Science in Society Archive

Lessons of Fukushima and Chernobyl

Chernobyl deaths many times the official figures and Fukushima not unanticipated Prof. Peter Saunders

The explosions and fires at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, almost exactly on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Chernobyl, have made most of us even more worried about the hazards of nuclear energy (see [1] Fukushima Nuclear Crisis, SiS 50). The nuclear lobby see things differently: the explosion at Chernobyl was due to the poor design and incompetent operation of the reactor under the Soviet system, and hardly anyone died as a result; as for Fukushima, it was hit by a tsunami far larger than anyone could possibly have anticipated, and the good management of its owners, the Tokyo Energy and Power Company (TEPCO) and the brave efforts of the Japanese emergency services ensured that little harm was done.

That story is very far from the truth.


The Chernobyl Forum, a group dominated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) whose purpose is to promote nuclear technologies, puts an upper limit of about 4 000 deaths due directly to Chernobyl and another 5 000 to which it may be a contributory factor [2]. Many advocates of nuclear power, including the recent convert George Monbiot [3, 4], maintain that apart from the fewer than 100 deaths shortly after the incident, the only harmful effect was about 7 000 cases of thyroid cancer among children, almost all of whom made full recoveries; and that even these could have been prevented had the Soviet authorities acted promptly to distribute iodine and stop the sale of contaminated milk.

However, there is solid evidence that both the mortality and morbidity (non-fatal illnesses) caused by Chernobyl were much higher.  Drawing on records mostly in Slavic languages and not readily available in the West, but also some from Western Europe, scientists in the former Soviet Union have shown that the death toll was far greater than we have been led to believe. Estimates by the Russian and Belarus Academies of Sciences and the Ukrainian National Commission for Radiation Protection are in the hundreds of thousands [5, 6]. The most detailed study currently available in English is that of Yablokov, Nesterenko and Nesterenko [7]. In a report of 327 pages and with hundreds of references, they conclude that there will be about a quarter of a million cancer deaths and that several hundred thousand people in the former Soviet Union have already died from cancer and other conditions caused by Chernobyl. (For a very brief account, see [8] The Truth about Chernobyl, SiS 47)

Like most of the pro-nuclear camp, Monbiot said nothing about the work of Yablokov and co-workers in his original article; and may well not have known about it. When it was drawn to his attention, he dismissed it out of hand on the grounds that this work, which he described as “the only document that looks [sic] scientific”, had been the subject of a “devastating review” in the journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry [9].

Anyone who takes the trouble to look up the review will find it very hard to understand how Monbiot could possibly call it “devastating”; for it actually says in the last paragraph [10]: “The subject is not yet closed.” Monbiot, who accuses other people of cherry picking the evidence [9], somehow neglects to mention that in the same issue of the journal, immediately before the review he is referring to, there is another review that supports the general conclusions of Yablokov and coworkers [11]. 


What happened at Fukushima was not exactly unanticipated. Tsunamis, powerful waves caused by earthquakes under the sea, are relatively frequent in Japan because there is a major geological fault just off the east coast. TEPCO claimed that while Fukushima Daiichi, like most Japanese nuclear installations, is on the coast, it was safe because the reactors were protected by a seawall above the level that a tsunami could reach. In fact, the 2011 tsunami reached about 8.2 m above TEPCO’s prediction [12]

Ten years ago, a group of Japanese scientists applied modern techniques to studying the Jogan tsunami of AD 869, which had come ashore at almost the same place. They concluded that the water had reached more than 4 kilometres inland across the Sendai plain, even further than this year’s. They also found that there had been at least two earlier massive tsunamis, one about 900 years before the Jogan tsunami and the other about 800 years before that [13, 14].

Because earthquakes involve the sudden release of pressure that builds up over a long period of time, major events tend to occur at roughly regular intervals. The scientists wrote [13]: “The recurrence interval for a large scale tsunami is 800 to 1100 years. More than 1100 years have passed since the Jogan tsunami, and, given the recurrence interval, the possibility of a large scale tsunami striking the Sendai plain is high.”

Six years later, when engineers from TEPCO were assessing the possible danger to their reactors, they explicitly ignored that and all other data of events before 1896 on the grounds that these could be less reliable owing to [15] “misreading, misrecording and the low technology available for the measurement itself.”  That was how they were able to conclude that the Fukushima plant was not at risk from any imaginable tsunami.

