Main killer in all this? The panic
Some more details on casualties thus far have been released, reported by WNN. It turns out that there has been one confirmed death, but not at the Daiichi plant at all: a worker who was in a crane cab at the separate Fukushima Daini plant (where all reactors are now confirmed to be safely in cold shutdown) was killed when the quake hit. Two more workers, this time at the Daiichi plant, are still listed as missing since the quake and tsunami hit. Six more required medical help following the quake, one suffering two broken legs.
A further 15 non-radiological injuries have resulted from hydrogen explosions at the site, though some of these were minor in nature and the individuals concerned returned to duty shortly after.
As to radiation-related issues, there has been one case of measurable significance. Earlier in the week when workers were still limited to a total dose of 100 millisievert, one individual breached this limit during venting operations and consequently was evacuated to hospital. As noted above, personnel are now permitted to sustain doses of 250 millisievert.
The Japanese people, rightly, are hailing the personnel at the site as heroes. Not the least impressive aspect of their performance is the way they appear to be tackling the situation with such professionalism as not to carelessly risk their own well-being.
In summary it appears more and more that health consequences from reactor damage will be extremely minimal even for workers at the site. It will now be a surprise if anyone who has not been inside the plant gates this week is affected by the situation at at all – apart from all the people worldwide who have been taking iodide pills or eating salt unnecessarily. There may also be measurable psychological health effects from the global media-driven hysteria surrounding the situation, of course.
"Experience from past nuclear incidents has shown that the stress and panic caused by these events can be as bad as, or worse than, the direct threat from radiation," according to Dr Jim Smith of Portsmouth uni's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.
The Fukushima reactors actually came through the quake with flying colours despite the fact that it was five times stronger than they had been built to withstand. Only with the following tsunami – again, bigger than the design allowed for – did problems develop, and these problems seem likely to end in insignificant consequences. The Nos 1, 2 and 3 reactors at Daiichi may never produce power again – though this is not certain – but the likelihood is that Nos 4, 5 and 6 will return to service behind a bigger tsunami barrier.
The lesson to learn here is that if your country is hit by a monster earthquake and tsunami, one of the safest places to be is at the local nuclear powerplant. Other Japanese nuclear powerplants in the quake-stricken area, in fact, are sheltering homeless refugees in their buildings – which are some of the few in the region left standing at all, let alone with heating, water and other amenities.
Nothing else in the quake-stricken area has come through anything like as well as the nuclear power stations, or with so little harm to the population. All other forms of infrastructure – transport, housing, industries – have failed the people in and around them comprehensively, leading to deaths most probably in the tens of thousands. Fires, explosions and tank/pipeline ruptures all across the region will have done incalculably more environmental damage, distributed hugely greater amounts of carcinogens than Fukushima Daiichi – which has so far emitted almost nothing but radioactive steam (which becomes non-radioactive within minutes of being generated).
And yet nobody will say after this: "don't build roads; don't build towns; don't build ships or chemical plants or oil refineries or railways". That would be ridiculous, of course, even though having all those things has actually led to terrible loss of life, destruction and pollution in the quake's wake.
But far and away more ridiculously, a lot of people are already saying that Fukushima with its probable zero consequences means that no new nuclear powerplants should ever be built again. ®
As one who earns his living in the media these days, I can only apologise on behalf of my profession for the unbelievable levels of fear and misinformation purveyed this week. I have never been so ashamed to call myself a journalist.