It has been almost 18 months since the disastrous meltdowns struck four nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant in northern Japan. While daily news footage of exploding reactor buildings, emergency workers dressed like spacemen, and officials sweeping radiation detectors over children's bodies have disappeared, the impact of Fukushima continues.
While the Fukushima story is no longer a page-one news story, people must still be aware of how incredibly devastating the meltdowns were. This was no minor leak, but one of the two worst atomic meltdowns in history (Chernobyl was the other). Earlier meltdowns involved damage to just one reactor core; Fukushima destroyed three. Previous meltdowns never affected nuclear waste pools, but the Fukushima unit 4 pool sustained extensive damage and huge leaks. Other meltdowns contaminated the reactor's water source, usually a river; Fukushima poured its toxic chemicals into the Pacific, the world's largest ocean.
The question of how much radioactivity escaped into the air and water is an elusive question; estimates range between 20% and 300% of the Chernobyl amount. Likewise, we're still finding out how much of the radioactive gases and particles entered the air, water, and food. Measurements documenting extremely high levels have been taken near the Fukushima plant, an area evacuated by residents. But elevated radiation levels have been found in other parts of Japan. Because it took about six days for the radioactive plume to reach the West Coast and 18 days to circle the Northern Hemisphere, above-normal levels were also found in the U.S. and other nations, months after the meltdowns.
Of course, the most critical Fukushima questions involve harm to humans. How many workers at the plant became sick? How many local residents? How many living further away in Japan? Did infants and young children suffer more than adults? What types of diseases did they suffer from? But the biggest questions have generated the biggest silence. Thus far, there have been no official reports or publicly-announced data from Japanese health authorities on changes in disease and death rates after the meltdowns.
Buried in the many documents the Japanese health ministry places on its website is the monthly estimate of deaths. During the 12 months following Fukushima, the number of deaths for all of Japan jumped 57,900 above than the prior year. About 19,200 were additional deaths from accidents, almost all from the immediate impact of the earthquake and tsunami, but that left 38,700 excess deaths from other causes -- with no immediate explanation. While all of these cannot automatically be attributed to radiation exposure, they should be taken seriously and become the subject of extensive health studies.
Aside from the changes in health, Fukushima has also had a major impact on public policy. Within days of the meltdowns, Germany shut some reactors, four of them permanently; the Merkel government then announced a plan to phase out all remaining reactors by 2022. Belgium and Switzerland soon followed with similar phase-out plans. Italy, which has no operating reactors, placed a moratorium on plans to build new ones. Newly-elected French president Hollande campaigned on a pledge to drop the percent of French electricity from nuclear power from 75% to 50% by 2030.
But the biggest development has taken place in Japan, a nation that has now experienced atomic disasters from weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, and from the reactor meltdowns at Fukushima. Polls show the large majority of Japanese are fed up with nuclear power. They have taken to the streets in massive demonstrations, and have petitioned the government in Tokyo to close the country's 54 reactors.
The power of popular will, on top of the carnage at Fukushima, prompted new policies. The government shelved plans to build new reactors and gradually closed existing reactors for safety inspections, tests, and upgrades. Three months after Fukushima, the number of operating reactors had fallen from 54 to 17; by the end of 2011 it dropped to six; and for two months this spring all reactors were closed (two have since re-started). Industry and government officials view these shutdowns as temporary, even though many citizens continue to demand that they never restart.
Thus, in 2012, Japan has been operating with only a tiny fraction of the nuclear power it generated before Fukushima. No other country has ever made such a radical departure. Many would have thought it impossible just 18 months ago.
To help cover the electricity gap, Japan increased its usage of oil, coal, and natural gas, much of it imported. The approach of summer, when consumption of electricity is greatest, led public officials to set goals for less consumption.
With summer soon ending, fears that Japan couldn't function without nuclear power during summer periods of heaviest electricity demand are being proven unfounded. In Tokyo, and throughout densely populated southern Japan, July and August temperatures have been hotter than normal. But there have been no reports of massive blackouts -- even with only 0 or 2 reactors operating.
Oil, coal, and natural gas pose environmental health concerns, largely from greenhouse gas emissions. However, a Japanese environment ministry panel recognizes increased use of these sources is temporary. It will take years to build up the country's supply of safe, renewable power from sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass. Still, the panel reports that by 2030, greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced to 25% below 1990 levels, with up to 35% of electricity generated from non-polluting renewable sources. These projections assume no nuclear power will be used.
Dire predictions of what would happen to the Japanese economy without restarting reactors haven't held up. Just before the New Year, the Japanese Institute of Energy Economics released an analysis that declared there would be virtually no growth in gross domestic product (+0.1%) during 2012 if reactors stayed closed. But in the first and second quarters of the year, the Japanese GDP grew +5.5% and +1.4%, even with most reactors shuttered.
With the Japanese electric needs met and with its economy functioning without nuclear power, health hazards play the major role in any decision to restart Japanese reactors. It will probably take many years for the true casualty numbers to emerge; for years, the party line held that only 31 emergency workers died from Chernobyl. The idea that casualties were small was shattered by a 2009 book by a team headed by Russian researchers, published by the New York Academy of Sciences and based on 5,000 reports and articles. It estimated that 985,000 persons had died from Chernobyl exposures by 2004, with more to come. The eventual toll from Fukushima will likely be on the same order of magnitude.
Many developed nations are functioning without reactors, including Albania, Austria, Australia, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Norway, Poland, and Portugal. Nineteen U.S. states have no operating power reactors. And now Japan is doing the same. Nuclear power does not, as some contend, have to be part of the electricity future. The extremely painful lesson of the Fukushima tragedy is that Japan can emerge from it, without continuing to subject its people to the terrible dangers of atomic power.
Samuel Epstein, MD, is professor emeritus of Environment and Occupational Medicine
University of Illinois-Chicago School of Public Health and Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition. Epstein is author of the 2005 Cancer-Gate: How to Win the Losing Cancer War and the 2009 Healthy Beauty books.
Joseph Mangano, MPH, MBA, is executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project in New York. Mangano is author of Radioactive Baby Teeth: The Cancer Link.