In a series of studies on nuclear power published in the Lancet, researchers have discovered that the fear of a nuclear reactor or power plant malfunctioning or overheating causes many, many more health problems than the actual, physical effects of an actual malfunction or meltdown.
There are currently over 437 nuclear power plants currently in operation the world over. However, nuclear power plant accidents are extremely uncommon. The most recent nuclear power plant malfunction happened in 2011, in Japan at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Before that, there have been four other severe nuclear power plant accidents in human history, including Chernobyl, Russia, in 1986, Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979, Windscale Piles in England in 1957, and Kyshtym in Russia, also in 1957. A “severe” nuclear power plant accident is classified as a “level 5” — an accident with “wider consequences,” such as a massive release of radiation.
Dr. Koichi Tanigawa from the Fukushima Medical University in Japan spoke about the relatively low amount of physical health effects linked to the Fukushima power plant versus the widespread psychological effects.
“Although the radiation dose to the public from Fukushima was relatively low, and no discernible physical health effects are expected, psychological and social problems, largely stemming from the differences in risk perceptions, have had a devastating impact on people’s lives.”
The Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident also resulted in very low physical health problems in 1979. As a result of the incident, health providers stated that most individuals in the path of the radiation “cloud” received a dose of radiation similar to that of getting a chest x-ray.
Though in 1986, the physical effects of the Chernobyl nuclear power accident were much worse on nearby residents, a 2006 study performed by the United Nations on the worldwide effects of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant determined that the accident’s “most serious public health issue” was adverse effects on the mental health of the public. The United Nations report said that poor communication about the health risks “associated with radiation levels made the problem worse.” Additionally, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and general depression remained at much higher than normal levels 20 years after the accident in the surrounding area.
Now, according to the Lancet Papers, Fukushima is experiencing the same sort of adverse mental health effects in its nearby population following its power plant accident. The Fukishima Health Management Survey indicates that segments of the population that were involved in evacuation procedures following the nuclear power plant accident were five times more likely to experience ongoing psychological distress versus the rest of the population.
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