Fukushima cancer death toll (Jim Green, Friends of the Earth, Australia)

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Fukushima second anniversary

Jim Green

An article in Nuclear Monitor #757 pointed to some preliminary estimates of the long-term cancer death toll from the Fukushima disaster, based on information about radiation releases and exposures (Green, 2013). Specifically, the article pointed to:

  • a "very preliminary order-of-magnitude guesstimate" of "around 1000" fatal cancers (von Hippel, 2011); and
  • a Stanford University study that estimates "an additional 130 (15–1100) cancer-related mortalities and 180 (24–1800) cancer-related morbidities" (Ten Hoeve and Jacobson, 2012).

Responding to the Ten Hoeve and Jacobson (TH&J) study, Beyea et al. (2013) arrive at a higher estimate. They state: "On balance, the net result of adjusting the TH&J numbers to account for long-term dose from radiocesium is uncertain, but the mid-range estimate for the number of future mortalities is probably closer to 1000 than to 125."

In a web-post, radiation biologist and independent consultant Dr Ian Fairlie (2013) estimates around 3,000 cancer deaths − about an order of magnitude lower than those from Chernobyl. Of course the Fukushima figures would be much higher if not for the fact that wind blew around 80% of the radioactivity from the Fukushima disaster over the Pacific Ocean.

A media release accompanying a World Health Organization (2013) report released in late February states:

In terms of specific cancers, for people in the most contaminated location, the estimated increased risks over what would normally be expected are:

  • all solid cancers − around 4% in females exposed as infants;
  • breast cancer − around 6% in females exposed as infants;
  • leukaemia − around 7% in males exposed as infants;
  • thyroid cancer − up to 70% in females exposed as infants (the normally expected risk of thyroid cancer in females over lifetime is 0.75% and the additional lifetime risk assessed for females exposed as infants in the most affected location is 0.50%).

For people in the second most contaminated location of Fukushima Prefecture, the estimated risks are approximately one-half of those in the location with the highest doses.

However the WHO report provides no information on the number of people in each of the exposed categories. It provides no information on total human radiation doses (a.k.a. collective doses) nor does it provide sufficient information for readers to be able to do those calculations. Thus there is no way of estimating the total number of cancer deaths.

The WHO report excludes radiation doses received by workers at the Fukushima nuclear plant. It also does not consider radiation doses within 20 kms of the Fukushima site, ostensibly because most people in the area were rapidly evacuated and because "such assessment would have required more precise data than were available to the panel." A report by Oda Becker (2012) on behalf of Greenpeace Germany found that people within the 20 km zone are likely to have received high radiation doses before evacuation − but Becker does not attempt to estimate the number of people who may have been affected.

Commenting on the WHO report, Ian Fairlie (2013b) states: "Despite the report containing some useful information (and some good members on its expert team) it fails in what should have been its most important task – i.e. to calculate collective doses to the people of Fukushima, to the people of Japan and to the people of the Northern hemisphere from the Fukushima accident. Indeed the phrase 'collective dose' does not appear in the report. ... Not only does the report not contain population doses, it appears to have been designed to prevent independent readers and scientists from doing their own calculations. For example, it tries to blind people with science by giving lots of estimates on organ doses (tables 4 and 5) but none on whole body doses, and lots of worker data (tables 6,7,8,9) but relatively little on public doses."

Contact: Jim Green is editor of the Nuclear Monitor and national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia. monitor[@]wiseinternational.org

A longer version of this article is posted at foe.org.au/fukushima-cancer