Japan nuclear shutdown did 'more harm than good', study finds

29 October 2019

Increased electricity prices and greater use of fossil fuels have led to more deaths following the Fukushima accident in March 2011 than the subsequent evacuation from the area surrounding the nuclear power plant, a new study shows. No deaths have been recorded as a direct result of the accident itself, but the decision to suspend nuclear power generation in response to it has contributed to loss of life, it says.

The evacuation order was lifted in spring 2017 for Iitate Village, Tomioka Town, and Namie Town (Image: Real Fukushima)

Be Cautious with the Precautionary Principle: Evidence from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident, by Matthew Neidell, Shinsuke Uchida and Marcella Veronesi, is a discussion paper published by the Germany-based IZA Institute of Labor Economics. No deaths directly attributable to radiation exposure as a result of the 2011 accident, when a tsunami led to a meltdown at the nuclear power plant, have yet been recorded.

Prior to the accident Japan's nuclear generating capacity had provided around 30% of the country's electricity, but within 14 months of the accident Japan's nuclear generation had been brought to a standstill pending regulatory change. A total of nine units have restarted since 2015, while 17 reactors are currently in the process of gaining restart approval.

"The decrease in nuclear energy production did not come without a cost: higher electricity prices," the study says.

Increased imports of fossil fuels to offset the loss of nuclear generation resulted in increases in electricity prices by as much as 38% in some parts of Japan, it found. These higher electricity prices led to a decrease in electricity consumption, particularly during times of the year when heating demand was highest.

"Given the role that climate control plays in providing protection from extreme weather events, we find that the reduced electricity consumption caused an increase in mortality. Our estimated increase in mortality from higher electricity prices significantly outweighs the mortality from the accident itself, suggesting the decision to cease nuclear production caused more harm than good."

The authors calculated that these higher electricity prices resulted in at least an additional 1280 deaths during 2011-2014. This is higher than a previously documented estimate of 1232 deaths which occurred as a result of the evacuation after the accident, they say.

"Since our data [on mortality related to higher electricity prices] only covers the 21 largest cities in Japan, which represents 28% of the total population, the total effects for the entire nation are even larger."

The replacement of nuclear power with fossil fuels will also have had potential welfare impact because of local air quality issues, and the total welfare effects from ceasing nuclear production in Japan are "likely to be even larger than we estimate," they say.

The findings of the IZA study concur with those of medical and environmental experts, who have stressed the devastating consequences of unnecessary evacuation.

In 2016 - five years after the Fukushima accident - Geraldine Thomas, professor of molecular pathology at Imperial College London, said it was a "common misconception" that nuclear accidents from power stations cause high doses of radiation to individuals, and the local risk to residents from the Fukushima accident had been overestimated.

Earlier this year, Michael Shellenberger, president of research and policy organisation Environmental Progress, told delegates at the XI International Forum Atomexpo 2019 held in Sochi, Russia that a "panicked over-evacuation" of the area had caused around 2000 deaths, with fear of radiation causing "significant psychological stress". The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation found there had been no deaths from radiation that escaped from Fukushima, he noted.

As a regulatory tool, the precautionary principle - that activities should not proceed when the threats of damage are not fully understood - has previously been met with mixed reactions, the authors of the IZA report say, and question why, given such "surprising" results, governments invoke this principle.

"One possible explanation is that salient events, such as a nuclear disaster, affect perceived risk, which is often based more on emotions and instincts than on reason and rationality.

"[D]eaths from higher energy prices are largely unnoticed; we cannot attribute any particular death to the higher energy prices, but can only estimate population level impacts. Although the public and policy makers place greater fears on the deaths directly attributable to the accident, the two are equivalent from a cost-benefit perspective, and should be treated accordingly. The precautionary principle emphasises salient events - the worst case scenario - and in doing so ignores the alternative, thereby encouraging inefficient policy-making," it concludes.

The IZA Institute of Labor Economics is an independent institute that conducts research in labour economics and offers evidence-based policy advice on labour market issues. Supported by the Deutsche Post Foundation, the institute engages in fundamental research, scientific policy advice, and active transfer of knowledge.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News