, such as gamma rays and X-rays, are likely to pose some risk of adverse health effects, says a new report from the National Academies’ National Research Council.

Now, ABC reports, “Fukushima crisis ‘stunting children’s growth’ ” — but the cause may surprise you:

“Thousands of children living in the fallout zone are confined indoors because of radiation fears” (Photo: Reuters)


Eight months on from the nuclear meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima plant the long-term cancer risks for children are in the spotlight, but a new study has highlighted more immediate problems.

Thousands of children living in the fallout zone are confined indoors because of radiation fears, and doctors worry they are not growing at a sufficient rate.

“The kids just can’t play in the dirt or enjoy nature,” teacher Junko Akanuma said. “They may look cheerful enough but they are building up tremendous amounts of stress inside.”

According to doctors stress in children can lead to physical problems.

Shintaro Kikuchi is a paediatrician who has been tracking the weight of 250 kindergarten children in Koriyama, less than 60 kilometres from the crippled nuclear plant.

His findings are startling. They show there was an average weight gain of 0.8 of a kilogram over the past year.

The year before children in the same age group put on 3.1 kilograms, or nearly four times as much weight.

“We can blame this low-growth rate on the disruption to hormone production caused by stress” Dr Kikuchi said.

Looks like the Japanese will be living with the direct and indirect impacts of the Fukushima radioactivity for a very, very long time.

Are the Japanese being irrational in their desire to avoid radioactivity?  First off, many no longer trust the government or the nuclear industry in its claims about how much radiation there is — and with good cause, given how much the public was lied to during the course of this disaster.

And again, the literature on radiation strongly suggests that it is prudent to avoid even low levels of radiation.

Let’s return to National Academies’ National Research Council 2006 report. The NRC is traditionally quite conservative when it comes to these sorts of analyses, doing a full literature review and generally requiring a very strong consensus by the committee participants for any major conclusions — in this case 17 MDs or PhDs:

“The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionizing radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial,” said committee chair Richard R. Monson, associate dean for professional education and professor of epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston. “The health risks — particularly the development of solid cancers in organs — rise proportionally with exposure. At low doses of radiation, the risk of inducing solid cancers is very small. As the overall lifetime exposure increases, so does the risk.”

The research is based on empirical data. You can read the whole NRC report, the seventh in a series on this subject dating back decades, here.

This post has been updated.

78 Responses to Radiation Covers 8% of Japan, Fukushima Crisis “Stunting Children’s Growth” (Though Not Directly Due to Radiation)

  1. prokaryotes says:

    Radioactive particles also get distributed from wind and soil erosion and the most contamination went into the pacific ocean – directly affecting the bottom of the food chain. Affecting surrounding nations and even US fisheries.

    This year i started to buy japanese products such as Tamari, some kind of very delicious soy sauce. Now im unsure if i can keep on eating it safely. Also i love japanese green teas, but with all the radioactivity around im very unsure about buying products again.

  2. M Tucker says:

    Lamentably the Japanese have a lot of experience living with the direct and indirect effects of radioactivity. It was because of that experience that I was sure they would never invest in nuclear energy…boy was I wrong.

    Early in November I read an announcement form the owners of the reactor. They said they expected to accomplish a “cold shutdown” by the end of November. I was dumbstruck. How do you shutdown molten nuclear material? I sure hope the US never experiences such a disaster because I am convinced our government would also lie and underplay the enormity of the disaster.

  3. Leif says:

    I agree prokaryotes. The I first heard of the disaster and realized the scope I went and stocked up on my favorite Green Tea as well. I will not be buying any more.

  4. harvey says:

    The entire north east U.S and canada was blanketed by radiation thanks to the the above ground nuclear tests of the 50’s and 60’s. Note that they dont say WHAT the 8% means.

  5. David Ropeik says:


    Setting aside how overtly this story reflects a bias, the selective emphasis
    on the alarming facts and failure to include other key basic information
    about the actual danger the piece suggests constitutes a glaring
    incompeteness that amounts to factual inaccuracy about the overall risk. On
    the who-what-when-where-why basics required of any risk story, this would
    fail a freshman J school class.

    The story is woefully incomplete. It alarmingly reports widespread
    contamination but includes nothing about dose, the level people are actually
    exposed to, which of course is central to how much danger there might be. It
    turns out the dose to which people are exposed is extraordinarily low. And
    your story contains nothing to put the risk of that low dose in any
    perspective. Studies of Japanese survivors of nuclear bombs, underway for
    65+ years, show that low doses of radiation, while indeed carcinogenic, are
    far less so than most assume (of roughly 100,000 survivors of HIGH level
    exposure, dramatically more than anything released by Fukushima or even
    Chernobyl for that matter, about half of one percent died early because of
    radiation induced cancer. No generational effects either. See the Radiation
    Effects Research Institute, the international group of epidemiologists
    studying A bomb survivors.
    <> )

    This advocacy-pretending-to-be-reporting is deceitful, and worse, harmful.
    As your story notes, the fear of radiation is keeping thousands inside and
    causing harm. Where does that excessive fear come from, if not from work
    like this?

