No Need to Panic? New Study Makes Alarming Revisions to Estimated Death Toll from U.S. Nuclear Meltdown


In the face of a major international retrenchment from nuclear power following the “triple meltdown” at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant in Japan, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is scrambling to assure the American people that there’s no reason to panic. Of course not. According to the New York Times, a nearly complete NRC study concludes that “a meltdown at a typical American reactor would lead to far fewer deaths than previously assumed.” The findings appear to be good news, but some (myself included) are looking askance at the study’s convenient timing – and its wildly optimistic assumptions.

The NRC study is in the home stretch of a six-year re-examination of the dangers tied to radioactive cesium-137, which is discharged into the environment during a nuclear reactor core meltdown. The NRC, long criticized for downplaying the risks tied to nuclear power, is making alarmingly positive revisions to the projected number of people that would die should a meltdown occur here in the United States. According to a July 29 NYT article:

In past studies, researchers estimated that 60 percent of a reactor core’s cesium inventory could escape; the new estimate is only 1 to 2 percent.

Criticism of the study has come quickly, with few punches pulled. Dr. Chris Busby, scientific secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR) and former National Speaker on Science and Technology for the Green Party of England and Wales, recently spent a week in Fukushima Prefecture monitoring radiation levels. He had some choice words for U.S. nuclear regulators:

It is criminal irresponsibility on the part of the NRC if it continues to ignore the huge amount of evidence, from theoretical and epidemiological studies, that show their conclusions to be false. …The evidence is there and they have ignored it.

The study, which was slated to be released next year before it was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, comes as Japan’s nuclear crisis continues to unfold with catastrophic results. The earthquake and tsunami that slammed the Japanese coast on March 11, 2011 were the catalysts for the meltdowns, which released untold amounts radioactive gas into the environment. Within two days, at least 15 people had been hospitalized with symptoms of radiation poisoning. Within two weeks, authorities discovered radioactive material above the legal limit in 11 types of vegetables, while the World Health Organization put milk, eggs, meat and tap water within a 50-mile radius of the crippled plant on its “danger list.” At the same time, officials detected radioactive material nearly 150 miles from Fukushima at a Tokyo water purification station. Radioactive dust reached the west coast of the United States in late March. And radioactive material is still spewing from the Fukushima plant to this day, and will be for the foreseeable future until the damaged reactors can be “capped” or otherwise brought under control.

A July 14 New York Times article described the situation on the ground in Japan:

By July, the count of dead and missing was above 22,000. Tens of thousands of people remained housed in temporary shelters or evacuated their homes due to the nuclear crisis.

Escalating public concern here in the United States, prompted the NRC to examine the threat presented by our own nuclear power plants. According to the July 29 NYT article:

The [NRC] study focused on two common reactor types in this country: boiling-water reactors at the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania, similar to those at Fukushima, and pressurized-water reactors at the Surry Power Station in Virginia.

According to the Times, the new study reduces by a factor of 26 the estimated number of people that would die from a meltdown at a U.S. plant:

Big releases of radioactive material would not be immediate, and people within a 10-mile radius would have enough time to evacuate, the study found. The chance of a death from acute radiation exposure within 10 miles is therefore near zero, the study projects, although some people would receive doses high enough to cause fatal cancers in decades to come.

One person in every 4,348 living within 10 miles would be expected to develop a “latent cancer” as a result of radiation exposure, compared with one in 167 in previous estimates.

Although the newly “adjusted” cancer estimates still sound indefensible to me, many nuclear experts – including those from the watchdog group, Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) – consider the results of the study irresponsibly optimistic. Much of the NRC’s “good news” stems from rosy assumptions. Edwin Lyman, a nuclear physicist with the Union, cherry-picks a few of the study’s over-reaches. From the NYT:

Dr. Lyman contends that the nuclear commission has consistently painted an overly rosy picture and that its latest study does as well. He noted that the study assumed a successful evacuation of 99.5 percent of the people within 10 miles, for example. The report also assumes “average” weather conditions, he noted.

But if a rainstorm were under way during a release of radioactive materials, he said, it could wash contaminants out of the air into a small area, producing a high dose there.

More from the Times article:

Dr. Lyman countered that when dealing with estimates based on so many variables – including more than 100 reactors of different designs and vintage, in areas with disparate population densities – a difference of a factor of three is not important. In his view, the study reconfirms that reactors pose serious risks.

The article did stipulate that the NRC has not finalized all of its research. I would say it’s back to the drawing board, ladies and gentlemen. This time with the best interest of the public in mind, not the nuclear industry.

Read the New York Times article here:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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