May 30, 2024

Nuclear apocalypse upstages Japan’s real dilemma: comment

The real danger is psychological trauma, says BMJ contributor

Although the death toll from the recent tsunami may rise to 20,000, Japanese seem to be more worried about nuclear fallout which has not yet killed anyone. Writing in the British Medical Journal, general practitioner Margaret McCartney, argues that the true crisis for the Japanese people is the psychological trauma caused by warnings of an impending nuclear apocalypse.

The article cites physicist and TV presenter Brian Cox, who wrote: “Damage to nuclear reactors sounds very frightening—but the first thing to say is that they just cannot explode like nuclear bombs.” Cox continued, “The only real contamination risk is from small amounts of nuclear material being released into the air in this steam. It sounds scary, but the levels of radiation released in this way are very small—probably about the same as you would expect on a long-distance transatlantic flight.”

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said radiation levels outside the 30-km exclusion zone are not sufficiently high to cause an immediate health risk. “‘People would not be in immediate danger if they went outside with these levels. I want people to understand this.”

Gerry Thomas, of the Imperial College in London, points out: “One thing we should have learnt post-Chernobyl is not to spread panic and make claims that turn out to be wrong. The psychological damage being done now to the Japanese is huge. At Chernobyl we told local people that they would get cancer and die and they are still living with the fact that we gave them false information.”

John Beddington, the UK chief scientific officer, has observed: “So what I would really re-emphasise is that this is very problematic for the area and the immediate vicinity and one has to have concerns for the people working there. Beyond that 20 or 30 kilometres, it’s really not an issue for health”. ~ BMJ 2011; 342:d1845

Nuclear apocalypse upstages Japan’s real dilemma: comment
Jared Yee
public health