    In the interest of openness, I have written a book on risk that researched
    this issue. I’d be glad to send you the chapter on nuclear energy. It was
    peer reviewed by internationally recognized experts of radiation
    epidemiology. I have worked for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the
    Nuclear Energy Institute, and a congressionally mandated committee created
    to expedite payments to compensate ‘atomic veterans’ for their radiation
    induced illness. And as a TV reporter in Boston, I won awards for
    investigations of nuclear plants in Seabrook (evacuation plans wouldn’t work
    but Reagan’s FEMA and the NRC approved them anyway) and Pilgrim (the most
    contaminated plant in America).

    I do not write here as a fan of or critic of nuclear energy. I am a devout
    believer in the importance of honest journalism bringing the public basic
    information about risks so people can make informed and healthy choices for
    themselves and society. It isn’t close.

    [JR: Actually, as I explain in the text, the radiation concern is legitimate for parents. But you are right that the original story was incomplete and I have now fleshed it out.]

  6. They said they expected to accomplish a “cold shutdown” by the end of November.

    One can only image what the basements of those buildings look like. It only takes a few golf ball sized blobs of melted fuel rods to touch, and a new fission burst starts-up.

  7. Colorado Bob says:

    29 November 2011, 7.26am AEST
    Climate change and the acidifying, freshening, warming Southern Ocean

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    TEPCO were infamous long before this disaster for its untrustworthiness.

  9. Colorado Bob says:

    The Southern Ocean has a particulary important role in storage of both heat and carbon. About half of the extra heat energy that’s been stored by the Earth has entered the oceans through the Southern Ocean and about 40 per cent of the carbon dioxide that’s stored in the oceans enters though the Southern Ocean. Yet, the Southern Ocean represents only about 20 per cent of the surface area of the oceans. So it’s a factor of two for carbon and two-and-half for heat more effective than you might have expected for the area of the Southern Ocean in terms of storing heat and carbon.

    The reason it can do that is because of a unique pattern of ocean currents. You can think of the Southern ocean as a window to the deep oceans [. It’s the only place where deep waters rise up and reach the sea surface, and it’s one of the few places where large amounts of water sink from the surface down into the interior of the ocean. It’s because of those rising and sinking motions that the Southern Ocean can store lots of heat and carbon.

  10. Paul Revere says:

    “His findings are startling. They show there was an average weight gain of 0.8 of a kilogram over the past year.
    The year before children in the same age group put on 3.1 kilograms, or nearly four times as much weight.”

    Maybe the kids were POOR as the result of living in the area of an earthquake/tsunami/economic mess. Undernourished kids don’t put on weight, after all.

  11. Colorado Bob says:

    As we put more carbon dioxide into the Southern Ocean eventually we’ll cross a threshold where the water will actually become corrosive to reefs and shells made out of calcium carbonate. The point at which you cross that threshold depends on the temperature of the water, and it will be crossed first in the cold waters of the polar regions, both north and south.

    We’ve realised that that threshold will be crossed earlier than we thought, at least at some times of the year, and those corrosive conditions will exist in winter as soon as 2030 – only two decades from now. And this will happen at much lower levels of carbon dioxide: at levels of only about 450 parts per million. We used to think that threshold wouldn’t be crossed until we got to about 550 parts per million.

  12. Colorado Bob says:

    Worried kids don’t gain weight either.

  13. harvey says:

    report on exposure due to atmospheric testing:

  14. David B. Benson says:

    The readers hear, not to mention the Japanese, need to understand much better the risks associated with low levels of radiation and the uncertainties attached to the current scietific understanding of those risks.

    To put into perspective, the Japanese people as a whole (not to mention Americans) are at very much greater risk due to the ‘fallout’ from burning coal. Coal, depending upon source, contains various proportions of all non-volatile elements. In the USA the worse pollution is from mercury; I should not be surprised to learn the same is true in Japan.

    But burning coal also releases the actinides contained therein; very slightly radioactive aerosols and soot.

    Concentrate on the most important sources of hazard; except for a small area close to Fukushima Dai-ichi the most important sources are certainly other than radioactive caesium.

  15. Bill Goedecke says:

    What I gather from reading (or sorting through) sites like is that elevated readings of radioactive material has been measured in Berkeley and Los Angeles. The Berkeley readings were done through a department at UCB. It seems that there is still radioactive material being cooked even though the reactors are not functioning. It might have been that some of the spent fuel rods have sunk down into the groundwater. There are also new fuel rods still in their casing in the pool of reactor 4. It’s all pretty screwy and not being reported in the US.

  16. prokaryotes says:

    Psychic pain

    Not everything is going smoothly, of course. There are locales where inhabitants have not yet moved into alternative housing. In July the reconstruction minister, Ryo Matsumoto, had to resign only eight days after he was appointed because he insulted the inhabitants of Fukushima by calling it “the city of death.” He topped that off with a promise to journalists that, following his own visit to the city, he would mingle with them, so as to make them radioactive too.

