There is a great deal of controversy about how harmful the radiation released from Fukushima will be. On the one hand, Jacky Williams, director and core leader of the Center for Biophysical Assessment and Risk Management Following Irradiation at the University of Rochester Medical Center, called the 20-kilometer evacuation radius an "extremely conservative safety zone to protect against fallout." Williams also said, "Members of the public are not in imminent danger at a distance of 20 kilometers, so long as they are not downwind," Williams said.
Dr. Chris Busby says the in the 100 km area around Fukushima there will be 200,000 additional cancer deaths from the fallout within 10 years.
The problem with radiation that is being released at Fukushima is that you can't see it (no, it doesn't glow in the dark), you can't taste it, feel it or hear it. After a person is exposed to low levels of radiation it can take years to see the health effects. Nothing about the cancer or other diseases marks its origin.
You can't say for sure that a particular cancer was caused by radiation exposure. So the only way to see the effects is to calculate the effects of exposure on a population. And there is a lot of controversy in the way those risks are calculated. The key difference between the two estimates is whether the cancer risk is calculated based on the external dose or the internal dose.
The estimates by organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is based on the cancer rates of people exposed to radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their models show very low risk for low doses of radiation.
Other organizations, like the European Committee On Radiation Risk say that even small amounts of radiation in addition to background radiation has very large consequence.
They both cite the death toll from Chernobyl to back their ideas. But calculating the number of people that died from Chernobyl has proven to be a very complicated matter. The Soviet Union wanted to downplay the effects. For three years after the accident, doctors were told that as long as people didn't show symptoms of acute radiation sickness, no disease could be linked to radiation exposure.
Over 800,000 workers, known as liquidators, cleaned up the highly radioactive debris at Chernobyl. Healthy young men were sent in to the site for a few minutes. They would run up a staircase, shovel stuff off the roof of the reactor and run back. In that short period of time, they would get a lifetime dose of radiation. They were declared totally disabled and sent back home.
If they got sick and died during the following three years the diagnosis was "vegetovascular dystonia'.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, there were no comprehensive follow up studies on the health of the liquidators. Many of the workers now live in smaller countries like Belarus, Lativa, Lithuania and Ukraine which have no interest in compensating people for harm done to them by the Soviets.
Dr. Yuri Bandazhevsky was the director of the Gomel Medical Institute in Belarus in 1990 when he began looking at the health problems of children in contaminated areas. There are regions in Belarus where only 10% of the children are healthy. In areas with high levels of cesium 137, the birth rates are very low and children living there have a variety of chronic illnesses.
Bandazhevsky found a high correlation between cesium levels and childhood diseases. His wife, Galena, was a pediatrician and she was seeing many children with strange illnesses, like eight year-olds with heart attacks. When Bandazhevsky made public statements about the diseases being linked to Chernobyl fallout, he was arrested, accused of taking bribes and sentenced to eight years hard labor.
If there really is a profound effect on public health we ought to be able to see it on the big picture. Even if we can't link the deaths directly to radiation, there should be a statistical spike that correlates with radiation levels.
In February of 2005, researchers at Harvard University published a report entitled "Autopsy on an Empire: Understanding Mortality in Russia and the Former Soviet Union." They were trying to figure out why the life expectancy in some former Soviet countries has plummeted, "Male life expectancy at birth fell by over six years in Russia between 1989 and 1994. Many other countries of the former Soviet Union saw similar declines, and female life expectancy fell as well."
When an empire implodes, it's very messy and the increased mortality could have lots of explanations. The researchers focused on the most likely ones, "the deterioration of the health care system, changes in diet and obesity, and material deprivation " alcohol consumption, especially as it relates to external causes of death (homicide, suicide, and accidents) and stress associated with a poor outlook for the future." But after looking at all these factors they still couldn't account for the entire decrease in life expectancy, "a large residual remains to be explained."