The Great East Japan Earthquake (as it is known locally) and the resulting tsunami in March 2011 officially killed 15,883 people, with 2,652 still missing. 6,149 people were injured. Save the Children reported an estimated 100,000 Japanese children were displaced from the security of their homes as their world appeared to crumble. A large populated area, well north of Tokyo on the east coast of Honshuu, already devastated by earthquake and monster waves was evacuated of roughly 300,000 residents after containment failed at a forty year old nuclear power plant.
As a result, approximately 1,600 people have died before being able to return home. Importantly, these deaths were not related to radiation exposure. In fact, the World Health Organisation has stated that no statistical increase in mortality is to be expected due to leaked radiation. It is possible that the extensive evacuation saved many residents from higher or longer-term radiation exposure, which may have ultimately resulted in a worse outcome. But it is also quite possible, indeed entirely probable that even so, nothing like 1,600 people would or could have died.
Estimates of actual leaked radioactive material vary fairly widely, and are reported in tera- and petabecquerels, which give a technical indication of how much radiation people could potentially be exposed to. These numbers correspond to actual masses which have been spread finely over land and sea, so when one considers that the reported leak of 15 PBq of relatively dangerous caesium-137 for example (with a radioactivity of 3.215 TBq/g) is due to no more than about 4.7 kg of the isotope, which mostly is expected to have settled within the 20 km restricted zone around the plant, a different perspective of the risk of excessive contamination to individuals, and the scale of the clean-up process, is apparent.
Let’s keep a sense of perspective. I mean, there’s this guy, somehow. And the fact that the Pacific already contains relatively large amounts of Cs-137. (and K-40, and U-238, and Th-232…) So, no, not Fukushima, if the implied question was should nuclear power be expanded to meet electricity demand and mitigate pollution and anthropogenic carbon dioxide.
After spending 2 years enacting energy austerity and scrambling to expand natural gas electricity generation, Japan is being patted on the back for erecting a wind turbine off the Fukushima coast. In itself, wind energy is great – in suitable locations. But hardly to replace base load electricity supply. And while this is being applauded as an environmental victory, in perspective it is not: Japan is already admitting it will be 3% over its 1990 GHG emission levels, instead of 25% under, by 2020. All as most recent predictions about anthropogenic climate change indicate a bleak future for our oceans.
Sadly ironic, when all anyone’s worried about is releasing a heap of dilute contaminated water into the sea.