By Frank N. von Hippel | September 1, 2011
The release of radioactivity into the atmosphere from the Fukushima Daiichi accident has been estimated by Japan’s government as about one-tenth of that from the Chernobyl accident. The area in Japan contaminated with cesium-137—at the same levels that caused evacuation around Chernobyl—is also about one-tenth as large. The estimated number of resulting cancer deaths in the Fukushima area from contamination due to more than 1 curie per square kilometer is likely to scale correspondingly—on the order of 1,000. On March 16, 2011, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission advised Americans in the region to evacuate out to 50 miles (NRC 2011a). If the Japanese government had made the same recommendation to its citizens, it would have resulted in the early evacuation of about two million people instead of 130,000. Because contaminated milk was interdicted in Japan, the number of (mostly non-fatal) thyroid cancer cases will probably be less than 1 percent of similar cases in Chernobyl. Unless properly dealt with, however, fear of ionizing radiation could have long-term psychological effects on a large portion of the population in the contaminated areas.
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