    This is not a time for jokes. During this period the Japanese are internalizing an important value in their culture: Gaman, a psychological state of determination and perseverance, which helps one endure and cope with disaster. Every Japanese person, even those who have not been directly affected by the catastrophe in March, is biting his lips, carrying on with his work and taking upon himself a kind of Spartanism as a sign of solidarity with the victims. For example, an executive in a large company might come to work on a bicycle, instead of in a chauffeured Mercedes. Someone else might abstain from eating chocolate.

    Outwardly, the Japanese person behaves as is expected of him and displays a facade of serenity and confidence: his tatemae. However, what happens to the other, inner part of his personality – his deepest feelings, the so-called honne, which he guards jealously? What happens to the psyche?

    Generally, the Japanese attitude toward people with mental illness is extremely negative.

    Before the disaster, Japan had the world’s fifth highest suicide rate: Once every 15 minutes, on average, a Japanese citizen takes his own life. Now, in the wake of the tsunami, the rate of suicides has increased by about 20 percent.

    “We went to Japan even though we knew about the huge cultural differences,” says psychiatrist Dr. Gillat Raisch, a member of the team. “We knew, for example, that they maintain personal distance, and physical contact is not part of the Japanese culture, at least not in public.”

  17. harvey says:

    @11 NO
    Their research shows that most of the detected cesium is a result of nuclear bomb airburst testing…

  18. David B. Benson says:

    Agricultural products are regularly tested and found to be well within the (highly conservative) LNM limits.

    Altogether, this article is a ‘scare story’ designed to sell copy rather than to scientifically inform.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Dreadful misuse of the language. Humble apologies.

  20. Colorado Bob says:

    harvey –
    We haven’t shot an above ground test, in nearly 50 years. And nature in her infinite wisdom has been hard at work binding up those nasty particles ever since. Some of them found their way into your teeth.

    You’re not the “Lone Ranger” sport.
    I’ve got the “Czar” Bomb particles in my bones, and “Trinity” particles in my teeth.

  21. Colorado Bob says:

    harvey –
    For our purposes here , fear this , the worst industry fire in the history of the world when it occurred . In the late 60’s. Right here in American, in a room about 100’X50′ .
    The “pits” caught fire.

    Name the site where this happened , and win a boron popsicle.

  22. Colorado Bob says:

    The “pits” caught fire,

    The greatest irony of the 20th century is that plutonium, comes from Pluto and they both showed up at the same time.
    And Walt Disney is the reason they named it Pluto when they found it. Pluto the dog came first.

    The “pits” caught fire,
    There is an absolute number at which plutonium bursts into flames. Too much in one ball, and it just bursts into flames , and burns like hell.

    The “pits” caught fire,
    No pit , no thermonuclear device.

  23. Colorado Bob says:

    Name the site where this happened , and win a boron popsicle.

    Hundreds of thousands of people are living in the plumes from this fire. THERE WAS ZERO NEWS COVERAGE OF THIS FIRE in the late 60’s.

    Somehow, two of those baseball sized pits of plutonium made contact, and caught fire. Fire is a big word, it can be a match, or it can be the tip of an arc welder. Apparently pits burn more like arc welders.
    And all that late 60’s engineering broke down, just like it did in Japan.

  24. Colorado Bob says:

    Mercury in water , every eye that see’s this can’t eat the fish near them for very long.
    Coal power plants are making Republican voters.

  25. Colorado Bob says:

    Bill –
    At least two of the four , have melted through the containment vessels , and are somewhere in the sump below. The TEPCO people drove up the price of boron, and buried the mess in it. I’m sure some of the rods are still in bundles , but in them are melted masses that flowed like candle wax, and melted into the containment.
    Hell on Earth.

  26. Bill Goedecke says:

    Yeah, you are right about that – I looked at the UCB site directly – Thanks. The ene site is rather a hodge-podge – hard to say what is valid.

  27. Colorado Bob says:

    Remember this steel was made in 1966 , in reactor #1 . And since it went online, the theory of “embrittlement” was being tested in real life. I think that steel cracked like an egg, before the fuel went crazy.

  28. Colorado Bob says:

    That’s why them poured water for weeks , they were filling leaking vessels.

  29. Colorado Bob says:

    Water isn’t just coolant, it’s a moderator of the reaction. Not only was there no radiator, there was no breaks.

  30. Speedy says:

    Once again shows that irrational radiophobia is much more harmful to the health than the radiation itself.

  31. prokaryotes says:

    After an air burst, fission products, un-fissioned nuclear material, and weapon residues vaporized by the heat of the fireball condense into a fine suspension of small particles 10 nm to 20 µm in diameter. These particles may be quickly drawn up into the stratosphere, particularly if the explosive yield exceeds 10 kt.

