Panic Over “The Panic Over Fukushima”

Yuki Miyamoto

I found Richard Muller’s August 17 (updated on August 18) Wall Street Journal article “The Panic over Fukushima” shocking—not in the manner intended by the author, but rather because of his reduction of human life to numbers. As we will see, such reduction is the essence of Dr. Muller’s characterization of policies surrounding the Fukushima disaster. He claims that the “policies enacted in the wake of the disaster in Japan—particularly the long-term evacuation of large areas and the virtual termination of the Japanese nuclear power industry—were expressions of panic.” I want to call attention here to what I take to be problematic Muller’s assumptions and conclusions resulting from a hasty interpretation of incomplete scientific data. I do no mean to deny the validity or effectiveness of the scientific method in general, but rather to illuminate some dangerous shortcomings of Muller’s unguarded optimism, or misplaced faith, in his interpretation of scientific data. I suggest that what he characterizes as “panic” is, for those of us who want to protect against the very real dangers of radiation, a rational and warranted response to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima and radiation exposure more broadly.

Muller opens his article by considering the cancer rate in Denver. He claims (without citing his sources) that “despite its high [and natural] radiation levels, Denver generally has a lower cancer rate than the rest of the United States.” “If you live there,” he continues, “you get, on average, an extra dose of .3 rem of radiation per year (on top of the .62 rem that the average American absorbs annually from various sources). A rem is the unit of measure used to gauge radiation damage to human tissue.” He attributes this lower incidence of cancer to matters of “lifestyle,” and uses the allegedly low cancer rate in Denver, despite their “lifestyle,” as a point of comparison with Fukushima, arguing that Denver residents are exposed to more radiation than their counterparts in Fukushima, and yet exhibit lower cancer rates than the national average in the United States. Muller uses this comparison to argue that evacuation from Fukushima is unwarranted and an “expression of panic.”


But those advocating evacuation are not “panicking.” Rather, they are responding to standards for radiation exposure set by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) and Japan’s Ministry of Environment. Both entities recommend evacuation when radiation levels exceed 1 mSv, or .1 rem, per year. This simply suggests that they find it insufficient to adopt the Denver case as their standard.


Muller’s problematic comparison of Fukushima with Denver goes further. He asks,, “How many cancers will such a dose trigger?”


To calculate an answer, assume that the entire population of that 2-rem-plus region, about 22,000 people, received the highest dose: 22 rem. (This obviously overestimates the danger.) The number of excess cancers expected is the dose (22 rem) multiplied by the population (22,000), divided by 2,500. This equals 194 excess cancers.


Estimating the number of cancer patients from exposure to the Fukushima accident to be as low as 194, Muller then invites readers to compare this number “to the number of normal cancers in the same group.” Judging from the context, one may assume that by “normal” cancers Muller means cancers not induced by non-natural radiation exposure (nuclear bombs, leaks, and the like). But can we really discern “normal” cancers, when taking into account disasters like those at Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl, and the more than 2,000 nuclear tests since 1945 that have been conducted around the world? All these contribute to the “normal” background level of radiation across the globe. We simply cannot know which cancers are not caused by such radiation. In addition, the ICRP has made clear that the correlation between cancer and low-dose radiation exposure remains unknown. This should not be taken to mean that there is no correlation, but rather that the scientific methods have yet to be developed to discern a possible correlation.


What must be admitted, in any case, is that scientific studies cannot always predict the extent or character of a disaster’s consequences, nor can they always recommend the best course of action for protecting against illness or death. History is sometimes a more useful guide. In fact, as Muller admits, thyroid cancer is a “rare” and therefore more conspicuous form of cancer whose presence will be salient in areas afflicted by nuclear disaster. But we should note that we know this not on the basis of scientific predictions but, sadly, from the increased incidence of thyroid cancer in the wake of the Chernobyl accident. To apply this back to Muller’s own argument, we ought to question his confidence in making claims regarding the low incidence of cancer predicted to arise in Fukushima. Given the fact that such “scientific” calculations and estimates do not always serve accurate predictions, the best attitude is one of precaution and protection rather than dismissing possible dangers that have not yet become visible. Muller’s nonchalance in this regard is troubling, especially when people’s lives are at risk.


We must also be wary of Muller’s optimism concerning thyroid cancer. Because it is treatable, he seems to suggest, its possible increased incidence in Fukushima is not sufficient warrant for evacuation and other “panicked” policies. And yet, who would want to tolerate an increased risk for those most susceptible to the disease—children?


Muller further holds (again, without citing sources) that only about 800 deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were due to radiation-induced cancer following the bombings:

Of the roughly 100,000 survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts, we can estimate that about 20,000 have died or will die from cancer. But in only about 800 of these cases was the cancer caused by the bombs. We know that by looking at similar cities. Hiroshima and Nagasaki have experienced an increase in cancer among those exposed, but it is only a small increment of the natural rate. Yet far more than the estimated 800 victims attribute their cancers to the bomb.


