Effects of Nuclear Power on Public Health: From Three Mile Island to Fukushima

Three Mile Island. Chernobyl. Fukushima. Since the beginning of the Atomic Age, the use of nuclear energy technologies has been accompanied by numerous crises and persistent public health concerns. Currently, nuclear power has become an indispensable part in the ongoing search for alternative energy sources. By January 2011, 442 nuclear power plants operated globally to supply a total of 400,000 megawatts of energy, or roughly 14% of the total global energy supply [1]. Yet with the expansion of nuclear power, the impact of potential nuclear power plant breakdowns on public health, in particular due to radiation exposure for people living near plants, have been key concerns for governmental agencies and civilians alike. In the past 40 years, the world has seen three disastrous nuclear accidents [2]. The short and long-term health risks associated with such disasters and the subsequent environmental remediation efforts all serve as important lessons and warnings for impending developments in nuclear power.

Proper education of civilians living near nuclear power plants to enhance their disaster responses could help reduce short-term mortality and heightened long-term risks of cancer from radiation exposure from a major accident. A 2003 health study conducted in the Three Mile Island region revealed that cancer-related mortality rates of infants, young children, and the elderly skyrocketed in the two years after the accident [3]. Similarly, only four years after Chernobyl, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported over 5,000 diagnosed cases of thyroid cancer among children aged 18 and younger in the Russian Federation, Belarus, and Ukraine [4]. While the precise health effects attributed to nuclear accidents can never be assessed, they do emphasize the importance of properly educating citizens who live close to a nuclear power plant. Poor public communication before and after the Chernobyl accident led to delayed evacuation mandates or ingestion of contaminated food or water, bringing more extensive radiation exposure to populations within Eastern Europe [5]. Near the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, only 20,000 households received monthly newspaper leaflets with instructions on how to react to a nuclear disaster [6]. The remaining population in the now 19-mile evacuation zone around Fukushima Daiichi failed to receive any prior safety information or disaster response training. Many residents were unsure of what measures should be taken to avoid radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Numerous civilians chose to stay in their homes and continued consuming food that was potentially tainted with radioactive fallout [6].

The situation is better in the United States, a nation currently home to 104 commercial reactors, the greatest number of plants in the world [1, 7]. Federal legislation mandates awareness training for populations living within a 10-mile radius of a nuclear power plant (≈ 2% of U.S. population) [7]. In the case of enormous nuclear accidents, where the area of contamination is greater than 15-miles, a greater effort must still be made in the United States and other nuclear nations to educate their citizens. Brochures distributed at regular intervals to residents living near a nuclear power plant could provide valuable knowledge and instructions. Through improved communication and training, risks of cancer induced by prolonged radiation exposure could be reduced, hence diminishing the perceived risks of living near a nuclear power plant.

Conversely, should nuclear threats to public health prove unavoidable, swift action should be taken to limit long-term environmental degradations through comprehensive waste disposal and remediation. Even with existing technologies in nuclear waste disposal, clean-up following a nuclear disaster still occurs at a painstaking rate. Three Mile Island took 14 years (1979-1993); Chernobyl will take 79 years (1986-2065) [8]. Fukushima Daiichi? Besides immense human health impacts, nuclear accidents can also inflict irreversible damage on the environment. Still under high surveillance today, the 19-mile Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Exclusion Zone remains an agonizing reminder of permanent ecosystem damage caused by delays in remedial initiatives. Several years after the accident, the Soviet government succeeded in evacuating most populations near Chernobyl but did not make a clear effort towards environmental cleanup [9]. In turn, the nearby ecosystem was permanently disrupted, with several species vanishing completely [10]. Adjacent water sources were also dammed to prevent outflows of radioactive silt that would contaminate surrounding groundwater foundations [11]. Today, similar concerns for the groundwater aquifers near Fukushima beckon for rapid environmental cleanup. Initial dispersal of large quantities of Iodine-131, a principal carcinogen for thyroid cancer, will be the chief worry for the Japanese coastal environment [12]. On a global scale, persisting radionuclides, such as Cesium-137, will be of greater concern due to their potential for traveling over long distances and becoming concentrated in the tissues of marine wildlife, which could have immeasurable but enormous impacts on marine ecosystems.

