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What (not) to do after a nuclear accident (2): Anxiety, the main public health impact of a meltdown

(Photo: Douglas Sprott/Flickr)


Just before the Chernobyl disaster was about to be commemorated after 25 years, UNSCEAR, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, published a report with findings on its long-term health effects. It was published 11 days before the tsunami hit Japan’s east coast. Had Kan noticed the report, or someone in his entourage of advisers, he would have known not only that the increase in cancer was very limited – hardly measurable in a large population – but that there was serious psychological damage caused by fear of radiation.

People from the Pripyat area, the authors argued, are much more likely to suffer from stress, excessive anxiety and depression. This affects their behaviour: they drink more, smoke more, eat unhealthier, live more recklessly. The main public health impact of the world’s biggest nuclear disaster was not physical, but mental: anxiety.

That conclusion was not new. In 2006, the Chernobyl Forum, a collaboration between various UN agencies and national governments, found that people from the region suffered from an accumulation of complaints. The authors talk of ‘an exaggerated sense of the dangers to health of exposure to radiation’, and of ‘a widespread belief that exposed people are in some way condemned to a shorter life expectancy’. With just about every cough, they started thinking: oh dear, is this because of the radiation? Is the deterioration starting now?

Even then, it had been established that, despite the facts, people are convinced all kinds of diseases occur more frequently now and that these must have something to do with radiation. Already in the first months after the nuclear disaster, many thousands of women all over Europe, including in Denmark and Greece, had abortions for fear of what the radiation would do to the foetus.

Louisa Vinton, programme manager at the Chernobyl Forum, once observed: ‘Fear of radiation is a far more important health threat than radiation itself.’

‘Fear of radiation is a far more important health threat than radiation itself’ - Louisa Vinton

After power failed at the Daiichi nuclear plant in Fukushima, it was soon clear that radiation levels were much lower in the surrounding area than at Chernobyl; nobody was hospitalised with acute radiation sickness. After the crash course of the previous chapter, we know all about the millisievert. How many are we talking about in this case? Let’s look at figures from UNSCEAR, published in 2014 and 2022.

In the first year, evacuated Japanese were on average exposed to less than 6 mSv. That’s lower than a pelvic CT scan.

Immediately outside the evacuation zone, it was less than 4 mSv. That’s pretty much the dose a full-time flight attendant absorbs every year.

In the days following the accident, crowds of expats who wanted to be on the safe side took a plane home from Tokyo, surrounding themselves with more radiation, high up in the atmosphere, than if they had stayed put.

And so it’s no wonder that UNSCEAR reports that there is no discernable increase in health effects linked to radiation. There is no increase in birth defects or heart attacks. There is no increase in thyroid cancer, leukaemia, breast cancer, colon cancer or any other cancer that can be related to radiation from the Daiichi nuclear plant. Nor does the UN Commission expect such an increase. Indeed, the dose incurred by the population is ‘low or very low’.

The dose is higher for those who worked at the damaged nuclear plant. Of over 20,000 people working there in the year and a half after the accident, six exceeded the 250 mSv limit set for emergency workers. Excluding these six outliers, the average dose in the first year hovered around 13 mSv – one chest CT scan and one of the spine. By the second year, the dose had more than halved.

The radiation dose incurred by the population, or so UNSCEAR reports say, was ‘low or very low’

Among aid workers, UNSCEAR doesn’t expect to see an increase in health effects related to radiation either. Perhaps some will suffer from cataracts, since not everyone followed regulations and shielded their faces properly while working. Less than two hundred workers were exposed to more than 100 mSv. They now have a slightly higher chance of developing cancer later in life – say, an increase from 30 to 31 per cent. Given the small group of people involved and the relatively high probability of getting cancer anyway, they will not be noticed in the statistics. Whether that is reassuring for them remains unknown.

The scientifically established number of radiation deaths in Fukushima is zero.

A Japanese court ruling in 2018 put the number of radiation deaths at one. It concerned a former employee who had worked in several nuclear plants since 1980, the last few years in Fukushima. According to a provision in the law, his fatal lung cancer could theoretically be attributed to the radiation he contracted there. So: zero in the world of science, one in the world of politics.

By contrast, the evacuation led to many fatalities, and these are hardly disputed.

After the hasty evacuation, intended to keep people safe from the radiation, things immediately went wrong for the most vulnerable. The UNSCEAR report confirms that in the chaos during and immediately after the evacuation, dozens of hospital patients died. Hundreds of elderly people passed away as a result of the abrupt move. Some had not been moved at all, but were accidentally left in their rooms, where they forgot to drink or take their medicine. They dehydrated and wasted away.

According to the Japanese government’s definition, nine years after the disaster, the number of deaths due to the evacuation and associated stress was put at 2,313.