    Atmospheric nuclear weapon tests almost doubled the concentration of radioactive 14C in the Northern Hemisphere, before levels slowly declined following the Partial Test Ban Treaty.
    Initially little was known about the dispersion of nuclear fallout on a global scale. The AEC assumed that fallout would be dispersed evenly across the globe by atmospheric winds and gradually settle to the Earth’s surface after weeks, months, and even years as worldwide fallout. Nuclear products that were deposited in the Northern Hemisphere are becoming “far more dangerous than they had originally been estimated.”

    The radio-biological hazard of worldwide fallout is essentially a long-term one because of the potential accumulation of long-lived radioisotopes (such as strontium-90 and caesium-137) in the body as a result of ingestion of foods containing the radioactive materials. This hazard is less pertinent than local fallout, which is of much greater immediate operational concern.

  32. prokaryotes says:

    Which part in particular you suppose is exaggerated?

  33. Chad says:

    As a resident of Japan, I would say it is highly doubtful the problem is malnourishment. Starving kids are something Japanese don’t tolerate, unlike Americans. There aren’t any food shortages in the affected area, and government welfare support is certainly sufficient to cover food.

  34. Raul M. says:

    how does one say be careful about cleaning trash from the western beaches? At the time stories spoke to the pacific ocean currents that would bring much to the west shore from the disaster. I don’t know how much of the trash would be overtaken by a steady stream of radiation as it made it’t way, but it would probably vary with some bits of trash being thoroughly countable to some not so much.

  35. John McCormick says:

    Colorado, thanks for the link to the Southern Ocean investigation and report. Fascinating and particularly the freshening aspect due to increased rainfall. And, in that harsh environment, scientists are able to accomplish so much. I do hope there are follow-up reports on their findings. The impact of increasing CO2 on the Southern Ocean is the other climate change story.

  36. John Tucker says:

    Press sources have hyped radiation fear while its at levels NEVER OBSERVED to cause harm.

    Meanwhile Canada is leaving Koyoto. ( ) I don’t blame them.

    This ridiculous anti nuclear, under utilized intermittent renewable track is probably contributing more to warming than helping.

    The “8 percent” contamination is irresponsible. No other word for it. Especially when the US is 100 percent contaminated with Mercury that is more of a heath threat.

  37. Joe Romm says:

    Uhh, Chernobyl’s radiation has been observed to cause harm. Same for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  38. John Tucker says:

    Uhh at what exposures specifically. Ill post them later. Or at least the best I can find.

    The thing is – we know this type of plant is not current tech. We know this accident wasn’t really that bad as a worse case either.

    We know nuclear can reduce CO2. We also know we are losing the climate battle. Quite badly I might add. Disastrously. As in I don’t know how we could do worse.

    And despite all the renewable instillation no one seems to know if we are even breaking even with it – because its coming from China and not Europe – who the carbon footprint estimates technology were made for.

    Not to mention over half of renewable solar units and who knows how much wind doesnt even qualify for the testing that is used to estimate lifetime – last I checked.

    But lets bash nuclear because its scary.

    Is anythign im saying incorrect?

  39. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Yes, we know. ‘Nuclear radiation (like toxic sludge) is good for you’-and for profits too, eh Dave?

  40. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It’s a real Godsend, is it not, that nuclear radiation kills through cancer and other degenerative diseases often long after exposure, and with causation murky. I remember the exact same arguments from those pushing asbestos and cigarettes.

  41. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    John, congratulating ‘Mr 18%’ Harper for leaving Kyoto gives the game away as to your real agenda. You need to practise dissembling and deception more rigorously, or your utility in serving the ‘business-as-usual’ forces will be greatly diminished.

  42. John Tucker says:

    yes, Im sure.

    Canada is doing what it sees as best for Canada now. They are not major greenhouse contributers ( 1.80% total) in actual use and regulation will probably slow their economic growth/place them at a disadvantage. I certainly don’t blame them. There is no binding agreement anyway.

  43. John Tucker says:

    Anyway back to the actual topic. Yes, yes lots of radiation everywhere it seems. So since the cat is out of the bag lets look at what can be expected, according to the real numbers of prior experience.

    Really its ridiculous to use this as a argument against nuclear, especially as this isn’t even current reactor technology, just as Chernobyl or a nuclear weapon isn’t. They are unrelated, except as sources for the study of some of the elements/toxins involved

  44. John Tucker says:

    Its only “murky” when it doesn’t do exactly as expected in a simple case. No toxin behaves that way really.

  45. harvey says:

    True Joe. But how much?

    Note that people now live where the bombs dropped on Japan.. how can that be possible, they should all be poisoned by the radiation.

    180,000 Bcq/sq m3 of ce137 fell on Tampere Finland from Cherynobl!!!

    Yet they did not panic, they did not all die.
    Yes they had to take remedial action, but the ground is not poisoned forever.

    But Note, the Cesium deposition in Finland was even LARGER during atmospheric testing:

    Total loss of life in the U.S in motor vehicle accidents is 36000 PER YEAR.

    Total loss of life in Japan accident 2, and from the earthquake and tsunami, not radiation.

    At Cherynobyl (wikipedia) 237 people had accute radiation poisoning, but of them only 28 have died. No excess in solid cancers have been detected in the population. 15 deaths from thyroid cancer were detected. The models estimate maybe 4-5000 extra deaths from the accident.

