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Dominic Lawson: The worst fallout from Fukushima was hysteria

Dominic Lawson, The Sunday Times

Merkel’s hasty rejection of nuclear energy looks more unwise than ever

Ayear after the colossal earthquake and tsunami that took the lives of 18,500 souls on the northeast coast of Japan on March 11, 2011, I visited the area. So efficient was the clean-up operation, there was no visible detritus from nature’s onslaught. Instead, I wrote in my notebook, “What can be seen is the absence of homes. Rows upon rows of footings, the reminder of where people once lived and who are now dead. It’s hard to find something to say to the young local guide, whose fiancée was among the many thousands killed.”

I also visited displaced families in prefabricated homes provided by the authorities — these were not just people whose properties had been swept away, but evacuees who had been living within a 12½ mile radius of the Fukushima nuclear power station. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had been hit by a 46ft wave of water — that was the tsunami following the earthquake. It caused three nuclear meltdowns. This was, after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, the only other event to have been measured as level 7 on the international nuclear event scale.

In this context, it is surprising that little media attention has been paid to a report from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (Unscear) released last week to mark the 10th anniversary of the Fukushima incident. It said “no adverse health effects among Fukushima residents have been documented that could be directly attributed to radiation exposure”. It added that any future consequences for health “are unlikely to be discernible”. Unscear also found “no credible evidence of excess congenital anomalies, stillbirths, preterm deliveries or low birthweights related to radiation exposure”.

It would be interesting to hear what Angela Merkel has to say about this. Three days after the Fukushima meltdowns, the German chancellor announced a moratorium on nuclear power development and the closure of all the country’s nuclear energy plants by 2022. It was a hasty volte-face by a supposedly scientific leader, previously a strong backer of the nuclear industry, but her party was facing a big challenge from the Greens in provincial elections. Politically, it was astute. In terms of Merkel’s wider policy commitment — to move Germany as rapidly as possible towards “zero carbon” energy — it was a shocker. Because it was impossible in the short term to replace the wound-down zero-carbon nuclear power with renewables such as wind and solar, Germany increased its use of coal (which will have led to at least 1,000 extra deaths a year from air pollution). Longer term, we can also see the geostrategic consequence, in Merkel’s increasingly determined defence of the Nord Stream 2 project, to import gas from Russia through an under-sea pipeline.

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