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Study attributes thousands of deaths to over-cautious post-Fukushima nuclear shutdown

by Greg Klein | October 29, 2019

A misguided response to Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi meltdown brought many more deaths than the accident itself, according to a new report. Published by the Germany-based IZA Institute of Labor Economics, the study says the resulting nationwide nuclear shutdown pushed electricity prices high enough to discourage consumption, causing a sharp increase in cold weather fatalities.

Study attributes thousands of Fukushima-related deaths to unnecessary nuclear shutdown

A 2015 emergency response drill at Fukushima Daiichi.
(Photo: Tokyo Electric Power Company)

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami killed three workers. The Fukushima Daiichi plant withstood the earthquake but not the tsunami, which caused the plant failure. So far no deaths have been attributed to radiation, but the report cites a previous forecast that about 130 people will die from 2011 exposure.

Looking at data from Japan’s 21 largest cities, the report’s authors attribute 1,280 deaths (19% of all cold weather fatalities) between 2011 and 2014 to decreased electricity consumption caused by price increases as high as 38%. With that data representing just 28% of the country’s population, the report estimates over 4,500 such deaths nationwide during that period. Additional deaths will have occurred since then due to the persistence of higher electricity prices, the study maintains. “This suggests that ceasing nuclear energy production has contributed to more deaths than the accident itself.”

Meanwhile evacuating the Fukushima region caused another 1,232 deaths, according to a Tokyo Shimbun newspaper report cited by IZA. The World Nuclear Association, an industry group, attributes the evacuation deaths to “somatic effects and spiritual fatigue brought on by having to reside in shelters,” the effects of moving fragile individuals, and delays receiving medical aid in the disaster’s aftermath.

Therefore, the total welfare effects from ceasing nuclear production in Japan are likely to be even larger than what we estimate, and represent a fruitful line for future research.

Up to 2011, nuclear provided 30% of Japan’s electricity. During the four years under scrutiny by IZA, the country’s reliance on fossil fuel-generated electricity rose from 62% to 88%, partly by ramping up production from “old, often idle coal, gas and oil-fired power generators.”

American studies show nuclear shutdowns following the 1979 Three Mile Island accident “led to increased particle pollution and higher infant mortality,” the study adds. “Therefore, the total welfare effects from ceasing nuclear production in Japan are likely to be even larger than what we estimate, and represent a fruitful line for future research.”

Authors Matthew Neidell, Shinsuke Uchida and Marcella Veronesi say their study “is not the result of a for-pay consulting relationship. Our employers do not have a financial interest in the topic of the paper which might constitute a conflict of interest.”

IZA describes itself as an “independent economic research institute that conducts research in labour economics and offers evidence-based policy advice on labour market issues.”

Download Be Cautious with the Precautionary Principle: Evidence from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident.

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