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April 22, 2011

Standing at the Crossroads between Pro-Nuclear and Anti-Nuclear Paths

Takahiro Miyao  (Emeritus Professor, University of Tsukuba, Japan, and Visiting Professor of Economics, University of Southern California, USA)

There have long been pros and cons regarding the safety of nuclear power at home and abroad. Now it is apparent that Japan's nuclear crisis is seriously impacting nuclear energy policies all around the world, as the Fukushima nuclear accident has raised concerns over the safety of nuclear power plants and invigorated "anti-nuclear power" movements not only in Japan but also in other major countries. There is little doubt that the current nuclear crisis is lending support to the anti-nuclear power argument, especially its basic premise that "serious accidents could happen, no matter how safe nuclear power plants are claimed to be."

However, this does not necessarily mean that the other key premises of the anti-nuclear power argument have proven true, that is, "once an accident happens, radiation contamination would spread to a wide area" and "serious health problems might well result from such contamination."

What actually happened in the case of the Fukushima nuclear accident is that although the initial explosions of hydrogen gas in the nuclear containers did release some nuclear particles into the atmosphere, radiation contamination seems to be limited to the surface of the soil in some areas mostly within 50 kilometers north and northwest of the troubled nuclear plants, due to wind factors at the time of the explosions. In fact, since mid-March the radiation levels have been either stable or decreasing in almost all areas except in and around the nuclear reactors, according to official monitoring. In other words, radiation is not gradually spreading to a wider and wider area as time goes on, contrary to public perceptions generated by some media reports at home and abroad.

Regarding health problems, it has turned out that subjective fears and concerns on the part of the general public as well as the government tend to dominate and override objective facts and scientific evidence about the possible health hazards of radiation. Actually, the radiation levels of the air, water, food, etc. in all areas except the limited zones of contamination in and around the Fukushima Daiichi plants still seem low enough not to cause any noticeable effects on human health even in the long run. This is why the Japanese government has been adding disclaimers that the radiation levels are currently not high enough to cause any health problem at least in the short run, whenever it adopts a regulation over the distribution and/or consumption of water, food, etc. based on the radiation safety standards set by the government itself.

It is clear that the problem is not the real extent and effects of radiation contamination, but the overly strict standards set by the government, which is sending misleading signals to the general public about the objective facts and effects of radiation. The situation is further complicated by the sensational media reporting of the nuclear accidents, focusing on extremely high radiation conditions in and around the troubled nuclear reactors without clarifying their geographical and chronological context, as I pointed out earlier in this column (http://www.esuj.gr.jp/jitow/eng/contents/0315.htm). For example, it has not been explained too clearly either by the government or the mass media that Fukushima's Level 7 rating, being the same level as the Chernobyl accident of 1986, is based on the physical measurement of the total amount of radioactive materials released from the nuclear reactors, not by the extent and seriousness of the effects of radiation resulting from the accident on ecological and social systems including human lives.

Given all these developments in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident, we are now at a crucial crossroads to choose between the pro-nuclear and the anti-nuclear paths, where the former is to develop much safer nuclear reactors with stronger safety systems while maintaining reasonable scientific attitudes toward the effects of radiation, and the latter is not only to accept the first basis premise of the anti-nuclear argument about accident-prone nuclear power plants but also to buy at their face value the other key premises about the "serious" effects of radiation in the case of a nuclear accident. Hopefully, Japan can find strong leadership to lead us in the right direction at this critical juncture.