Monday, July 23, 2012
As debris from the March 2011Japanese tsunami washes ashore in Alaska and other West Coast states, it is worth reflecting on the toll it took on lives. It relates to the "clean" energy debate - nuclear power is being touted as the low carbon footprint alternative to coal fired power plants. However, all costs need to be assessed, including the risks of major accidents.
A Stanford University study released last month revealed that the radiation toll from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident could eventually result in anywhere from 15 to 1,300 deaths. Reports of radiation exposure could be underestimated though. On Sunday, the Washington Post reported that workers at the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant may have placed lead around radiation detection devices in order to stay under a safety threshold for exposure. Disturbing, since current exposure rates affects the predictions of long-term effects.
A Wall Street Journal report commented that the human deaths resulting from Fukushima are probably far lower than those at Chernobyl, since about 80% of the radioactivity was blown towards the ocean. At Chernobyl, most of the radioactivity settled over land and the amount released was far greater.
If 80% of the radiation went out to sea, the amount absorbed into marine plants that eventually make their way into fish and the human food chain is a concern. In Chernobyl, children were affected long after the accident from drinking milk from cows that fed on grass near the plant. These cows could have been prevented from grazing in the areas near the plant, but obviously the same cannot be said for fish feeding near the Japanese site. Hopefully there will be monitoring of cancers and thyroid disease throughout the Pacific rim, so the true costs of poorly sited nuclear power plants can be assessed accurately.