    Yes the land around the reactor maybe uninhabitable, (yet wolves and wild animals are doing just fine) (DNA repair mechanisms are amazing eh?)

    My conclusion is that the Press has overblown the Fukishima problems in order to generate “sensationalism” which seems to be the order of the day. Where are the real investigative reporters these days?

  46. Michael Barnes says:

    Joe, David,

    Whew! Where to start… How about this comment that I found to the story in Asahi Shinbum:

    Delvan Neville · Graduate Teaching Assistant at Oregon State University

    “Radiation health physicist here, just adding some perspective to these numbers. At the absolute highest levels on this map (3 MBq per square meter), if you live there all year, you’re looking at 0.04 Sv dose equivalent for the full year. That’s a dose-rate of about 4.5 micro-sieverts per hour, less than the dose rate from airline travel at U.S. latitudes.”

    The average background radiation level in the U.S. is about 4 millisieverts, while the maximum allowed annual exposure for U.S. radiation workers is 50 millisieverts (0.05 sieverts).

    And if its prudent to avoid even low levels of radiation exposure, best give up dental X-rays, flying, and eating potassium-rich foods, since we get a dose of about 0.4 millisieverts annually from naturally occurring radioactive isotopes of potassium in our bodies.

    But what bothers me more about this post is the sloppy epidemiology. One study, one town, no controls, small sample, no statistical analysis, no peer review.

    Isn’t one obvious alternative explanation simple grief and shock from the tsunami? More than 20,000 died in the region, 500,000 residential buildings were destroyed or damaged, 215 square miles were inundated. Surely the children are sensitive to this reality.

    Why is it that here in the United States, the pain, suffering and death of Japanese only matters if it is caused by radiation? The fire bombing of Tokyo in WWII killed more than 100,000 Japanese civilians, more that either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The recent tsunami killed more than 20,000. The Fukushima accident killed zero.

    Joe, I’ve really come to rely on your website as my main source for the latest news on climate change. This story just wasn’t up to your usual standards.

  47. Zachary says:

    Living in Japan, it’s funny how I haven’t seen coverage of this report in the national news at all. Probably buried in the back pages of the papers…

  48. harvey says:

    Surprisingly, it seems that people who have returned to the exclusion zone around Cherynobl are in fact not dying..

    It seems that exposure to “chronic” levels of radiation are not terminal, in fact no link to cancer can be found.

    IMHO the radiation limits for food and land are “emperical” and extremely conservative.
    People live in many areas with much higher background radiation than the conservative limits in legislation (anyone living above 5000 feet, there is someplace in Iran with very high background radiation)

    If older people past childbirth wish to live in a slightly higher radiation location, why deny them?

  49. John Tucker says:

    Just for reference, a becquerel is one atomic decay per second.

    1 adult human (100 Bq/kg) 7000 Bq
    1 smoke detector 30 000 Bq.

    1 kg of coffee 1000 Bq
    1 kg superphosphate fertiliser 5000 Bq
    1 kg Coalash ~ 2000-8000 (and up to much higher) Bq

    But we have gotten pretty good at not eating smoke detectors. So lets look at doses we people are actually exposed to and the effects.

  50. John Tucker says:

    Chernobyl in comparison was far over double a release of radiation in more and longer lived isotopes over land.

  51. harvey says:

    Actually the number of long term deaths from radiation is much less than you expect:

  52. John Tucker says:

    Oops got distracted – this is one I had not seen yet. Looks kinda interesting.


  53. harvey says:

    Dont eat bananas, nor sleep next to your spouse!!!

  54. harvey says:

    In summary Joe, please do not be like Fox News and just parrot what some newspaper has reported. We need critical thinking reporting, not just a rehash. I know you may not have time to do so, but please do take the time.

  55. harvey says:

    hmm got a comment stuck in moderation…

  56. John Tucker says:

    Oh, the update is good. I was like “IM NOT CRAZY THAT WASN’T THERE BEFORE.” then I read the top. hehehe – Anyway –

    Another DIY reading source is


    Which is a rather interesting and horrific little known case of contamination from a medical therapy unit. It has some good dose and distance numbers.

  57. Joe Romm says:

    Sure. ABC is credible, but hopefully the updated story is more comprehensive.

  58. Joe Romm says:

    The radiation in the area is a legitimate worry. If parents are keeping kids indoors, that is an appropriate response, according to NRDC’s Tom Cochran. If ABC misreported the study, then let me know. Otherwise, they are a credible source.

  59. Joe Romm says:

    If you live in an area identified as 60,000 to 600,000 Bq/m2 and you had kids, I’m fairly sure you’d get a geiger counter and measure the radiation at home and at school and take a bunch of adaptive measures.

  60. Joe Romm says:

    It’s out. Sorry. Busy day.