There was also too much spent fuel stored on site. This is common at nuclear plants everywhere because the designers have generally assumed that the waste would be taken to a permanent store as soon as it was cool enough to move safely. No such stores exist yet anywhere in the world, and while the fuel rods can be put into strong metal casks for the time being (this is usual in Germany), most are left in cooling ponds that were not designed for medium term storage, and are less well protected and require a reliable supply of electricity and water. At Daiichi, there were cooling ponds on the upper floors of the reactor buildings, and in particular the one in No. 4 Reactor led to two explosive fires. There was a serious danger that these ponds would run dry, and this was only averted by the use of fire engines and even helicopters to get water into the ponds.

Only two weeks before the tsunami, TEPCO had admitted to safety inspectors that it had failed to inspect 33 pieces of equipment at the plant, including a backup power generator. In 2002, TEPCO admitted that it had falsified safety records at the No. 1 Reactor at Fukushima [16].


Chernobyl and Fukushima are the most serious nuclear incidents so far, but they are not the only ones in which poor design and management have led to deaths from nuclear radiation. In October 1957, for example, there was a fire at the Windscale (now Sellafield) nuclear installation in the northwest of England. It was later estimated that the radiation released in the fire caused about 100 cancer deaths in Britain [17]. The radiation released at Chernobyl was about a thousand times that at Windscale, which makes it implausible  that the number of deaths due to that explosion could be as few as 4000, still less the fewer than a hundred claimed by writers like Monbiot.

The government played down the scale of the incident so as not to alarm the public or threaten the nuclear weapons programme. It heavily censored Sir William Penney’s report and spun it to put the blame on the personnel rather than the plants. [17, 18]. Fifty years later, however, an editorial in the Journal of Radiological Protection  [19] described Windscale as “an accident waiting to happen.”

On the fiftieth anniversary of the Windscale fire, Paul Howarth, now Managing Director of the UK National Nuclear Laboratory, was asked if Windscale could happen again. He replied [17]: “No, there are much greater levels of safety, our level of understanding is greatly improved and the technology is fundamentally different.”

There has not been a similar accident at Windscale, though there have been other incidents, such as the leak in 2006 of over 83 000 litres of acid containing uranium and plutonium at the Thorp facility. This went undetected for eight months.

Fukushima demonstrates that while the technology and understanding have indeed improved, the attitude of the nuclear industry has not. It still fails to heed warnings of weaknesses of design, it is still not punctilious enough about safety, it still tells the public as little as it can get away with, and it still does all it can to play down the consequences of incidents that occur. And, like other industries such as biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, it is quick to dismiss inconvenient evidence on the grounds that it hasn’t been peer reviewed, or the measurements weren’t as reliable as they might have been, or whatever.

To conclude

As Fuksuhima reminds us, nuclear power is inherently dangerous. It is also not economical; no nuclear plant has ever operated without a government subsidy and no one seriously expects that any will in the future ([20] The Real Cost of Nuclear Power, SiS 47). The subsidy may be visible or it may be concealed as a cheap loan, a permanent low-carbon premium, an open cheque for the cost of disposing of the waste, or in some other form. Furthermore, we do not need it even as “part of a basket of technologies”: on the most optimistic estimates, nuclear energy could not produce more than 8 percent of the UK’s total energy requirement in the foreseeable future. This could easily be made up by renewables if we choose to invest in wind, solar, biogas and other technologies that already exist and are becoming ever more efficient and cost effective ([21] Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050, ISIS publication).

The nuclear industry is asking us to give it large sums of money to build power plants that we do not need and cannot afford, at great risk to our health and safety. If we use the money to develop renewables instead, we will have low carbon energy that is safe, economical, and genuinely sustainable. Countries that shift their investment from nuclear to renewables now will reap the further economic benefit of becoming leaders in the key technologies of the twenty-first century.

