The earthquake and tsunami are estimated to have killed more than 15,000 people along Japan’s east coast and triggered the Fukushima accident, the damaging of the power plant a hundred miles north of Tokyo. The Japanese government did not respond to the crisis very well. They gave out no information about radiation levels and people had no idea if they were going to die. Even doctors were left in the dark as to the magnitude of the problem.
In its Health Risk Assessment of the nuclear disaster, the World Health Organization (WHO) note exposure levels too low to affect human health, with exception to a few communities in closest proximity to the power plant.
In these communities it is those who were infants at the time of exposure who are at greatest risk of cancer. At the two closest communities the incidence of cancer in this demographic is projected to be between 4-7 percent higher than the acceptable baseline cancer rates. However, for the rest of Japan, the WHO has said that it has nothing to worry about.
However, seven years later, many Japanese people don’t believe the nuclear experts and believe the WHO is inept, incompetent, or worse covering up the actual damage to keep people from panicking. So who is in the right? Are the experts correct in their assessment or do the Japanese people have something to worry about?
In most nuclear accidents, the biggest concern is the risk of getting thyroid cancer from the release of radioactive iodine-131. Iodine-131 is terrible. While it has a half-life of only eight days, if breathed in or ingested, for instance, in milk from cows grazing on contaminated pastures, it concentrates in thyroid glands and can cause thyroid cancer that emerges within a few years. Because children are still growing and developing, they are especially at risk. The only prophylactic is to give exposed people tablets of non-radioactive iodine to flood their thyroid glands and prevent uptake of the radioactive version.
There was an epidemic of thyroid cancer after Chernobyl. Radioactive iodine was also released during the Fukushima accident, though only about a tenth as much as at Chernobyl. Doctors tend to agreed that the actual uptake by people near the plant was small. This is because most of the fallout initially headed out to sea, because the authorities quickly removed potentially contaminated foodstuffs from sale and because iodine tablets were issued.
Japanese nuclear authorities have confirmed that active intervention will be required for the next forty years to stabilise the site, there are on-going radioactive releases and water and waste management issues. To be fair the damage from the fallout is hard to project or predict. In 2016, a group called the "International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War" argues that 174,000 people have been unable to return to their homes and malformations have been found in trees, birds, and mammals. Although physiological abnormalities have been reported within the vicinity of the accident zone, the scientific community has largely rejected any such findings of genetic or mutagenic damage caused by radiation, instead showing it can be attributed to other ecological effects. Whatever the case is, the shadow of Fukushima still looms large and there is much to debate as to the real effect of the disaster.