Why Panic Caused More Deaths than Radiation at Fukushima

The world needs new protocols to protect people from unnatural disaster.

Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images

It’s been four-and-a-half years since Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident. Today, a report in The New York Times notes that, in that time, nobody has died from radiation directly. Nobody’s even been “sickened.” While that seems miraculous, there were, however, 1,600 stress-related deaths in the aftermath of the meltdown — a body count, for perspective, roughly on the scale of Hurricane Katrina. Apparently, the mass evacuations and pervasive panic created more problems than the radiation actually would have, had nobody reacted drastically.

Common sense leads one to believe that, even if nobody died immediately, the radiation poisoning would increase the likelihood of cancer in those exposed. Yet that’s not true either, largely because it’s too difficult to distinguish the “cause” of cancer in those who may have been affected. Additionally, exposure would have to have been much higher than it actually was. Had nobody evacuated following the accident, Dr. Mohan Doss (of Fox Chase Cancer Center) estimates people would have received at most 70 millisieverts of radiation — what the Times compares to a year’s worth full-body diagnostic scans. A full sievert (over 14 times the amount of maximum possible exposure) causes deadly cancer in only about 5 percent of those affected, as well.

The Times article exposes a major gap in our nuclear disaster knowledge. In radiation events, dangers aren’t necessarily imminent. People should be kept safe, but instilling a life-threatening fear is not the answer. Hurricanes, tornados, and earthquakes are lethal, but we generally know how to deal with them. Fukushima is a unique instance where the wind swept much of the nuclear radiation out to sea, making it less dangerous than it could have been. In such instances, better protocols could prevent us from becoming our own greatest threat.