It is not unusual for those who favour nuclear power to downplay the effects of nuclear disasters that have happened. In the article “Nuclear power is a key part of SA’s future”, attributed to the South African Minister of Energy Dipuo Peters, I came across this example: ‘The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission to Fukushima at the end of May 2011 concluded that “to date no confirmed long-term health effects to any person have been reported as a result of radiation exposure from the nuclear accident”‘.
A long term view?
Presumably to confirm a long term effect, one would need to observe the patient over a long term. So it is not too surprising that two months after the March 2011 meltdown, there were no ‘confirmed long-term health effects’! Yet the quote above somehow presents this as a significant fact. With uncontrolled fission detected in November 2011 the disaster still in progress. Add to this that strontium-90, which has a known link to cancer, has been found over 60km away from the stricken plant, and it is clear that it is far too soon to pronounce on how limited the long term effects will be. The tautological truth is that we will only know the long terms effects in the long term.
The nuclear lobby tends to ignore the disruption caused by evacuations, which were necessary to avoid health effects. On the day of the Fukushima disaster, a 3km evacuation radius was announced. The following day, this was extended to 10km, and then 20km. Two weeks later, a voluntary evacuation zone of 30km was announced. A zone with a 30km radius covers nearly three thousand square kilometers, about half of which is inhabited land. The effect on families forced to evacuate is profound, as not only homes must be abandoned, but also shops, factories and jobs. Over 200 000 people have now been evacuated due to health risks from radioactive contamination.
From an economic point of view, Fukushima is an interesting first of a kind, as at the time of writing, never before has a long term evacuation due to a nuclear power station disaster been done in a capitalist society. The only comparable example is Chernobyl, which under the Ukranian socialist system the evacuated people were simply added to housing lists in surrounding towns, where dormitory type accommodation was built over the next few years.
In April 2011, the Japanese government undertook to build 100 000 new houses for those who had been evacuated from the radiation contaminated areas in Fukushima. The displaced people are unlikely to be able to afford to pay for these new houses, and the market is unlikely to attach much value to their old houses in the contaminated area. There are also relatively small costs to the local authorities in terms of transport, emergency personnel overtime, and health care as well as large unknown costs such as remediating the contaminated land and fully decommissioning the damaged reactors. It is therefore the government, and ultimately the Japanese taxpayer, who will be required to cover these costs. For example, in November 2011, the Japanese government gave US$11 billion to Tepco to keep the company afloat.
The economy of the area was impacted in the short term, when ‘stay indoors’ orders went out to the public, temporarily suspending economic activity. In the longer term, the impacts to the agricultural sector are clearly significant. Large areas of farmland are no longer usable, and the export markets have collapsed, as the world shuns products from anywhere near the globally notorious Fukushima area. Lost jobs, unusable farmland and abandoned shops and factories also have a negative effect on tax revenues, just at a time the government needs to increase spending.
The long term effect on the Japanese economy remains to be seen.
Any country contemplating the use of nuclear power should carefully think about the risks of a large disaster, whether it be caused by an unexpectedly powerful earthquake or other unanticipated circumstances. The human suffering and economic consequences of such a disaster are difficult, or impossible, to quantify. In a country such as South Africa, with its abundant solar and wind resources, it should not be necessary to think about it at all. With renewable energy being so attainable, and the only long term solution, nuclear power is simply not worth it.