The first study to estimate the global health impact of the release of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster concluded that it might eventually cause 130 deaths and 180 cases of cancer, mostly in Japan, though the range of possibilities varied widely.
While the number seems small relative to the scope of the disaster, the study focused only on the radiation and excluded the immediate, actual deaths that occurred during the initial earthquake and tsunami.
And the analysis contradicts previous claims, such as by the United Nations Science Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, that the nuclear disaster would cause no deaths.
The study, conducted by Stanford University PhD graduate John Ten Hoeve and Stanford civil engineering professor Mark Z. Jacobson, is to be published in the July 17 issue of Energy and Environmental Science.
How the study was conducted
The researchers used a 3-D global atmospheric model to predict how the radioactive material would move over earth and a health-effects model to see how humans would be exposed to radioactivity.
The possible death toll ranged widely from 15 to 1,300 dead; the best estimate was 130. The number of cancer cases also varied widely, from 24 to 2,500 with 180 being the best estimate.
The models showed that most of the ill health effects would be felt in Japan, with a few small effects noticeable in mainland Asia and North America; as many as 12 deaths and 30 cancer cases could show up in the United States.
The number of people exposed to the radiation was relatively contained, because only 19% of the released radioactive material fell over land; the rest was dumped in the Pacific.
Another reason for the contained health effects is that the Japanese government responded more rapidly than the Soviets did after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. For instance, the Japanese government evacuated the 20-kilometer around the plant and stopped cultivation of crops whose radiation exposure exceeded a certain threshhold.
Related on SmartPlanet:
- A year after Fukushima, how life in Japan has changed
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- Crowdsourced tests show radioactive hotspots in Tokyo
Update, July 17, 2012, 10:45pm EST: The original version of this post said this study excluded the immediate deaths that occurred during the "catastrophe." It has been updated to clarify that the catastrophe referenced was the precipitating earthquake and tsunami.
photo: Jun Teramoto/Flickr