The worst fallout from Fukushima was hysteria


Dominic Lawson

From: The worst fallout from Fukushima was hysteria 14th March 2021

Merkel’s hasty rejection of nuclear energy looks more unwise than ever

A year after the colossal earthquake and tsunami that took the lives of 18,500 souls on the northeast coast of Japan on March 11, 2011, I visited the area. So efficient was the clean-up operation, there was no visible detritus from nature’s onslaught. Instead, I wrote in my notebook, “What can be seen is the absence of homes. Rows upon rows of footings, the reminder of where people once lived and who are now dead. It’s hard to find something to say to the young local guide, whose fiancée was among the many thousands killed.”

I also visited displaced families in prefabricated homes provided by the authorities — these were not just people whose properties had been swept away, but evacuees who had been living within a 12½ mile radius of the Fukushima nuclear power station. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had been hit by a 46ft wave of water — that was the tsunami following the earthquake. It caused three nuclear meltdowns. This was, after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, the only other event to have been measured as level 7 on the international nuclear event scale.

In this context, it is surprising that little media attention has been paid to a report from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (Unscear) released last week to mark the 10th anniversary of the Fukushima incident. It said “no adverse health effects among Fukushima residents have been documented that could be directly attributed to radiation exposure”. It added that any future consequences for health “are unlikely to be discernible”. Unscear also found “no credible evidence of excess congenital anomalies, stillbirths, preterm deliveries or low birthweights related to radiation exposure”.

It would be interesting to hear what Angela Merkel has to say about this. Three days after the Fukushima meltdowns, the German chancellor announced a moratorium on nuclear power development and the closure of all the country’s nuclear energy plants by 2022. It was a hasty volte-face by a supposedly scientific leader, previously a strong backer of the nuclear industry, but her party was facing a big challenge from the Greens in provincial elections. Politically, it was astute. In terms of Merkel’s wider policy commitment — to move Germany as rapidly as possible towards “zero carbon” energy — it was a shocker. Because it was impossible in the short term to replace the wound-down zero-carbon nuclear power with renewables such as wind and solar, Germany increased its use of coal (which will have led to at least 1,000 extra deaths a year from air pollution). Longer term, we can also see the geostrategic consequence, in Merkel’s increasingly determined defence of the Nord Stream 2 project, to import gas from Russia through an under-sea pipeline.

In 2011, in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown, few in Germany pointed out that none of its own nuclear power stations lay on one of the planet’s biggest geological faults or was at risk from a tsunami. Nor will there now be much reflection on Unscear’s conclusion that the effect of radiation leaks at Fukushima will be indiscernible in terms of public health.

Even the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster, in terms of deaths or sicknesses caused by massive dispersal of radioactive materials, were grossly overplayed in western Europe — though more understandably, given its much greater proximity. What happened at that Soviet plant was so bizarre — an experiment in which one of the reactors was made to run at a dangerously low level, the emergency cooling unit disconnected and the emergency safety mechanism switched off — it might almost have been thought overambitious by a genuine saboteur. The 1,000-ton concrete reactor shield was blown clean away in a mighty explosion: iodine-131 and caesium-137 rained down upon Belarus and Ukraine.

It was widely claimed that the deaths as a result of this would run into the hundreds of thousands. Again, Unscear has come up with exhaustive analysis and concluded that, apart from the heroic Chernobyl emergency team, fewer than 100 deaths have been attributable to increased radiation — and no known birth deformities. In 2006, marking 20 years since the Chernobyl reactor blew up, the BBC Horizon programme revealed how tens of thousands of women in the area had been panicked into having abortions, for fear of giving birth to “monsters”. It interviewed one of the few who resisted this terror — next to her 19-year-old daughter, who held her mother’s hand as she tearfully told of the pressure she’d been put under to terminate that pregnancy.

Unfortunately, the acclaimed 2019 HBO series Chernobyl has only added to the terror and mythology. It portrayed the effects of radiation as contagious, as if it were a virus: thus Emily Watson, acting the hero-scientist, yells at a pregnant mother to get away from her firefighter husband, who is dying from acute radiation syndrome. In another scene a nurse who just touches a dying firefighter finds her own hand immediately turning bright red. As the pro-nuclear environmentalist Michael Shellenberger observed: “Neither thing occurred or is possible.”

Campaigners against anthropogenic climate change, especially among my own generation, tend to be almost hysterically anti-nuclear. This may stem from the bomb-related origins of the industry in this country, where Winston Churchill gave the go-ahead for the world’s first nuclear power station, at Calder Hall, because it would supply weapons-grade plutonium, though the official reason was to inaugurate a new era of clean energy. Which it did.

To the extent that younger climate change campaigners perversely oppose the only guaranteed method of non-interruptible zero-carbon mass energy production, it seems to be based on a hatred of industrialisation in and of itself. In other words, it is profoundly reactionary. This point was made by Zion Lights, a former spokeswoman for Extinction Rebellion who left last year to join Environmental Progress UK — which advocates nuclear power. Ms Lights, the daughter of immigrant Punjabis who, she said, “worked punishing hours in factories to make ends meet”, had some tough words for her middle-class former XR colleagues whose family history gave them little understanding of what “a return to nature” would actually mean in terms of impoverishment.

Yet while our own government has not mimicked Merkel’s zero-sense approach to zero carbon, the climate change committee’s 448-page document Sixth Carbon Budget: the UK’s Path to Net Zero barely mentions nuclear power. Meanwhile, the Chinese are constructing 11 more domestic nuclear power stations, to add to the 46 they already have. They, and not us, have taken the true lesson from Fukushima.