Fukushima’s nuclear accident resulted in more depression, more post-traumatic stress and more alcoholism

In 2016, the World Health Organisation concluded that the Chernobyl disaster’s greatest impact on public health was its ‘psycho-social impact’. Similarly, Fukushima’s accident resulted in more depression, more post-traumatic stress and more alcoholism.

The impact was especially evident among those – both adults and children – who had been evacuated. They were more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure than people who had not been moved out. UNSCEAR offers an explanation: they lost their homes, their jobs and their connection to the community.

Once more, similar conclusions emerged from earlier research on Chernobyl, where 350,000 people had to relocate. That experience was ‘deeply traumatic’, in the words of the Chernobyl Forum. ‘Many are unemployed and believe they are without a place in society and have little control over their own lives.’ There was said to be a ‘paralysing fatalism’ among evacuees and residents of areas around the nuclear plant after the Chernobyl events.

People who returned to their homes after some time, against the rules, were considerably happier than those who stayed away. Many journalists discovered this when visiting the Pripyat area. These samosely – the Russian name for the people who settled illegally in the inaccessible ‘exclusion zone’ – often grew food in their gardens, collected herbs from the forest, hunted wild animals and fetched water from local wells. Comprising many hundreds, even thousands, they formed a stiff-necked, now largely extinct tribe. Their presence was permitted with a blind eye. They often appeared healthier and happier than their former compatriots who could not adjust to life in a different environment, free of radiation but full of worries.

People evacuated after the nuclear plant in Chernobyl exploded suffered the same mental problems, such as stress and depression, observed in those who experienced the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But where the Japanese saw themselves as survivors at the time, the Soviet people saw themselves as victims. That feeling was reinforced by politicians who offered financial compensation to some seven million people, plus an endless list of preferential treatments: from free medicines and dental care to discounts on public transport and holiday vouchers. Many came to see themselves, reports the Chernobyl Forum, as ‘helpless, weak and lacking control over their future’.

Fear of contamination leads to social exclusion of those who have been in contact with radiation

Those forced to leave their homes after a nuclear accident, Chernobyl or Fukushima, suffered from a stigma: they were excluded and shunned in their new surroundings, sometimes even by their own family. The placement of the evacuees introduced tensions in communities, where there was a perception that they were taking homes and jobs. Many chose not to tell anyone where they came from, making up a family history.

Social exclusion of those who have been in contact with radiation is a well-known phenomenon. The crew of the Japanese fishing boat that fell ill from fallout after a US nuclear test in 1954 were shunned for a long time after their recovery. The hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had great difficulty finding marriage partners. Perhaps, it was thought, they gave off radiation. Perhaps their children would be infected and deformed.

Fear of contamination is not confined to Japan. After the Chernobyl accident, some healthcare personnel were apprehensive about treating firefighters and employees from the nuclear plant because radiation sickness was said to be contagious. Local residents who had to evacuate were shunned by their neighbours. Parents did not allow children to play with their peers from Pripyat or sit next to them in class.

It’s an irresistible zombie logic – those who are poisoned become poisonous themselves. But radiation does not spread so easily, and certainly not once you’ve taken a shower and washed your clothes.

Such misconceptions aren’t harmless. For instance, Kai Watanabe, a twenty-something who signed on for clean-up work at the Daiichi nuclear plant, believes he will probably not be able to get married. After all, if he ever meets the woman of his dreams, he will have to one day confess to her what he has done for work. ‘And what woman would accept it?’ he wonders in the book Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster.

Studies show that more than 40 per cent of young mothers in Fukushima have strong feelings of anxiety because of the stigma, and that young women have negative feelings about the prospect of pregnancy.

If the tsunami drew a disturbing trail of devastation, the nuclear accident drew a devastating trail of disturbance

If the tsunami drew a disturbing trail of devastation, the nuclear accident drew a devastating trail of disturbance. In our minds, these traces soon became mixed up, just as atomic bombs and nuclear power plants were once confused.

It must have been hard to swallow that a modern, advanced society could be so overwhelmed by nature. Politicians realised that although they had not been able to protect their citizens from a tsunami, they could still safeguard them from being exposed to radiation from a damaged nuclear plant. And so the Japanese began to worry about all the terrible diseases they might contract because of the nuclear accident.

Only a few wondered why so much attention was paid to Fukushima’s nuclear plant which, like so many other buildings, was not adequately protected against the tall waves, even though there had not been a single fatality at this nuclear plant, unlike all those apartments and offices where many were killed instantly.

In fact, why were thousands of Japanese not better protected from the waves?

This article is an edited excerpt from Marco Visscher's 2022 book Waarom we niet bang hoeven te zijn voor kernenergie (Why we need not fear nuclear power).


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