¸More than two years after the triple meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant all but brought the country to a halt following a massive earthquake and tsunami, the disaster’s long-term effects on health are still unknown.
Sanae Takaichi, the policy chief of the Liberal Democratic Party, let loose a media firestorm during a speech calling for the restart of nuclear reactors after saying that no one had died as a direct result of the Fukushima accident.
In a recent draft report, the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects on Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) said it expected to see no noticeable rise in cancer rates, adding that the swift evacuation of people living in a 20-kilometer (12-mile) radius of the plant had sharply reduced radiation exposure.
The dose levels were “so low that we don’t expect to see any increase in cancer in the future in the population,” Wolfgang Weiss, a senior member of UNSCEAR, told reporters.
The committee’s prognosis was slightly more upbeat than that offered in February by the World Health Organization, which said residents in the worst affected areas faced a slightly higher risk of developing certain cancers.
The WHO added that girls exposed as infants in the most contaminated areas faced a 70 percent higher risk of developing thyroid cancer over their lifetime. This could mean, it said, that about 1.25 out of every 100 girls could develop thyroid cancer, as opposed to the natural rate of about 0.75 percent.
“Due to the low baseline rates of thyroid cancer, even a large relative increase represents a small absolute increase in risks,” the WHO said.
Alexey Yablokov, author of “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment,” says UNSCEAR’s claim that there would be no observable increase in cancer rates was “absolutely unacceptable.”
The UN bodies’ calculations, he says, had been made using flawed estimates of average radiation doses among Fukushima residents. “The average dose estimates don’t reflect the real dose of radiation [received by Fukushima residents],” he said during a recent visit to Tokyo.
“How did they estimate the average? It’s impossible, because on the first day of the accident the level of radiation was thousands of times higher,” says Dr. Yablokov. “How do you calculate how many minutes people spent inside and outside their houses at that time, or how much air they breathed? It’s absolutely ridiculous.”