November 30th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Can we put the 'care' back into aged care?

EDITORIAL Bushfires: One step forwards, one step backwards

ENVIRONMENTALISM Activists and courts give sharks the last laugh

CANBERRA OBSERVED ALP's self-examination will entice no one back

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal to go to the High Court

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Deaths after Fukushima due to excessive caution

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Geopolitics, oligarchs and the Moldova miracle

ENVIRONMENT Into the unknown: Should we prepare for climate change or climate variability?

LAW AND SOCIETY Crime and punishment: Are we de-civilising?

WATER POLICY Drought relief still leaves too much water going to waste

ASIAN AFFAIRS Destination Oz: Flood of Hong Kong emigres may restart

HUMOUR MacStuttles, me ol' China

MUSIC Subliminal workhorse: An art takes the backseat

CINEMA Dr Sleep: Kubrick 'shined' from his rest

BOOK REVIEW Science and religion, with mutual respect

BOOK REVIEW A borrowed term for a socialist recipe



FOREIGN AFFAIRS Hong Kong voters reject Beijing and its proxies

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Deaths after Fukushima due to excessive caution

by Peter Purcell

News Weekly, November 30, 2019

A newly released study of deaths in the aftermath of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has called for precaution with regard to the much-touted Precautionary Principle.

The study, by economists at the universities of Columbia (United States), Nagoya (Japan) and Verona (Italy), and published by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, an independent economic research institute in Bonn, Germany, concluded that the closing of Japan’s nuclear power plants after the 2011 acci­dent at Fukushima resulted in death from cold of thousands of people.

Domestic electricity costs rose by up to 38 per cent after the closures of the nuclear plants, making life-sustaining home-heating unaffordable for many people, especially the elderly.

The closures were made in accordance with the Precautionary Principle, and the lesson of the terrible consequence is reflected in the title of the IZA study: “Be Cautious with the Precautionary Principle: Evidence from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident”.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude nine earthquake (the fourth largest in recorded history) off the east coast of the island of Honshu, triggered a 15-metre high tsunami, which struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, disabling the power supply and cooling system and causing a meltdown of three reactors. The accident caused no deaths but major concern about radiation prompted the evacuation of over 100,000 people from the region.

Over the following 14 months, concerns over radiation risks rejuvenated public and political anti-nuclear senti­ment in Japan and all nuclear power plants nationwide were closed. This resulted in the loss of substantial electric power supplies, especially in the regions that relied on nuclear generation. To meet the shortfall, Japan imported more fossil fuels, mainly LNG (liquefied natural gas) purchased on the spot market, which increased the price of electricity by 38 per cent in some regions.

These higher electricity prices led to a decrease in electricity consumption, particularly during the high-usage colder seasons, and coincided with a nationwide increase in mortality. The study identified big variations in the increase in electricity prices throughout the country, depending on the pre-existing energy mix in the area. In regions with almost no nuclear energy before the accident, electricity prices increased around 10 per cent but in regions with higher dependence on nuclear power, prices increased up to 38 per cent.

Comparison of monthly levels of electricity consumption before and after the shutdowns showed that the decreases in power usage commenced one to two months after the price increases occurred and were most pronounced during the winter months. Many customers, faced with the marked increase in the cost of power, were unable to afford adequate domestic heating during the coldest time of the year.

The study then cross-correlated mortality rates with monthly temperatures in 2011–14, establishing a clear nexus between the coldest months and higher mortality rates, suggesting that the reduced heating was a contributing factor.

The authors estimate from their statistics that the higher electricity prices resulted in at least an additional 1,280 deaths during 2011–14 in Japan’s 21 largest cities. Given that this represents only 28 per cent of the population, the nationwide impact would be closer to 4,500 deaths. Of course, no particular death can be attributed to the higher energy prices; these estimates are projected population-level impacts.

In reality, there had been no damage to any of the nuclear plants other than Fukushima Daiichi, and none had any demonstrable risk of radiation leaks. There was no scientific reason for closing these plants. Doing so was a precaution – and an unnecessary precaution that cost the population dearly.

At Fukushima Daiichi itself, no deaths at all have been directly attributed to radiation exposure from the nuclear accident. The reactors were stable after two weeks and by July were being cooled by recycled water.

The Japanese Government had acted prudently in immediately evacuating the region exposed to the risk of radiation and contaminated water, but then erred in maintaining the evacuation for several years. Over 1200 deaths are officially attributed to physical and mental trauma caused by the evacuation and prolonged residence in shelters, with 90 per cent of the victims aged over 66.

Radiation levels back in their empty homes were at levels common throughout the world and perfectly safe. Maintaining the evacuation as a precaution was unnecessary and a disaster for many.

These figures make it clear that ceasing nuclear energy production and maintaining the evacuation of the Fukushima area contributed to many more deaths than the accident itself. Applying the “precautionary principle” beyond the Fukushima region, and for so long at Fukushima, did more harm than good.

Given this surprising result, the authors ask, why do governments invoke this principle? Why is it seen by so much of the population and political leadership as the “wise” approach?

They suggest that “salient events, such as a nuclear disaster, affect perceived risk, which is often based more on emotions and instincts than on reason and rationality”. Conversely, deaths from higher energy prices go largely unnoticed.

The precautionary principle emphasises the worst-case scenario and justifies action on the grounds that no harm will be caused if those worst fears prove unfounded. This study provides a salient reminder that this assumption is flawed: there is always a downside to the precautionary principle.

That reminder is timely for Australia, where the rush into renewable energy sources has already pushed up the cost of electricity to homes and industry.

Peter Purcell is a professional geologist with a long-standing interest in environmental and indigenous rights issues.

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