The Making of a Radiation Panic

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March 13, 2012 | Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus,

One year after Fukushima, independent scientists working for the UN say bluntly that irrational fears of radiation poisoning will cause far more harm than the radiation itself. Not a single individual from the Japanese public received a dangerous dose, according to the early and informal analyses by the scientists. (Conspiracy theories cannot survive against the constant independent radiation measurements uploaded on Twitter.) Even the 70 altruistic plant workers who stayed behind gained an additional cancer risk of just 0.002% -- effectively zero in a country where four out of ten people get cancer.

One year after Fukushima, independent scientists working for the UN say bluntly that irrational fears of radiation poisoning will cause far more harm than the radiation itself. Not a single individual from the Japanese public received a dangerous dose, according to the early and informal analyses by the scientists.

(Conspiracy theories cannot survive against the constant independent radiation measurements uploaded on Twitter.) Even the 70 altruistic plant workers who stayed behind gained an additional cancer risk of just 0.002% -- effectively zero in a country where four out of ten people get cancer.

All of this would likely come as a shock to most readers of the New York Times, which shunted its coverage of the actual health consequences of Fukushima to its Green blog, and instead repeatedly hyped "worst case scenario" speculations by scared government officials. (By contrast, NPR, WaPo, and Nature, prominently ran informative pieces on the harms of hysteria.)

Bending to a panicked public, Japan shut down its nuclear plants, and has had to spend the eye-popping sum of $100 million more every day to import and burn fossil fuels. Cancer-causing pollution fumes are up, as are greenhouse gases (four percent despite reduced overall energy use, according to a Breakthrough analysis). The turn back to fossil energy has turned Japan's decades-long trade surplus into a trade deficit. Higher energy costs exacerbate the nation's ability to deal with its $12 trillion debt, which at 212% of its GDP is far higher than even that of Greece (165%) or Italy (128%).

Despite the over-reaction in Japan and Europe, Fukushima has not slowed the pace of new nuclear plant construction globally (something we predicted last year). Against claims made in this week's Economist, the number of reactors planned and under construction is virtually unchanged. In the US, the main obstacle to the expansion of nuclear has not been fear of radiation but rather the abundance of cheap natural gas from shale -- a reality which similarly challenges the expansion of renewables.

There was nothing inevitable or natural about Japan's panicked reaction to Fukushima. Growing mistrust of the government long pre-dates the tsunami. "The hysteria about radiation reflects a breakdown in trust, as witnessed by endless media accounts quoting people who doubt the government's monitoring of food and soil," wrote former Tokyo correspondent for the Washington Post, Paul Blustein. "Tokyo's political class, which was eager to appear unified after the disaster, is consumed anew with score-settling and power maneuvers of the sort that have given the country six prime ministers in the past five years."

Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from Japan's radiation scare is the need for new, credible sources -- independent of both electric utilities and governments -- able to soberly put the risks and benefits of energy technologies in context. Alas, if the Natural Resource Defense Council's slickly demagogic "nuclear fallout crisis" map is any indication, such credible sources won't likely come from the traditional environmental movement.

See NPR's coverage, which cites Breakthrough analysis by Jesse Jenkins, here: Nuclear Woes Push Japan Into A New Energy Future.

You can find our full collection of nuclear analyses and coverage here.