  61. John Tucker says:

    Most of the fossil water in the Mideast area is contaminated with uranium/radon. ( )

  62. harvey says:

    maybe, maybenot… a geiger counter is really not a very accurate measure of radiation.
    You should know that.
    If you don’t please get knowledgable.
    You still have not answered the fact (dont move the goalposts) that VERY few people have died from radiation sickness due to accidents.
    Come on, read the literature, become knowledgeable.

  63. harvey says:

    Btw I’m on your side with renewables etc.
    I just think peoples opinion on nuclear is skewed.
    OMG I’m going to be turned into a glowing green zombie!!!

  64. David B. Benson says:

    Here I am just going to comment on the NRC’s BEIR VII report mentioned in the updated post.

    There are four classes of credible risk profiles to low level radiation:
    (1) Super-linear. While there is no evidence for this, it is possible some people are much more susceptable than average so this class continues to be of at least academic interest.
    (2) Linear, no threshold (LNT) — This is the standard used internationally for solid cancers, but see the next paragraph.
    (3) Sublinear — Leukemia data agrees with this hypothesis with standard statistical significance.
    (4) Linear, but a low-end threshold, and even hormesis — There is anecdotal evidence for this but no statistically significant scientific study has been forthcoming, even though BEIR VII recommended such studies be conducted.

    Now LNT was adopted as the recommendation of the BEIR VII study committee solely on the grounds of statistical significance: while sublinear gives the better fit to the (sparce) data, this fit does to meet the one-sided test of being statistical signifcantly superior to LNT. Therefore, and on this grounds only, BEIR VII recommends (continuing to) use of LNT.

    Unfortunately, BEIR VII did not consider statistical tests which consider LNT and sublinear on a equal footing to determine which hypothesis is statistically superior. These Bayesian approaches have only fairly recently become better known but it certainly appears for the BEIR VII report that such statistical methods were never considered. Instead the BEIR VII committee continued in the tradition of the BEIR series to recommend LNT for solid cancers.

    This approach, now embodied in recommendations by IAEA, NRC (and probably ever other regulatory or advisory group), has been widely criticized as significantly overstating the risks from exposure to ionizing radiation. I’m no expert, simply informing. I do know enough statistics to find the method used by BEIR VII to (continue to) recommend LNT as distinctly unsatisfying. It gives the appearance of simply continuing in the older tradition without the sharper information potentially attainable by more recent statistical methods.

  65. a face in the clouds says:

    Joe, judging from the turnout of nuclear PR men and bean counters here, your reporting has struck a nerve. Hard to say if it’s the same ones whose comments I’ve been seeing elsewhere, because they’re still reading from the same, decades-old script. I’ve got old reporter’s notes with similar quotes and tactics used by industry PR men in the 1970’s. They’re still wrong but it’s all they’ve got. They still try and muddy the water enough to confuse the public while making it difficult for nuclear scientists and engineers to explain things to us. We all know the scientists and engineers are doing their best and we need to hear directly from them. TEPCO’s bean counters have proven from Day One that they can’t be trusted. They continued to lie even as average Japanese citizens lined up for potential suicide clean-up missions at the plants. The entire nuclear industry instantly circled its wagons, and history gives me every reason to believe that scientists and engineers are under extreme pressure to toe the industry line, keep quiet, or else. I’ve seen the handiwork of nuclear goons firsthand, and right now the stakes are so high that we have no choice but to watch the backs of scientists, engineers, medical researchers, etc. All is not well in Japan, and these people have to feel free to speak so the rest of us can make decisions based on facts, not someone’s greed.

    To the Chernobyl deniers out there: The documentary “Chernobyl Heart” is a good starting point. Consider it a dare.

  66. Joe Romm says:

    Thanks. I’ll do another post on this.

  67. Anne van der Bom says:

    About half of all global co2 emissions is caused by countries emitting less than 1.8% individually. Does that absolve them from the duty to contribute their fair share?

    Your reasoning only leaves the US, China, India and perhaps Russia. Oh, but wait. We can certainly split up their emissions in various categories like ‘coal power plants’, ‘SUV’s’, ‘office heating’, each of them contributing less than 1.8% globally.

    Hey presto, noboby actually has to do anything! Bullet proof logic that leaves you with a clean conscience while contributing nothing towards a solution.

  68. quokka says:

    “TOKYO (Kyodo) — Fukui Prefecture municipalities that host nuclear power plants urged the central government on Tuesday to maintain the plants at a time when it is mulling the best combination of energy sources following the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.”

    I’d add a comment, but it would be redundant as this news report speaks for itself.

  69. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    No, of course they effect different individuals in different ways, depending on genetic variation, the presence of other toxins, luck, chance, ‘God’s hand’ etc. But every individual would be that much safer if not exposed to cigarette smoke, asbestos or nuclear radiation.

  70. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Your figure concerning Canada’s emissions is balderdash. Clearly it only includes emissions in Canada, and not those that arise from exports of other fossil fuels. And the canard that ‘X only produces 1.8% of global emissions’ is a favourite duplicity of the denialists, and an evasion of moral responsibility. All those 1.8%s add up to 100%, and every country has to reduce its share. This argument is a moral reductio ad absurdum.

