Did the Media Hype Fukushima Health Impacts?

Was Japan really on the verge of evacuating Tokyo in the wake of last year's tsunami, as the New York Times reported earlier this week?

Will the partial meltdown of the Fukushima reactor spike cancer rates?

Time magazine environment writer Bryan Walsh takes aim at the media hype, reporting:

As it happens, scientists have begun to compile early assessments of the health impacts of Fukushima--and the conclusions are less than catastrophic. Researchers speaking at a conference for the Health Physics Society said that the health threat to Japanese from radiation exposure looks to be extremely low.

Even the brave workers who stayed behind at the plant had radiation exposure that was more than 10 times lower than that levels received by the half-million people who helped entomb the Chernobyl reaction more than two decades ago.

They estimated that the risk of getting cancer for those exposed would increase 0.002%, and the risk of dying from cancer would rise by 0.001%. "I received more radiation on my transcontinental flights from Tokyo to Washington than I did at the reactor site," said John Boice, a professor at Vanderbilt University and the incoming president of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements.

As we approach the March 11 anniversary of the tsunami that killed over 20,000 people, we will no doubt hear much more about the partial meltdown at Fukushima, which to date has still killed nobody. (Five workers, according to Asian Correspondent, did die at the plant -- but not from the meltdowns: "One man who became trapped in the console of a crane during the earthquake, two who were swept away by the tsunami and a clean up worker who suffered from a heart attack. Another man reportedly died suddenly in October. Although the company is not revealing the cause of death, they say it was not related to radiation.")

With hope, journalists covering the anniversary of the tsunami and Fukushima will be more skeptical, and provide greater context, than they did in this recent wave of stories about Rebuild Japan's report.

"As Evan Osnos writes for the New Yorker, we are lucky that Fukushima didn't turn out to be worse than it was," Walsh writes. "But the more we learn about it, the more it seems that the odds were always in our favor."

Walsh goes on to quote at length from yesterday's piece in Slate by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus.

Read Bryan Walsh's full article in Time here.