Some 20,000 Japanese people died as a result of the tsunami that ripped into that country’s eastern shore in March 2011. At the most, a handful more people may eventually die from radiation released when the tsunami washed through the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, setting off a series of meltdowns within its reactors and creating many days of headline news around the world.
And yet it is the nuclear disaster that most of us remember best from those terrible days. Why? Because there is something chilling about an accident involving a nuclear power plant. Something about the invisibility of radiation, and its potential to kill silently, that brings on a condition among many doctors working in the aftermath of Fukushima describe as radiophobia.
Restricted Residence by Giles Price, published by Loose Joints, is available now.
Radiophobia is not, despite the protestations of nuclear apologists, an irrational condition. We have good reason to fear what we cannot see, or taste, or hear, or touch. If our senses offer no guide to the scale of the risk, we must assume the best or fear the worst.
Extreme personal caution – and a desire to defend our families, our communities and even our species – is a rational response. But a decade on, as exiles from the Fukushima disaster are invited by their government to return home to a landscape now deemed safe, it makes sense to step back and assess what actually happened – and what the long-term consequences might be.
In engineering terms, the story is simple. The Japanese knew about earthquakes and the deadly waves known as tsunamis that earthquakes can cause when they rise up on the sea bed. Theoretically, the Fukushima nuclear plant, 250 kilometres north of Tokyo, was protected from such a wave by a 30-metre sea wall.
The problem was that on 11 March 2011, the wave was higher. As the water spilled over the wall, the reactors were initially unharmed. But the floodwater disabled the plant’s power supply and the back-up generators.
Its cooling systems, which prevented the reactors from overheating, failed. The uranium fuel started to melt. Radioactive gases built up inside the reactors. Engineers released the gases to stop the reactors blowing their top, and repeating the disaster at Chernobyl. There was panic and emergency evacuations of people living close by began.
Eventually the releases ceased and the panic was over. Much less radioactivity was released than at Chernobyl, because the reactors stayed intact and their molten fuel remained inside. But the fallout was significant. The forests on the hills around the plant received the most radioactivity. In places, they remain dangerous to this day. And the question remains: when can the 150,000 evacuees return?
After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, the authorities created an exclusion zone round the stricken reactor, and decided that the forests and marshes within the zone should be left as they were – to hold on to the radioactivity while it slowly decayed. The land has been sacrificed.
Aside from a few elderly residents who wouldn’t take no for an answer, people are unlikely ever to be given the chance to return. In Japan, the official response has been the opposite: to clean up the land and make it fit for rehabitation.
Thousands of contract workers have bagged up soil, vegetation and farm crops into an estimated three million black plastic sacks. The sacks now litter the Fukushima countryside in pyramids, awaiting a decision about how to give them a final safe resting place. The estimated clean-up cost is approaching $50 billion.
Except for some forested hilly areas, all places should be safe for people to return, say officials. Some people have already been allowed back. But many Japanese are reluctant to return. Either they have built new lives elsewhere and have no interest going back to their old homes, or they simply do not believe the official promises that there is nothing to fear.
This is an interesting turn of events for a country known for its discipline and reserve. As Wade Allison of Oxford University, who has studied the disaster, puts it: “In Japan, everyone knows what to do in an earthquake. Half a million people got out of the way of the tsunami. But the public had understood nothing should go wrong with nuclear plants. Absolute safety was assured. So when it seemed that the impossible had happened, there was panic.”
In the hours after the accident, officials were as nonplussed as the public. At one police station near the reactor, police had donned radiation protection gear to protect themselves at the same time as telling scared locals that there was no radiation risk. Meanwhile, other officials shepherded people to evacuation centres that had radiation levels higher than in the homes they were fleeing.
The fear created by such events has not gone away almost a decade later. One reason is that the reactors themselves are still far from stabilised. Because the reactor roofs never blew, most of the radiation remains inside, mostly in molten metal on the reactor floor.
Engineers constantly pump in water to keep it stable, and collect the water as it comes out again. But inside the reactors, everything is so radioactive that small robots sent in to take pictures fry within minutes, as their electronics are killed by the radiation.
Any human going inside would be killed within 30 seconds. The clean-up is going to last decades and cost tens of billions of dollars.
To visit Fukushima, I drove along Highway 114, the road through the mountains to the plant, past abandoned villages, overgrown paddy fields and radioactive forests. I travelled with a local assemblyman from one of the empty communities, Baba Isao, who organised the paperwork that allowed me to travel the forbidden road.
To my surprise, however, the road was surprisingly busy. There were trucks taking workers to decontaminate the land, and cars carrying former residents who were keen to check on their former homes and the graves of their ancestors. There were even hunters in search of the wild boar that have proliferated across the area since people left.
My Geiger counter showed there were occasional hotspots in the hills – usually in the forests – where seriously raised radiation levels persisted. One of them turned out to be in Baba’s garden, where I recorded levels four times the government “safe” level. Baba showed me his plum trees. “This fruit is too dangerous to eat now,” he said. “And the water in our well is contaminated, too.”
My destination was Namie, which has recently been opened for returning residents, and which at the time of my visit was full of clean-up teams. But the incentive for residents to return had not been helped by pictures published in international media – the Guardian and CNN among them – showing the photographer himself visiting shops and other buildings wearing a gas mask and other protective gear, supposedly to protect against radiation.