But Muller may not be giving sufficient consideration to the long-term effects of radiation. Again, it is history that illuminates the matter here. Consider, for example, the plight of the Marshall Island residents, whom the United States government permitted to return to their homeland after the residual radiation from nuclear tests was deemed safe enough by the United States Atomic Energy Commission. The Commission, then led by Nobel laureate chemist Glenn T. Seaborg, issued the following statement in 1969: “There’s virtually no radiation left and we can find no discernible effect on either plant or animal life.” ( Though the Commission would eventually recognize the continuing danger from radiation, their warnings came too late. As a result of their return to the contaminated islands, the Marshallese contracted various illnesses, including a variety of cancers—leukemia, lymphomas, myeloma, meningioma,  and thyroid, breast, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, pancreas, bile duct, gall bladder, liver, colon, urinary tract, salivary gland, ovarian cancers along with unexpected bone marrow failure or severe mental retardation (the Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal Act §23 (13) 1987). In this case again, an optimistic scientific prediction proved insensitive to reality, resulting in the (listed) illness and death of 1,549 out of 4,900 islanders as of December 31, 1997 ( Might it not be that our present scientific methods are inadequate for accurately assessing the long-term effects of radiation? Is it not possible that radiation—whether from the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki or from the disaster in Fukushima—had, have, and will continue to have effects that science cannot discern or accurately predict yet?


Similarly, Muller draws dubious conclusions on the basis of recent reports of butterfly mutation in Fukushima: “A recent study of butterflies near Fukushima confirms the well-known fact that radiation leads to mutations in insects and other simple life-forms. Research on those exposed to the atomic bombs shows, however, no similar mutations in higher species such as humans.” Conducting comparable studies on humans—vastly more complex life-forms with greater life expectancies—is simply impossible at this point. But this fact does not, of course, suggest that there is no correlation between radiation exposure and mutation in humans; it is simply the case that the data that would confirm or deny the correlation is not available. In light of our present ignorance, and given the lessons of history, evacuation is a more sensible course of action than complacency. When the stakes are literally life and death, where the extent of possible harm is not known or cannot be ascertained, caution should be the ruling principle. This is not panic, but prudence.


While insisting on characterizing the promoters of evacuation and nuclear shut-down as panic-stricken, Miller exhibits a lack of ethical reasoning. This is evident again in his attitude regarding scientific estimates. He cites physicist Richard Garwin’s estimate of possible cancer patients from Fukushima. Garwin “has written that the best estimate for the number of deaths is about 1,500—well above my estimate but still only 10% of the immediate tsunami deaths.” Most troubling, to my eyes at least, is the assumption underlying Muller’s downplaying of the number of possible deaths resulting. His stance is to argue that 1,500 cancer deaths in relation to 150,000 deaths by the earthquake and tsunami is negligible. 1500 deaths do not constitute an adequate basis for what he deems to be the ill-advised policy of evacuation and shutting down the nuclear reactors. Moreover, it seems to suggest that residents should be able to rationally accept the increased cancer rate. It is as if he is saying, “Twenty percent of the population is going to die of cancer anyway; why panic over another 1,500 deaths?”


Muller continues his discussion of Garwin’s estimates: “Even though Dr. Garwin predicts 1,500 eventual deaths from the nuclear accident in Japan, he says the figure is small enough that the long-term evacuation of Fukushima itself would probably cause more harm than good. Evacuation causes disruption to lives that is hard to quantify but very real.” I do not want to underestimate the hardships caused by evacuation (nor the agony of those who are unable to evacuate for many reasons). On the other hand, surely for those among the 1,500 predicted to develop radiation-induced cancer, the illness would cause at least as much disruption to life as evacuation. Further, it is unclear why Muller is so quick to assert the hard realities of evacuation, while taking so lightly the disruption caused by the predicted suffering and deaths among those remaining in the area.


It seems to me that the Fukushima accident was, and remains, sufficiently grave to warrant caution concomitant with the seriousness of the situation. We should not, in other words, discourage those who recommend evacuation as irrational, or call such a response an “expression of panic.” After all, such cautions are the best and most rational response to the prospect of further illness and death, whether they number 194 or 1,500.


Muller concludes by claiming that “the great tragedy of the Fukushima accident is that Japan shut down all its nuclear reactors.” If anything would serve to justify panic, it is positions like this one, holding so little concern for human welfare. What is irrational—and irresponsible—is not policies of evacuation and precautionary measures for the future, but callously optimistic prognostication based on insufficient data. Such hubris is the basis of tragedy.


Related Article: The Panic Over Fukushima


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