Exploring the Risks of Radiation Five Years After Fukushima

Posted in GUMC Stories

MARCH 3, 2016–Five years ago, on March 12, the Fukushima Prefecture in Japan experienced the largest nuclear accident and release of radioactive materials since the events of Chernobyl, 30 years earlier. But Fukushima was no Chernobyl.

The meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant occurred because of a series of equipment failures, triggered by a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that flooded the facility on March 11, 2011.

Radioactive materials released by the plant contaminated the region, forcing a mass evacuation of the people who lived near the plant. Within days, radioactive water used to cool the facility was dumped into the Pacific Ocean. Almost immediately, fears of radiation sickness and cancer inundated the news in Japan, the U.S. and around the world.

“With regard to radiation sickness, the reality is that the risk during a nuclear core accident is borne almost exclusively by people on the reactor grounds, most notably by the workers servicing the core,” says Timothy J. Jorgensen, PhD, MPH, Georgetown University Medical Center radiation expert. He discusses the radiation exposure of nuclear meltdowns in his new book, Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation (Princeton University Press).

Only two plant workers died in the Fukushima accident — they drowned in a reactor basement when it flooded. There were no cases of radiation sickness among the plant workers because their radiation doses were too low. In contrast, at Chernobyl, 54 workers died from radiation sickness. The causes of death among the 15,900 Fukushima residents who died in the aftermath included drowning, heart attacks, exposure to cold temperatures and transportation accidents. None were attributable to radiation sickness.

Everyone should be told of the risks

After being interviewed by dozens of news outlets during the Fukushima meltdown, Jorgensen, associate professor of molecular oncology at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, realized most people do not understand radiation in a way that allows them to make an accurate assessment of its health risks. It is that lack of understanding that prompted Jorgensen to write Strange Glow, which will be published March 9.

“I realized how uninformed many people were about the radiation exposures they live with every day, often fearing the benign things and oblivious to the more threatening hazards,” says Jorgensen, director of the Health Physics and Radiation Protection Graduate Program and chair of Georgetown’s Radiation Safety Committee.

He notes that while the risk of radiation from different sources is well understood in the scientific community — “we have been studying this topic for 100 years” — little headway has been made in communicating these findings to the public in comprehensible terms.

Jorgensen says he understands why many people are afraid of radiation. “You can’t see it, you can’t taste it, you can’t touch it. You know it is there, but you can’t sense it. This causes people to be fearful of radiation and when people are afraid, they tend to exaggerate the risk level.”

Removing the mystery about radiation

Strange Glow is designed to increase public understanding of these issues by telling the story of humankind’s encounters with radiation and how we’ve been transformed by the experience. The book focuses on a health-centric perspective “that seeks to remove some of the mystery and misunderstanding that surrounds radiation,” says Jorgensen.

For example, Jorgensen talks about the risks of future cancers caused by exposure to the radioactivity released from the Fukushima reactors. The possibility of thyroid cancers and other cancers developing exists, but he thinks a measurable increase in clinical cancer rates is unlikely because the public was exposed to very low doses of radiation.

“We have a lot of collective experience with the health consequences of human radiation exposure from the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Marshall Island nuclear bomb testing, Chernobyl and medical radiation procedures,” notes Jorgensen. “The findings from those studies suggest that the cancers caused by Fukushima radioactivity, if any, will be few.”       

Jorgensen thinks that people should be told the plain facts about the risks associated with exposures to different radiation dose levels, so they can make their own decisions about whether the risk levels are acceptable. “It isn’t necessary that everyone come to the same conclusion about safety, but it’s essential that everyone be told of their risks in an intelligible way so they can make their own credible decisions,” Jorgensen explains.

Rearranging fears

Jorgensen’s book tells stories of people who encountered radiation of different types and dose levels, and what happened to them as a consequence, offering a sense of how dangerous different sources of radiation can be. In so doing, he discusses the history of radiation and its technical aspects in language accessible to all readers.

And in a bid to avoid “paternalism and a biased agenda,” Jorgensen takes no position in the book about how worried readers should be about these radiation sources. Even when armed with the same facts, an acceptable risk to one person may be totally unacceptable to another. “It’s a matter of personal choice; there is no right or wrong when it comes to judging risk,” says Jorgensen.

As Jorgensen describes, “The only thing that this book can achieve is to present the facts about radiation as objectively and evenhandedly as possible, leaving its readers to decide for themselves which aspects of radiation they should fear. This book seeks to convince people that they can be masters of their own radiation fate, and empowers them to make their own well-informed decisions about their personal radiation exposures.”

He hopes his book allows people to adjust their fears to coincide with the realities. Jorgensen says he believes that after reading Strange Glow, the fear level that people have may not be lowered overall, but “their fears will definitely be rearranged.”

VIDEO: Listen to Tim Jorgensen describe exactly what happened at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant five years ago. 

Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation
Author: Timothy J. Jorgensen
Publisher: Princeton Univ.
Pages: 496
Price (Hardcover): $35.00
Publication Date: March 9, 2016
ISBN (Hardcover): 978-0-691-16503-5

Renee Twombly
GUMC Communications