Article first published 03/05/11


  1. Ho MW (2011). Fukushima Nuclear Crisis.
  2. Chernobyl Forum (2006). Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts and Recommendations to the Governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna. Accessed 1 May 2011.
  3. “Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power”. George Monbiot, The Guardian.
  4. “Evidence Meltdown.” George Monbiot. Guardian, 5 April 2011. Available at
  5. “Chernobyl nuclear accident: figures for deaths and cancers still in dispute.” John Vidal Guardian, 10 January 2010. Accessed 2 May 2011.
  6. Pflugbell  S, Paulitz H, Claussen A and Schmitz-Feuerhake I. (2011). Health Effects of Chernobyl, 25 years after the Reactor Catastrophe. International Physicians for the prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and Gesellschaft für Strahlenschutz. Berlin. Accessed 1 May 2011.
  7. Yablokov AV, Nesterenko VB and Nesterenko AV (2009), Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment. Proceedings of the New York Academy of Sciences 1181. With a forward by DM Grodzinsky, Chairman, Department of General Biology, Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences.
  8. Saunders PT (2010). The truth about Chernobyl. SiS 47, 40-41.
  9. “The unpalatable truth is that the anti-nuclear lobby has misled us all.” George Monbiot, Guardian 5 April 2011. Accessed 2 May 2011.
  10. Charles MW (2011). Chernobyl: consequences of the catastrophe for people and the environment. Radiation Protection Dosimetry 141 101-104.
  11. Fairlie I (2011). Chernobyl: consequences of the catastrophe for people and the environment. Radiation Protection Dosimetry 141 97-101
  12. “Fukushima tsunami plan: Japan nuclear plant downplayed risk.” Yuri Kageyama and Justin Pritchard. Associated Press, 27 March 2011. Accessed 11 April 2011
  13. Minoura K, Imamura F, Sugawara D, Kono Y and Iwashita T (2001). The 869 Jogan tsunami deposit and recurrence interval of large-scal tsunami on the Pacific coast of northeast Japan. Journal of National Disaster Science 23, 83-88
  14. Sawai Y, Shishikura M, Okamura Y, Than Tin A and Matsuura T (2006), History of tsunami inundations in Sendai plain, detected from coastal geology. Asia Oceania Geosciences Society, Singapore..
  15. Yanagisawa K, Imamura F, Sakakiyama T, Annaka T, Takeda T and Shuto N. (2007). Tsunami assessment for risk management at nuclear power facilities in Japan. Pure and Applied Geophysics 164, 565-576.
  16. “The troubled past of Fukushima: How the stricken nuclear plant failed safety checks and crammed its buildings with more uranium than they could stand. Daily Mail, 22 March, 2011.
  17. “Windscale fire: We were too busy to panic.” Roger Highfield, Telegraph, 09 October 2007. Accessed 1 May 2011.
  18. “Britain’s nuclear inferno: How our own Government covered up Windscale reactor blaze that’s caused dozens of deaths and hundreds of cancer cases. Sue  Reid, Daily Mail, 19 march 2011. Available at Accessed 1 May 2011.
  19. Wakeford R (2007). The Windscale nuclear accident – 50 years on. Journal of Radiological Protection 27  211-215. Available at Accessed 1 May 2011.See also L Arnold (1995) Windscale 1957. Anatomy of a Nuclear Accident 2nd edn (Basingstoke: Macmillan)
  20. Saunders PT (2010) The real cost of nuclear power. SiS 47 36-39.
  21. Ho MW, Cherry B, Burcher S and Saunders PT. (2009). ISIS Report. Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050

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There are 3 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

David Llewellyn Foster Comment left 4th May 2011 04:04:24
Thank you Professor Saunders for this sobering assessment. I should like to draw you attention to a lecture delivered back in 2007 by Dr Jim Harding from Saskatchewan, in which among many other aspects of the same issue, he discusses the legacy of depleted uranium from ordinance deployed by the US in the Gulf and US/UK alliance in Iraq - It is now a question of very grave concern that NATO may be using such weapons in the defence of civilians in Libya. The dangers associated with these technologies of war are truly scandalous and appalling.

David Hodges Comment left 4th May 2011 06:06:34
Greg Palast says the backup diesel generators for powering the cooling equipment at nuclear plants are only designed to fob off nuclear inspectors, not to actually work:

Todd Millions Comment left 6th May 2011 22:10:03
I expect the next round of green wash will include building a fleet of schooners too dump the spent rods and waste off the somali or italian coast-much lower greenhouse gas footprint that.Hoyle's account of chernobyl being caused by local operators screwing around and bypassing the emergency control rod shut down system-then throttling the unit like a moped over and over-'to see what would happen',seems to have being expunged from the account in a manner I find suspiciously 'christian'.I can assure you no one competent would operate a boiler a tenth that size in that manner-2% throotle changes per HOUR-Max.Sakorov's recommendation that containment building are only too cover up minor mishaps,and aren't worth doing unless they are 400 meters of bedrock(I think he was refering the 1950's chaulk river reactor,rDe Canada-which was buried deep on orders of C.D. Howe-not the nuc weenies working for him,a good plan as it turned out.).So we are back to the costs will never outweight the risks-much less the bill,which we haven't even started to pay-yet.