  71. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Of course the IAEA is a totally disinterested party, and rigorously trustworthy. Only kidding!

  72. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    face, the nuclear industry is another repository of billions in money, and they employ PR drones to spread groupthink like every other capitalist enterprise. And I’m sure that they are well remunerated for it. What proportion believe the agit-prop, and what proportion are true cynics, God only knows. But the truth, that nuclear is greenhouse intensive, in manufacture, mining, construction and disposal of waste, that it is hellishly expensive and uninsureable, that it produces long lasting toxic waste for which there is no satisfactory disposal method, that it is prone to catastrophic accidents, that it is a nuclear weapons proliferation risk, and that it is absolutely unnecessary if we invest in renewables, is unambiguous. Most of all the current pro-nuclear PR and disinformation offensive is plainly aimed at delaying renewables, to the advantage of fossil fuels. The plutocrats who control both nuclear and fossil fuels are the same 0.01% who bedevil humanity everywhere.

  73. quokka says:

    The best information available on full life cycle emissions from nuclear indicate that it is comparable (perhaps slightly higher than) wind and lower than PV. That is for current nuclear technology using centrifuge enrichment. Advanced Gen IV nuclear is likely to have lower lifecycle emissions than any other alternative. The IPCC AR4 lifecycle emissions assessment for all major technologies may be found here:

  74. David B. Benson says:

    SInce there are (incorrect) comments regarding corium status for Fukushima Dai-ichi, I link

    New analysis of Fukushima core status

    about which two comments can be made:
    (1) the interaction of corium with concrete and steel is well modeled and partly based on a careful analysis of Three Mile Island after the unit there was dismantled.
    (2) the design of #1 was done in the 1960s, the days of drawing boards and sliderules [and almost no computer assistance]. The result, so far, shows the significantly safe design even in the face of a beyond design basis accident.

    Of course everyone regrets in failure on the part of seismologists to recognize that the Tohoku fault was capable of a (gargantuan) moment magnitude 9.0 earthquake and so the result to date. I encourage all to (re)read Henry Petroski’s “To EnginERR is Human” and note that essentially every country with NPPs has tightening its regulatory and safety culture.

  75. Joe Romm says:
    November 29, 2011 at 9:11 pm
    If you live in an area identified as 60,000 to 600,000 Bq/m2 and you had kids, I’m fairly sure you’d get a geiger counter and measure the radiation at home and at school and take a bunch of adaptive measures.

    I used to live in an area in Finland that exceeded 80 000 Bq/m^2 Cs-137 due to the Chernobyl accident. I’m fairly sure the only adaptive measures taken were to limit the consumption of mushrooms and fish from small lakes to less than 100 kg per year, or thereabouts. Geiger or scintillation counters were nowhere in evidence.

    Finland is geographically large country. The AVERAGE fallout we got from Chernobyl was 11 000 Bq/m^2 Cs-137. In many places, the actual fallout exceeded 40 000 Bq/m^2. Using the map scale above, most of Central Finland, including our second largest city, Tampere, would be on the yellow zone. There were no remediation efforts that I know of. I do remember, however, being hustled inside from our sandbox for a day or two (I was about five when the accident happened).

    What effects our complacency did have? We have one of the best medical registers in the world, so comprehensive that it is used to find new genetic diseases. We also have a history of low corruption in the academia. Despite all this, there has been no evidence that Chernobyl caused excess cancers or other abnormalities. I freely admit there may have been some, but quite frankly, the risks do seem to be laughably trivial compared to the risks from, say, particulate pollution (which kills, on average, 5 Finns per DAY).

    [JR: The extra cancer rate is quite low, hard to distinguish from background, but over Europe it is projected to be many thousands over lifetime. BUT a leading U.S. expert says remediation would have been wide.]

    Furthermore, I hope no one tells the Japanese tourists flocking to Lapland that by coming here, they’re getting radiation doses equal or greater than they would if they vacationed close to Fukushima Daichi. Besides doses from airplane travel, our soil emits considerable amounts of radon, and on average, we get more than 1 mSv excess annual dose compared to world average.

    Roughly speaking, I believe that would correspond to average Cs-137 contamination of about 75 000 Bq/m^2. I remind again that’s the average. In some regions, due to natural sources, the dose can be considerably greater. Several areas in Finland, such as the municipality of Kirkkonummi about 10 km from where I write this, measure over 20 mSv per annum; this would correspond to living in an area with over 1 500 000 Bq/m^2 cesium-137.

    In the area I used to live, the after-Chernobyl radiation dose would have been roughly equivalent to living in an area of Japan (low average dose from natural sources) with maybe 150 000 – 200 000 Bq/m^2 Cs-137 contamination.

    Although radon poses a clear health risk to those living in poorly-ventilated buildings build on certain moraine ridges, on average, there is no evidence for excess cancers or other abnormalities. And there are regions in the world where doses from natural sources may exceed 200 mSv per annum – again, with no documented ill effects that I know of. One really starts to wonder whether the LNT model and the “no dose is safe” really are the gold standards NRDC and many others claim they are!

