We often hear and read the phrase “The lessons learned from Fukushima.”

The phrase is frequently spoken in sombre tone, accompanied by knowing looks and the shaking of heads.

So what were the lessons learned from Fukushima? Quite simply they are that nuclear power has been proven to be much safer than anyone previously imagined.

The nuclear fraternity worldwide should have celebrated after the Fukushima drama. The world watched the entire saga, second by second…and what was the outcome?

Answer: total people killed by radiation, zero. Total injured, zero. Total private property damaged by radiation, zero. Expected long term effects on people; zero.

If scientists had wanted to design an intentional ‘crash experiment’ as is done

Dr. Kelvin Kemm

with motor cars in crash labs, there could not have been a better one than the reality which unfolded at Fukushima. A forty year old nuclear power plant, built to a sixty year old design, was struck by the largest earthquake on record. The reactors survived that with no problem. They shut down as designed. Then, 55 minutes later, the largest Tsunami on record arrived. The giant wall of water jumped the protective wall, and slammed into the nuclear plant. The plant survived that too…initially. But then previous bad management decisions came into play, like ghosts from the past.

Years earlier it had been decided to place the back-up diesel fuel tanks outdoors. Bad decision!

These tanks held the reserve fuel for the emergency diesel cooling pumps, to be used if and when the primary electrical pumps failed. The tsunami washed away the power lines supplying the electricity to the primary reactor cooling pumps…so they needed the diesel pumps…fast.

No fuel, it was all floating away with the rest of the debris from the smashed up houses, schools, police station, airport, shops, offices, harbour…you get the picture. The roads were gone, or blocked with debris; so no police, fire brigade, army units, were coming in to help.

The reactors all shut down correctly, no problem there, but hot reactor fuel needs to be water-cooled for two to five days after an emergency shutdown, to remove residual heat. In nuclear jargon this is known as ‘decay heat.’ So the reactor engineers started to work, with their backs to the wall, with no pumps and no help; the world was watching; and top management was yelling for fast answers. The whole scene, like a theatrical drama, could not have been worse.

As I said: if a scientific team had intentionally designed a lab crash test for a nuclear power plant, they could not have done better than the reality of Fukushima Daiichi.

In spite of this whole theatrical drama the result was…nobody killed or injured, and no indication of long term negative radiation effects on people. So the lesson of Fukushima is that nuclear power is much safer than people thought.

In April 2014, the Japanese government allowed the civilian population to return to the district of Miyakoji near Fukushima. In early 2013 the area had already been declared safe, from a radiological point of view, but the damage caused by the tsunami still had to be repaired; such as water supplies, sewerage, roads and so on.

This rebuilding of infrastructure was started in mid 2013. Rice was planted in May 2013.

People started returning incrementally, as they got their own houses operational again. In April local shops opened, refuse collection restarted and a health clinic and children’s play centre opened. A tourist attraction, the Tokiwa Sky Palace, opened for business as usual. Obviously it must be a very emotional experience to return to your home after a devastating tsunami has swept the area. The TV images of the surging water were horrific. Part of the elevated freeway near Miyakoji collapsed as a result of the tsunami, and the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that it will still take a couple of years to rebuild the road, so residents will have to make alternative plans in the meantime.

Earthquake and TsunamiThe world still watches Fukushima with morbid fascination. Strangely, the world media does not seem too concerned with the more than 15 000 people killed by the tsunami, or with the massive swathes of residential and industrial property pulverized by the tons of debris propelled by the mighty tsunami waters, like an armada of water-borne bulldozers.

Instead they watched the Fukushima plant workers fill hundreds of large water tanks with run off rain water and other waste water from the power station site. The water is labelled ‘radioactive.’

In reality, this water is so mildly radioactive that if a person drank nothing but that water for three months it would equal the radiation ingested by eating one restaurant portion of tuna.

