It’s always amazing when a United Nations report that has global ramifications comes out with little fanfare.”  So starts an article in Forbes talking about the most recent UNSCEAR report on the consequences of the Fukushima accident in Japan.  Three years after the accident, UNSCEAR, the United Nations body mandated to assess and report levels and effects of exposure to ionizing radiation has reported and its result could not be more clear.  “The doses to the general public, both those incurred during the first year and estimated for their lifetimes, are generally low or very low.  No discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public or their descendants.”

This result is in stark contrast to a number of more recent accidents in other industries, all with a large number of fatalities.  Whether it is a plane lost in Malaysia, a ferry sinking in Korea, an oil explosion in Quebec; the list goes on.  Unfortunately there is no shortage of examples of terrible accidents resulting in loss of life.  And yet, in comparison to these many tragic events, it continues to be nuclear accidents that many people fear the most.

But the reality is quite different. When it comes to nuclear power, we have now seen that even in the worst of the worst nuclear accidents (Chernobyl and Fukushima), we can protect people and minimize fatalities from radiation.   In other words, the decades old belief that nuclear accidents are very low probability but exceptionally high consequence; effectively resulting in the end of the world as we know it (i.e the doomsday scenario), is just not the case.

For those that have been reading my blog for a while, it was about a year ago that I wrote about the need for a new paradigm to communicating the risks and benefits of nuclear power for the future with an emphasis on refining the message to reflect current reality.  The message on safety should be:

  • The risk of a nuclear accident is very low and is always getting even lower
  • In the event of an accident the risk of releasing radiation to the environment is also very low; and
  • Even in the unlikely event that radiation is released, the public’s health and safety can be protected.

Of course, this does not mean we should become complacent.    Certainly the industry is doing the right things to make sure a similar accident cannot happen again.  Many improvements have been made in plants around the world to both reduce the risk of an accident and in the event of a severe accident, reduce the risk of radioactive releases.

For example, here in Canada, we have broadened our safety objective to “Practically eliminate the potential for societal disruption due to a nuclear incident by maintaining multiple and flexible barriers to severe event progression”.  Setting societal disruption as the measure is definitely something new as move forward post Fukushima.

As an industry, we are excellent at learning from every event and making improvements to reduce the risk of a similar event in the future.  The global nuclear industry should be proud of its unwavering commitment to safety.

But that being said, while making technical improvements and reducing the risk of future accidents is essential; unfortunately this will be unlikely to result in the public feeling safer.  I would argue that in general, the public already believe the risk of an accident is low – the problem is they also believe the consequence of an accident is unacceptably high.  So no matter how low we make the probability, they will remain afraid of the consequences.  In other words, as we continue to talk about improving technology to reduce risk; we need to enhance the discussion to talk about people and how to both keep them safe (the easy part); and of even more importance, feel safe (now here is the challenge).

Therefore an important lesson from Fukishima, is that accidents, however unlikely are indeed possible.  And it is because of the perceived consequence of an accident that the public continues to be afraid.  In fact, fear is an understatement.  We know that nuclear accidents cause not only fear but outright panic.  And this panic is not limited to people in the immediate area of the plant but is experienced by people all over the world.  Not a week goes by when there is not some news item on how radiation from Fukushima is about to land on the North American west coast.  While there is little risk of any radiation issue, to the public, it continues to stoke fear.

So now that we know that there is little to no health impact from radiation after Fukushima, does that mean the discussion is over?  No, the next step is to address the real health consequence of a nuclear accident – mental and social well-being.  Fear of radiation is a complex issue.  While people will happily accept significant doses of medical radiation as they believe (quite rightly so) this will improve their health, they remain terrified of radiation from sources such as nuclear power plants.

In their report UNSCEAR noted, “The most important health effect is on mental and social well-being, related to the enormous impact of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident, and the fear and stigma related to the perceived risk of exposure to ionizing radiation. Effects such as depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms have already been reported. “

They continue, “The evacuations greatly reduced (by up to a factor of 10) the levels of exposure that would otherwise have been received by those living in those areas. However, the evacuations themselves also had repercussions for the people involved, including a number of evacuation-related deaths and the subsequent impact on mental and social well-being (for example, because evacuees were separated from their homes and familiar surroundings, and many lost their livelihoods).“

Whatwillhappen to me

And this is where we need to do more.  Once we accept that even after implementing our best efforts, there may well be another accident someday, there needs to be increased focus on accident management and recovery.  This means clear guidelines on when to evacuate, what is required to remediate a contaminated area and when it is safe to go home again.  A huge source of fear is the unknown and after a nuclear accident, people impacted are very worried about their futures.  They want to know – will I get sick, how about my children and grandchildren – can I go home again – and if so when?  And basically how and when will I be able to resume my normal life?

UNSCEAR noted that “estimation of the occurrence and severity of such health effects are outside the Committee’s remit”.  Given these are important and significant health impacts; it is time for the industry to take action.  As an industry we have long been leaders in industrial safety.  Now we have the opportunity to be leaders in post-accident recovery psychological research.  We need new research to better understand the impact to people in affected areas following nuclear accidents so we can better plan how to reduce their fear and indeed, have a happy and healthy future. This will lead to better decisions following events based on science rather than short term fear issues. It is important to understand that protecting people means much more than emergency planning to get them out of harm’s way when an accident happens.  It also means meeting their needs right up until they can resume their normal lives.

The most important lesson from Fukushima is not technical.  Of course we will learn how to avoid similar accidents in the future and make plants safer.  But if we really want to change the dialogue and increase public support for the industry, we must also recognize the future is all about people – building confidence and reducing fear.