    Personally, I started to suspect something might be amiss with the anti-nuclear rhetoric when I noticed that even by using Greenpeace’s estimates of Chernobyl’s health effects, one can conclude that replacing Europe’s coal power with Chernobyl-style reactors and accepting a full-scale accident every five years or so would, on balance, harm fever people than coal burning does. That’s before counting the effects of CO2 emissions, mind.

    Please do check these numbers and do your own research; the estimates for coal’s health effects may be found e.g. from an article published in The Lancet in 2007 by Markandya and Wilkinson.

    I find it sad and ironic that the anti-nuclear sentiment in Germany will now result to the construction of at least 12 new coal power plants. We will be saddled with these for at least 30 years, and their particulate emissions are blown to us as well.

    [JR: I wouldn’t have shut down existing nukes, myself.]

    I do wish you would look into the matter in more detail and check the numbers and the reasoning behind them yourself.

    [JR: We agree here.]


  76. Joe Romm: [JR: The extra cancer rate is quite low, hard to distinguish from background, but over Europe it is projected to be many thousands over lifetime. BUT a leading U.S. expert says remediation would have been wide.]

    Indeed it is hard to distinguish from the background! That in itself should be ring the alarm bells: the health effects are so small that finding them even with advanced statistical techniques applied to comprehensive cancer registries is very, very difficult. In most fields, if detecting an effect is very difficult, the reasonable conclusion is that the effect cannot be very large. Would you agree?

    Please compare and contrast to the risks of other forms of energy generation – whose health effects are not difficult to detect. The article by Markandya and Wilkinson is a good place to start; Physicians for Social Responsibility have also published material on the subject, if you don’t have access to The Lancet. To summarize the findings, here are the health effects (deaths/cases) per terawatt hour of electricity produced in Europe, at 95% confidence interval (Markandya and Wilkinson 2007, p. 981):

    Coal (Anthracite):
    Accidental deaths
    – among public: 0.02
    – occupational: 0.10

    Air pollution-related effects
    – deaths: 24.5
    – serious illnesses: 225
    – minor illnesses: 13 288

    Coal (Lignite):
    Accidental deaths
    – among public: 0.02
    – occupational: 0.10

    Air pollution-related effects
    – deaths: 32.6
    – serious illnesses: 298
    – minor illnesses: 17676

    Accidental deaths
    – among public: 0.02
    – occupational: 0.001

    Air pollution-related effects
    – deaths: 2.8
    – serious illnesses: 30
    – minor illnesses: 703

    Nuclear (as far as I’m aware, the figures include theoretical INES 7 accident in Central Europe):
    Accidental deaths
    – among public: 0.003
    – occupational: 0.019

    Air pollution-related effects
    – deaths: 0.052
    – serious illnesses: 0.22
    – minor illnesses: Too low to measure

    The figures are largely based on the most extensive study so far into externalities of energy generation, the ExternE study commissioned by the European Union. Later studies either agree with the coal and gas numbers, or get even worse figures. As many others have said before, nuclear is a disaster when everything goes wrong – coal and gas are disasters when everything goes right.

    I know that accepting the numbers for nuclear may be difficult, given all that we have been told, but as you said, finding the health effects IS difficult!

    According to my sources, Germany’s decision will mean a net increase of 6 GW in coal power capacity, fueled mostly with lignite. Assuming approximately 80% capacity factor, this would mean 42 TWh annual production, which will mean

    – 5 accidental deaths
    – 1370 air pollution-related premature deaths
    – 12 500 serious illnesses
    – 742 400 minor illnesses

    each year for the lifetime of the plants (at least 30 years, more likely 40). As the figures above refer to already quite clean European power stations, significant improvements in pollution control are unlikely. As a result, any and all health impacts from Chernobyl or Fukushima will pale in comparison. Note that I’m deliberately ignoring gas power (which will also be increased) and CO2 emissions.

    The anti-nuclear rhetoric extensively avoids putting the risks into context and disparages the risks from real-life alternatives to nuclear power. I believe such cherry-picking can only lead to biased conclusions. As I said, one can discard the findings above and use Greenpeace’s estimates of health effects of nuclear power, and easily conclude that a Chernobyl-scale accident every five years or so would be preferable to continued coal burning. For some reason, they do not advertise these conclusions…

    As for the remediation efforts after Chernobyl, you may wish to check what your expert is saying. Outside Belorussia and Ukraine, the remediation efforts were limited to some dietary restrictions for wild plants and animals, and short-term limitations to pasture for dairy animals to avoid iodine-131 pick-up. I checked this for Finland, and have every reason to believe most other European countries limited their response to similar measures. The fallout, while being in many cases similar or greater than in most of that “8%” area, simply didn’t warrant further effort.

    For a fallout map of Finland, averaged over counties, see here:

    bearing in mind that some places in those red zones got in excess of 180 000 Bq/m^2 Cs-137 alone.

    [JR: Remediation would have been wise, even though the risk is low, particularly if you have childen.]