Fukushima radiation and its long-term impact

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in Japan became synonymous with disaster in March 2011 – leaking radiation from reactors damaged in a 9.0 earthquake and forcing the evacuation of nearby residents. Health concerns at that time centered on the radiation exposure of workers at the plant and whether that radiation would spread throughout and beyond Japan. Luckily, worst-case scenarios remained only scenario as the cloud moved away from civilization. Also beneficial, according to the the journal Natureat that time, were the immediate responses of the Japanese government, which included preventing potentially contaminated produce from being shipped for consumption and the distribution of potassium iodide. However, the long-term health effects of the Fukushima disaster are still coming to light three years later.

Local impact of the disaster

Because of the immediate evacuation of the area around the plant, local effects of the radiation were initially reported to be very low, with no acute cases of radiation sickness reported in the first year. However, as of August 2013, 44 children in Fukushima prefecture were diagnosed with or suspected of having thyroid cancer according to CNN.

Japanese officials began monitoring children in the immediate area of Fukushima shortly after the problems at the plant became known. The doses received were much lower than many were afraid of based on the most famous example of a nuclear disaster – Chernobyl. However, the evacuation zone may still harbor dangers of exposure for residents. According to the Health Physics Society in January 2012, a thousand square kilometers of land was cleansed of radiation by the Japanese government, which included disposing of 15 to 31 million cubic meters of contaminated soil and debris. There are still questions about how to properly dispose of the radioactive water from the cooling tanks and the spent fuel rods.

In 2013 the World Health Organization was concerned about the psychological stress the Fukushima disaster had on local residents. Their potential for certain forms of cancer is dramatically higher than it was prior to their exposure to the radiation from the plant, and they will carry that burden for the rest of their lives. With the simultaneous effects of the tsunami and earthquake on the residents, they will likely suffer from fear, anxiety and depression for years to come.

Global impact of the radiation cloud

The good news is that the United Nations seemed certain one year after the event that the impact of the radiation remained localized to the immediate area surrounding Fukushima. According to Reuters in January 2012, the chairman of the UN scientific investigation into the long-term effects of the radiation credited the movement of the radiation cloud over the ocean instead of land as saving the world a lot of the potential problems that event could have caused.

Long-term effects of the disaster

However, this raises problems with the exposure of marine life to radiation, which was already being seen to affect the local food chain of Northern Japan in April 2011. Seawater, fish, and plankton tested in the contaminated waters off of Japan in June 2011 (the so-called “Fukushima Cruise”) found the radiation as far out as 600 km (372 mi) from Fukushima. However, the levels of dangerous isotopes were reported to be too low to endanger human health. But the monitoring since that time has been seen by many as questionable, making the effects of the disaster three years later, and into the future, uncertain.

Thus, the long-term effects of Fukushima on global health are still being determined, but so far the global impact has been reported to be minimal. The local impact has been minimized, but may need to be addressed in the future as the incidence of thyroid cancer and other health concerns increase.