Chernobyl and Fukushima hence offer valuable warnings to nuclear engineers in the future selection of power plant sites. The proximity of the Chernobyl power plant to Pripyat as well as the nearby Kiev and Dnieper Reservoirs magnifies possible human and environmental impacts should a nuclear accident occur [13]. Fukushima Daiichi’s location near sea level in a nation of high seismic activity made the reactors highly susceptible to earthquake and tidal damages in the long run [14]. Moreover, the recent accident is beginning to take its toll on nearby farmers, whose livelihoods are threatened by the fears of contaminated crops and livestock [15]. In order to minimize potential environmental and human health effects, the locations of upcoming nuclear power plants should be carefully scrutinized to consider all possible risks.

Yet the most challenging “remediation” effort involves the people affected by nuclear accidents. Individuals who may have been exposed to nuclear contamination have a natural tendency to fear for possible health effects. Even in the late 1990’s (a decade after Chernobyl), villagers from areas around Pripyat expressed concerns to investigating teams about the likelihood that their children would develop cancer and whether the Soviet government was honest about Chernobyl’s adverse health effects [16]. Indeed, the most perplexing problem facing researchers today is determining the long-term health effects of nuclear accidents. Data collection and analysis remain difficult due to a lack of national funding or interest as well as unclear linkage between human health consequences and the initial cause. The lack of such information is and continues to be a key source of mistrust for civilians living near Chernobyl [8].

The direct and indirect impacts of nuclear accidents on the psychological outlook of affected populations remain an essential aspect that impedes further exploration in nuclear energy. For example, not soon after the Chernobyl accident in 1986, around 150,000 to 200,000 protesters marched on Rome to protest the Italian nuclear program [17]. Similar demonstrations across Europe and the United States hindered the nuclear energy industry until around 2005, when the quest for clean energy revived interests in nuclear power. Even now, fierce public outcries may threaten to permanently shut down Germany’s nuclear power program in the next few decades, even though it provides 23% of the nation’s electricity needs [18]. Complete disposal of nuclear energy will likely lead to energy deficits and negative economic impacts in the short run and may even hinder developments in novel renewable energy technologies later on.

What could governmental agencies and environmental organizations do to better react to nuclear accidents? A main goal should be to present and maintain complete transparency of the nuclear accident. Lessons from Chernobyl instructed many countries currently developing nuclear power, including Japan, of the critical nature of immediate broadcasting in order to reduce human casualties. Mobile clinics, such as some preliminary ones set up in Japan, can help screen for nuclear contamination and possible risks for cancer [19]. The key advantage for such early screenings is, of course, to swiftly identify individuals who are at risk and direct them to appropriate treatment. Likewise, unnecessary anxiety among low-risk populations could be eliminated, reducing unwarranted popular skepticism of the nuclear industry or the government.

Another entry point for government intervention could be stricter monitoring of nuclear energy corporations. Since the onset of the Fukushima crisis, the Tokyo Electric Company (TEPCO) has been widely reproached for inefficient responses to explosions at several reactors [20]. Private economic interests in nuclear power plants may seek to preserve the operational status of damaged reactors in the hope that they could re-open in the future [21]. Such actions would delay first-response procedures and raise the gravity of the accident at hand. Direct governmental involvement could dispatch additional safety inspection teams to reactor sites in order to complement the results from private safety reporting. These added checkups could further diminish risks of nuclear accidents by emphasizing the safety of nearby civilians and the environment over solely the interests of the company.

The impact of nuclear accidents on human health and the environment are vital issues that lawmakers and industrial corporations must carefully assess prior to establishing power plants. While nuclear accidents occur as or even more infrequently than many natural disasters, their effects are usually devastating and very long lasting. Hence, first responses and safety precaution awareness could still be improved. Ideally, nuclear accidents and their subsequent human and environmental effects could be wholly eliminated. In the meantime, a stronger effort should be made to grant public access to basic information and the decision making process surrounding the developments of nuclear power plants. Lessons from Chernobyl and Fukushima are wake up calls. The time to heighten our concern for nuclear safety is now.


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Frank Qian is a second-year biological sciences and economics student at the University of Chicago. Join The Triple Helix Online on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.