It was fake news. He claimed to have sneaked in at the dead of night, when a simple request would have delivered the required permission. And radiation levels were down to background levels in the town. He could have spent years there without risk.
Fukushima has become a case study in how trust in officials can collapse, and the threat that poses to the nuclear industry. Much of the problem in the early days was a lack of information about radiation levels. Red Cross staff refused to enter the zone to help victims of the tsunami for fear they would be poisoned by the radiation.
Even doctors I spoke to said they had no information about radiation levels in the immediate aftermath of the accident. They could not reassure their patients, even their families. They ended up making their own measurements of radiation across the province and publishing the resulting maps.
Crazy stories and simple misrepresentations and misunderstandings persist. The biggest concern raised today by Japanese lay people is the effects of iodine-131. It was released in significant quantities as the plant’s operators grappled with the disaster. It has a half-life of only eight days so it has long-since disappeared.
But while it was around it had a strong potential to get into peoples’ bodies – mainly through milk from cattle grazing on pastures in the fallout zone. Children would have been at particular risk. The iodine concentrates in their growing thyroid glands and can cause cancers in later years.
This hazard is well-known. There was an epidemic of thyroid cancers after Chernobyl, because few efforts were made to protect people. But after Fukushima, despite the chaos, potentially contaminated milk and other food that could have harboured the deadly iodine were quickly banned.
Doctors were fairly confident there would not be a future outbreak of thyroid cancer. But they wanted to be certain, and to reassure the public, the Fukushima Medical University launched a long-term screening programme. And that is where the problems began.
To start things off, they carried out what they called a baseline assessment, involving ultrasound checks of children, two years after the accident. This was well before any symptoms would be expected. The problem is that when you start to look for something, you tend to find it.
The screening programme found over a hundred cases of thyroid cancer among children who had been caught up in the disaster, against the four that doctors would expect to have diagnosed in a population of that size.
It sounded bad. Not surprisingly there was an outcry when the data were published. It looked like the start of a major epidemic. Dozens of lay people I spoke to during my visit took that view.
Very few had heard the doctors’ interpretation. The doctors said that the numbers were to be expected. Thyroid cancers are much more common than supposed, especially among adolescents, they said. Mostly, they never come to anything; frequently they are never even diagnosed. “We know this, because autopsies reveal many nascent [thyroid] cancers,” said Ken Nollet, the American director of radiation health at the university.
So comparing the results of a mass screening with the number who would have been diagnosed in the normal run of life was very misleading, Nollet said. A better comparison would be with other mass screening programmes.
As it happened, South Korea had carried out a similar screening at around the same time in a population not exposed to Fukushima – and found very similar results. “It is very difficult to convince the public about this,” said Nollet. “And when we try we are seen as complicit in nuclear power.”
As a layperson confronted with this evidence, I must say I might take a similarly jaundiced view. It might increase my fear about bringing a young family back to the exclusion zone.
But I have since spoken to many specialists in cancer and radiation about this, and I am convinced that there is no thyroid cancer epidemic. As British medical radiation expert Gerry Thomas at Imperial College London put it: “We don’t expect any health effects from radiation at Fukushima.”
In truth, the university researchers were hopelessly naïve to believe that a public deeply troubled by the health effects of a major nuclear disaster would conclude that a 30-fold increase in expected cancer rates was just a statistical anomaly. More than naïve, I would call them reckless.
But, thus far at least, there is no evidence of a rise in thyroid cancer rates – and what we know about the amount of iodine to which people were exposed suggests there is unlikely to be in future.
None of this says that there were no deaths from Fukushima. There have been hundreds. But radiation has only been acknowledged as the cause of one person's death from lung cancer, and experts are divided on whether exposure can be linked to other deaths.
The biggest cause of deaths was the evacuation. It was chaotic. Around 60 older people died as they were rushed from care homes and hospitals.
Sae Ochi, a paediatrician who volunteered during the disaster told me that others were left in their homes, where several died of dehydration, hunger or a lack of medicines, because the nurses and care workers who would have attended them had themselves been evacuated.
Then there was an epidemic of post-traumatic stress among evacuees, leading to a surge in suicides. Their stress came from the evacuation itself, from fear of radiation and the effect it might have on them and their families, and the strangeness of the world of radiation and risk into which their lives had been plunged.
One evacuee, Ryoko Ando, wrote a first-person memoir for a medical journal. “We found ourselves drowning in numbers [and] strange units we had never heard of, such as the sievert. Radiation had no role in our consciousness until then; suddenly we found that it was part of our lives, without having a yardstick to gauge it and form a judgment.”
She may have been more articulate than most, but she spoke for tens of thousands of others. Call it “phobia” if you like, but radiophobia is real enough for those who experience it.
Fred Pearce is the author of Fallout: A Journey through the Nuclear Age, from the Atom Bomb to Radioactive Waste (Granta Books, 2018)
Restricted Residence by Giles Price, published by Loose Joints, is available now.
Image: Untitled image from Restricted Residence. © Giles Price 2020 / Courtesy Loose Joints.