Here’s a quick quiz, readers: how many people have died as a result of the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear reactor?
If you answered in the thousands, you’re way off. If you answered zero, you’re closer, but not quite right either.
The correct, but rarely seen answer is five: one man who became trapped in the console of a crane during the earthquake, two who were swept away by the tsunami and a clean up worker who suffered from a heart attack. Another man reportedly died suddenly in October. Although the company is not revealing the cause of death, they say it was not related to radiation. The entire toll from the earthquake and tsunami, remember, is estimated to be in the region of 20,000.
While it is not yet over, and radioactivity continues to come out of the devastated plant, the good news is that there are still precisely zero deaths attributable to the release of radiation at the plant, and on the basis of doses received, zero are expected.
Only two workers were hospitalised because of radiation exposure after their clothes were soaked while standing in contaminated water. The contamination occurred because they were not wearing rubber boots, but they were released from hospital within four days.
No effects on health or significant contamination cases have been identified among the general public evacuated from the area.
This is despite the fact that the accident has devastated the plant, and involved fires, explosions, and releases of radioactivity (including the release of the much over-feared element, plutonium) large enough to rate a 7 on the international scale, supposedly making it equivalent to Chernobyl.
Large amounts of radioactive material have been washed into the sea, which may cause a contamination problem for some time, but is essentially a great place for radioactive elements to go, because water is one of the best shields for radioactivity.
(Do you remember the radiation scare that happened when the Russian nuclear submarine, The Kursk sank to the bottom of the ocean? No? That would be because there wasn’t one.)
The contamination of fish may be a long term problem, but this is no different, for example, to Sydney Harbour where people are forbidden from consuming fish caught west of the bridge because of heavy metal contamination.
In the meantime, the Japanese have lost about 10 per cent of their power, and when it is all over, face the very interesting question of how to replace the lost capacity.
This article from Forbes magazine gives an interesting overview, however I am sceptical about the costs they have provided for various options. Australia is building a modern 900 megawatt coal fired power station for $1.25 billion, meaning that Japan should be able to produce 6000 megawatts for something like $8.5 billion, rather than the claimed $30 billion. If that figure is not right, I’m not vouching for the others, either.
According to the article, wind and solar energy require large areas of space that the Japanese simply don’t have. When you think about it, the 80,000 and 100,000 acres required uses up nearly as much land as currently evacuated because of the Fukushima accident.
With the exception of the 40-year-old Fukushima plant, Japan’s aging fleet of nuclear reactors withstood one of the worst earthquakes and tsunamis in the nation’s history remarkably well. In the light of lessons that have been learnt, new reactors can be engineered to prevent a recurrence of the Fukushima accident.
Other than financial considerations, the Japanese have no logical reason not to replace the Fukushima plant with new, safer nuclear reactors.