Fear and Fukushima

03 September 2013

International radiation protection experts have written messages to the Japanese people to explain the health impacts of the Fukushima accident.

The letters were published on the website of prime minister Shinzo Abe and his cabinet and explain what is known about the effects of radiation on the human body. As individual comments to the government's 'Nuclear Disaster Expert Group' submitted between late July and the end of August, they collectively underline that the potential effects of radiation exposure are minimal compared to the observable effects of stress and stigmatisation on Fukushima residents. 

"It is important to understand that the risk to health from radiation from Fukushima is negligible, and that undue concern over any possible health effects could be much worse than the radiation itself"
Gerry Thomas
Imperial College, London 

Werner Burkart, a professor of radiation biology Munich's Ludwig Maximilians University began his letter, "Nearly two and a half years since the earthquake and tsunami event of March 2011, it is time to reflect on the suffering but also on the resilience of the affected and Japan as a whole, and to develop visions for a future without fears and restrictions."

Abel Gonzalez of Argentina has served for many years on the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). He explained its conclusion that, "No discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public and their descendants." The American representative of UNSCEAR, Fred Mettler, noted that fear of effects on future generations were unfounded: "You should be assured that many scientific studies have shown that this does not appear to happen in humans."

Gerry Thomas of Imperial College, London said, "We have lots of information from studies where high doses of radiation have been used to treat cancer, but have found that the lowest dose of radiation that we can see health effects of radiation exposure, such as increased cancer incidence, is 100 milliSieverts." By contrast, UNSCEAR expects that no resident of Fukushima prefecture would be exposed to more than 10 milliSieverts over their entire lifetime. Gonzalez said, "Even people near the damaged power plant received such low doses of radiation that no discernible health effect could be expected."

A report is forthcoming from the International Atomic Energy Agency, based on more accurate information on people's actual movements during the time of the accident. This would reveal even lower radiation exposure, according to Gonzalez, compared to previous estimates which he said were "conservatively founded on model estimates based on high-sided assumptions of exposure."

Also citing UNSCEAR, Thomas explained "the worst health effects from Chernobyl came from the fear of what radiation might do, rather than the effects radiation actually caused." She continued: "Worrying about what might happen can have a very bad effect on quality of life, and can lead to stress-related illnesses. All scientific evidence suggests that no-one is likely to suffer damage from the radiation from Fukushima itself, but concern over what it might do could cause significant psychological problems."

"It is therefore important to understand that the risk to health from radiation from Fukushima is negligible, and that undue concern over any possible health effects could be much worse than the radiation itself," said Thomas in her open letter.


The major effects of the radiation have been to prompt the evacuation of people from their homes near the former power plant, and to result in bans on certain farming and fishing in the area. Both of these have had a serious effect on many local people's family lives and livelihoods. Japan is determined to decontaminate a wide area before returning towns to normal use one by one, and slow progress is being made.

Russian Mikhail Balonov, who worked to protect the public from the radioactivity released by the Chernobyl accident, praised Japan's decontamination program. "By means of special decontamination equipment," he said, "they washed asphalt and concrete surfaces, removed topsoil and around public buildings and dwelling houses, streets and squares. According to our dose assessment, once the remediation is completed the returned people will not be exposed to substantial radiation risk any more. Thus radiation gradually departs and life in the affected areas of Japan will return to normality."

Balonov concluded: "Only an open information policy on the level of the effects, the media and the science community will create the trust needed to heal... and prevent negative socio-economic effects from unwarranted anxiety and fear."

Publication of the experts' letters coincides with a period of intense scrutiny and global public concern over operational issues and contamination at the Fukushima site.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News