Many people do not seem to realise that radiation is around all people all of the time. Natural radiation is constantly streaming down onto planet earth from the stars. The stars are all giant nuclear reactors. Radiation is also constantly coming up from the ground. This comes from the residual radiation in the earth, dating from when the earth cooled from a ball of molten goo, which included many radioactive elements.

United Nations Inspection

In January 2013 the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), was asked by the UN General Assembly to carry out a comprehensive study of the ‘full assessment of the levels of exposure and radiation risks’ to the people around Fukushima.

After two years of study UNSCEAR released its report which stated that rates of cancer, or hereditary diseases, were unlikely to show any discernible rise in the affected areas, because the radiation doses received by people were just too low.

In general, people living in the vicinity of Fukushima are expected to accumulate an additional lifetime dose of less than 10 mSv, compared to an average lifetime dose of 170 mSv for the average Japanese citizen, as received from all natural sources.

UNSCEAR also stated: ‘No discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public or their descendants.’

The Head of the World Nuclear Association; Agneta Rising, said that the UNSCEAR report “should greatly reassure those thinking of returning to evacuated areas.”

She added: “Experience has taught us that some measures to prevent radiation dose can be more damaging than the doses avoided. They also exacerbate fears that lead to social and economic suffering. We need practical measures for protecting people that also help them get on with their lives when the emergency is over.”

UNSCEAR also said that the potential for radiation effects in the wider Pacific Ocean are ‘insignificant.’ The scare mongers on the other hand, have reported claims of dead fish visible right across the Pacific Ocean, and even US navy sailors getting ill from radiation on an aircraft carrier. A video clip on the internet shows sailors sweeping a thick soap foam off the carrier flight deck, while the anti-nuclear commentary refers to radioactive ash, as if the visible while soap foam was actually radioactive ash.

The Other Fukushima

It is also instructive to note that there are two Fukushima nuclear power plants; Fukushima Daiichi and Fukushima Daini. Daiichi, meaning ‘number two’ was the one the world watched; Daini, meaning ‘number one’ fought its own battles, virtually unnoticed.

Fukushima Daini is 10 km to the south of Daiichi and it was also hit by the tsunami, which was far larger than Daini was designed for. In stark contrast to Daiichi, Daini withstood the onslaught with one power line and one diesel generator still intact. That made all the difference! The Daini operators also battled huge odds, with three of their four reactors lacking sufficient cooling power. But as a few days passed, the skilful operators were able to bring all the reactors to a state of cold shutdown, without radiation release, and without the major damage suffered at Daiichi.

So the Daini saga was a very interesting ‘control comparison’ which unfolded in parallel to the main drama, which played out only 10km away.

The Dose Counts

During the past century of nuclear technology worldwide, no harm whatsoever NRC Radiation doses and regulatory limitshas ever been detected in any person who received a radiation dose of less than 100 mSv in a very short space of time.

In fact, no harm has been detected as a result of doses more than twice that figure. Because nuclear radiation is itself an energy source, it is extremely easy to detect in extremely small quantities, so very mild radiation can easily be detected around Fukushima. It is of no health consequence to anybody. The only harm which is real is the public relations image harm to the Japanese government and the Management of TEPCO who spend their time apologising and falling over their own feet, rather than being scientifically realistic.

People worry about ‘migration through the soil’ and radiation getting into underground water, or into the sea. These mental images sound mysterious and scary, but reality is different.

Interestingly, the oldest nuclear reactors in the world are in Africa. They are more than 1.5 billion years old. They are natural reactors in the ground at a place in Gabon called Oklo and were discovered in 1972. Way back in geological time bacteria in some swampy ponds interacted with metals in the ground and caused natural uranium to concentrate in the ponds. The ratios of the uranium isotopes back then made it possible for a natural nuclear reaction to start in the ground, in the presence of water.

The operating natural reactors would have heated up and produced nuclear waste. They probably boiled off the water, over some period of time, and stopped working, until more water arrived, and so the cycle would have gone on until the fissionable uranium was largely used.

