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expert reaction to ‘Fukushima – Five Years On’

The fifth anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster is on 11th March 2016 and is being marked by a special edition of the journal Clinical Oncology.


Prof. Malcolm Sperrin, Director of Medical Physics and Clinical Engineering at the Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust, said:

“A vast amount of research has been conducted into the release of radiation from the Fukushima power plant and to date there has been no unambiguously attributable death as a result of exposure to the radiation. However, there is evidence that suggests that some cancers are highly likely to have developed as a result of the release. It must be borne in mind that the deaths following the tsunami were not as a result of the radiation but arose as a consequence of the tidal wave. There are subtleties that need to be identified when examining the risk to the population which include the psychological impact of a destructive event and also the non-radioactive effects of chemical toxicity.

“A further consideration is the additional medical support given to the affected population which will benefit from enhanced health screening for many years. One consequence of this would be to pick up cancers earlier than would otherwise be the case and hence are likely to be more responsive to treatment and secondly conditions independent of any causality with radiation would be identified and treated. That is not to say the radiation effects and risks are negligible, but to re-emphasise that the risk to the population is complex and demanding of much further study.”


Prof. Jim Smith, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Portsmouth, said:

“This special issue of Clinical Oncology is a very important and timely contribution to our understanding of the consequences of Fukushima and of nuclear issues in general. The key message is that, such is people’s (understandable) fear of radiation, that the social and psychological impacts of the Fukushima nuclear accident are likely to outweigh the direct health impacts.

“I find it depressing that this is precisely the same conclusion as was drawn by the WHO/IAEA report 20 years after the Chernobyl accident. It seems like the lesson is a difficult one to learn. It’s not, of course, that radiation isn’t dangerous, it’s just that the doses experienced by people after a nuclear accident are low, and similar to radiation doses from diagnostic X-rays or natural radiation in many places worldwide.  Radiation to people affected by Fukushima presents a very low risk, but it’s very difficult to communicate this risk to people, especially in the aftermath of what everyone acknowledges was a terrible accident.

“The authors of this special issue are right that scientists must learn to communicate better. But those who counter the scientific consensus on radiation risk need to take some responsibility. Science is far from perfect and we need to keep questioning the scientific consensus. But those who question the radiation risk consensus based on flimsy evidence, or exaggerate the risks for political or ideological ends, need to realise that their actions have important consequences. If the critics are wrong, and I think they are, they are contributing to an exaggerated fear of radiation which has clear consequences for people’s lives.”


Dr Barrie Lambert, retired radiation biologist formerly of St Bartholomews Hospital Medical College, said:

“These papers concentrate on the health effects of the fear of radiation. This has been a problem several times in the past particularly after the Three Mile island incident and is difficult to assuage.

“Advice to the public is not going to stop panic in such situations unless the message comes from an unimpeachable source. Reassurances – or alternatively, messages of doom – usually come from either the nuclear power management or the anti-nuclear lobby groups, both of which come with ‘baggage’. In Japan with so many nuclear power plants it would be hoped that there would be an ongoing programme of honest information about the risks of radiation exposure in comparison to the other risks of living in an industrialized society, provided by an ‘independent’ source. By ‘honest’ I mean info which acknowledges the risk but puts it into context.”


Prof. Mike Thorne, consultant on radioactive waste management, said:

“A key issue highlighted by this special issue is a need to treat major accidents at nuclear installations as unlikely but reasonably foreseeable.

“There is a need to avoid overstating the risks, since this would lead to an inappropriate level of concern in local communities, but also to emphasise that those risks are real, so that those who live or work close to nuclear installations are prepared to take appropriate actions in the event of an accident. The Fukushima accident emphatically demonstrated the conventional risks to individuals associated with evacuation and it is well-known that sheltering is often preferable. However, ensuring that sheltering is the response that actually occurs in the event of an accident requires substantial precautionary planning. In the UK, arrangements under the REPPIR (2001) regulations ensure that persons living within the Detailed Emergency Planning Zone of a nuclear licensed site are appropriately informed of what to do in the event of an accident. However, this zone typically extends only up to about two miles from the centre of the site.

“In the aftermath of Fukushima, it would be prudent to give consideration to the extent to which detailed emergency planning, including the provision of information and guidance to members of the public, should be extended to greater distances, rather than relying on a general requirement that emergency plans should be extendable, as required, beyond the Detailed Emergency Planning Zone.”


Prof. Richard Wakeford, Professor in Epidemiology at the University of Manchester, said:

“Five years on from the serious accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station in Japan, it has become clear that the psycho-social effects of the accident (and presumably of the earthquake and tsunami) represent an area of health research that needs more attention.  A lot of time and effort has been spent on examining the potential effects of radiation exposure, and it looks like any such effects will not be detectable above background disease rates, so it is appropriate to draw attention to the (potentially much greater) non-radiation health effects of the accident.

“Following the dramatic increase in thyroid cancer incidence following the high levels of exposure of children in the former USSR to radioactive iodine in Chernobyl fallout, it is understandable that this should be a subject of concern after Fukushima, although thyroid doses in Japan were much lower.  There have been some wild claims about thyroid cancer in Fukushima Prefecture, unfortunately some in scientific journals, but these are highly suspect.  There is every reason to believe that the previous detailed scientific assessments, concluding that any additional thyroid cancer cases will be undetectable, remain valid.”


‘Fukushima – Five Years On’ is a special edition of Clinical Oncology with an editorial ‘Radiation Exposure and Health Effects – is it Time to Reassess the Real Consequences?’  by G. Thomas and P. Symonds.



Declared interests

Prof. Thorne: I am a commercial consultant on radioactive waste management with a wide range of clients including waste management organisations and regulators in Europe and the USA. In this specific context, I have supported various commercial developers in making applications for planning permission for residential developments within the Detailed Emergency Planning Zone for AWE Aldermaston.

Prof. Wakeford: Employee of The University of Manchester.  Consultant to UK Compensation Scheme for Radiation-Linked Diseases. Various research grants through The University of Manchester (with other Manchester staff). Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Radiological Protection. Editorial Board member, British Journal of Cancer.  Member of COMARE, UNSCEAR, ICRP C1.

Prof. Smith: I currently have a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) grant (ca. £450k) studying the effects of radiation on fish at Chernobyl. This is part of a programme jointly funded by NERC, the Environment Agency and Radioactive Waste Management Ltd. I have done a small (about £10k, paid to the university) consultancy job for Horizon Nuclear Power (completed 2012) and another of £5k (again paid to the university) for the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (completed 2013). I have also carried out a variety of consultancy to independent regulatory bodies (including Environment Agency; Food Standards Agency) worth about £100k to my institution. I don’t do consultancy in a personal capacity.

No others declared

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