Two years ago today, an earthquake and tsunami wreaked havoc on Japan, killing almost 16,000 people with another 2600 still listed as missing. Estimates of the cost of the destruction go as high as $235 billion, making it the costliest natural disaster in history. One aspect of the disaster dominated the news for weeks afterward — the nuclear “meltdown” at Fukushima, which prompted Japan to take all of its reactors off line, and which stopped the nuclear-power movement in its tracks in the US. The exposure of radioactive materials was thought to be the worst consequence of the overall disaster.
Now, two years later, Japan has quietly resumed its use of nuclear power, and is even building a new facility:
At the remote northwestern tip of a snowy peninsula, beyond a small road of fishing shacks and empty one-story homes, 600 construction workers and engineers are building a brand-new nuclear plant for a country still recovering from the most severe atomic accident since Chernobyl.
The main reactor building is already at its full height, though draped in heavy fabric to protect it from the wind and freezing temperatures. A 500-foot crane swivels overhead. A completed power line stretches along a nearby ridge, where it might one day carry electricity down the peninsula and back toward the Japanese mainland — a place still fiercely divided over the long-term role of nuclear power.
In the aftermath of March 2011 meltdowns in Fukushima that contaminated 700 square miles with radiation and forced 150,000 to flee their homes, most never to return, Japan’s utility companies paused nearly all nuclear-related projects. The accident sparked a global debate about nuclear power, but it was especially fierce in Japan, where all 50 operable reactors were taken offline and work was halted on three new plants where building had been underway.
But two of the existing reactors are back in action, and the resumption of construction at the Oma Nuclear Power Plant here — a project that broke ground in 2008 and was halted by the operator, J-Power, after the accident — marks the clearest sign yet that the stalemate is breaking.
What happened? The first election after the disaster produced an anti-nuclear hardline agenda. The next produced a moderately nuclear-skeptical government, and the most recent election produced what the Post calls as “cautiously pro-nuclear” government. Before the accident, Japan produced a third of its own electricity through nuclear plants, and the need for new resources may have some questioning whether Japan acted too hastily in abruptly stopping its nuclear-power production. Their normally large trade surpluses disappeared in the middle of last year, instead incurring a $78 billion trade deficit as Japan had to start importing large amounts of crude to make up for the demand.
Bloomberg’s Robert Peter Gale and Eric Lax provide another explanation. It turns out that the worst-case scenarios simply never arose. While the contamination from the accident is real, the health catastrophe predicted happily didn’t materialize:
Remarkably, outside the immediate area of Fukushima, this is hardly a problem at all. Although the crippled nuclear reactors themselves still pose a danger, no one, including personnel who worked in the buildings, died fromradiation exposure. Most experts agree that future health risks from the released radiation, notably radioactive iodine-131 and cesiums-134 and – 137, are extremely small and likely to be undetectable.
Even considering the upper boundary of estimated effects, there is unlikely to be any detectable increase in cancers in Japan, Asia or the world except close to the facility, according to a World Health Organization report. There will almost certainly be no increase in birth defects or genetic abnormalities from radiation.
Even in the most contaminated areas, any increase in cancer risk will be small. For example, a male exposed at age 1 has his lifetime cancer risk increase from 43 percent to 44 percent. Those exposed at 10 or 20 face even smaller increases in risk — similar to what comes from having a whole-body computer tomography scan or living for 12 to 25 years in Denver amid background radiation in the Rocky Mountains. (There is no discernible difference in the cancer rates between people who live in Denver and those in Los Angeles or New York.)
Rather than stand as a warning of the radiation danger posed by nuclear power, in other words, Fukushima has become a reminder that uninformed fears aren’t the same as actual risks.
Be sure to read the article to find out why this turned out to be the case, but to summarize, rapid evacuation and Fukushima’s position near the ocean made most of the difference. Medical treatment was particularly effective. However, Fukushima wasn’t the only disaster whose predicted long-term consequences turned out to be (again, happily) overblown; Chernobyl also hasn’t produced nearly as many long-term illnesses, despite a much-worse response from authorities.
These new realities have Japan cautiously moving back to nuclear power, and should be a lesson to all of us. After all, no energy production is risk-free, and as the Bloomberg piece makes clear, nuclear power has a better track record than most.