The French received a great surprise when they started mining uranium there in the 1970’s. They sent samples back to France and on analysis it was found that the uranium was depleted in the fissionable isotope – the portion needed to run nuclear power plants. They were amazed. This should have not been possible.

It looked like the Oklo uranium was conventional depleted uranium which had come out of an operating nuclear plant. On further investigation this turned out to be exactly the case. The Oklo reactors had run as natural reactors in the ground for very many years.

There is no sign of any nuclear radiation damage to any fauna and flora in the area, despite very many years of unhindered nuclear isotope migration.

Radiation Reality

We now need to take a moment to ponder what radiation actually is; and when and how it may be dangerous.

Imagine that you are in a room and that a radioactive brick is on the table on the other side of the room. If the total dose that you would receive from the brick, by being in the room, is less than about 100 mSv then it matters not the slighted that you would sit in the room with the radioactive brick. In fact you can eat your lunch without any concern.

When you go home and walk out of the room, and close the door, the radiation falling on you is gone, totally. When you go home you are carrying no radiation whatsoever, and you are 100% safe.

The further you walk away from a source of radiation the weaker it gets, very rapidly. The dose received can be compared to that of light. As you walk away from a glowing light bulb the amount of light falling on you decreases fast. Same with radiation coming from a single source.

Now we come to the term, radioactive ‘contamination’ which historically was a bad choice of term, but we have to live with it now. If my mythical radioactive brick was ground up into fine powder and then put in a bowl in the room, together with an electric fan we would have radioactive dust flying about and landing on everything, including you and your lunch.

The chair, table, carpet, lunchbox are all then said to be ‘contaminated’ with radioactive dust. ‘Contamination’ is fine mobile radioactive material like dust.

When the dust lands on your clothes you would not be permitted to go home with the clothes, carrying the dust. You would have to take all the clothes off and have a shower and a good scrub. A Geiger counter would then be used to determine if any dust were still on you.

When the radiation inspector deemed you to be ‘clean’ you would be allowed to go home…wearing some other clothes, because your dust laden clothes would be buried in a nuclear waste repository, according to a legally verified nuclear waste processing protocol. You could go home, having had a fright, but being perfectly safe.

However, if the radioactive dust landed on your lunch, and you then ate it, you would have a potential problem because the radioactive material would be inside you and then can’t easily be ‘washed away.’

Worse still would be if you had got a great surprise to see all the radioactive dust swirling around and you had taken a great gasp and sucked the radioactive dust into your lungs.

The dust in your stomach would mostly pass right through your gut and then out in a couple of days, presenting a reasonably minor risk. Radioactive dust in lungs is a different matter.

Even dust in lungs would mostly be ejected by the normal bodily lung cleaning mechanism, but a very small amount could get stuck in the lung lining for years. It is this dust, stuck in one place, slowly irritating one spot for years, which can lead to the nucleation of a cancer.

So, by far the greatest human danger resulting from any release from an accident such as Fukushima, is mobile radiation, usually dust, which is known as contamination. Breathing in radioactive contamination is much worse than eating it.

If somebody were to go home with radioactive dust on their clothes and then hug their child, the child could breathe in the dust. That is why the authorities worry so much about contamination and so cordon off areas. They worry about wind direction, or vehicles leaving the scene which could carry dust.

That is why the nuclear plant workers sometimes wear those spaceman-like suits; to stop dust getting on them, not to stop radiation.

Gama radiation will go clean through those suits. The suits stay behind when the worker goes home.

Fear and Pressure

As the residents of the Fukushima region return to their homes one really does have to ask: what were the lessons learned?

One is that nuclear was shown to be extremely safe. But another is; that far more needs to be done to educate the public and the authorities about the true nature of nuclear power and nuclear radiation.

The Japanese authorities completely overreacted by removing so many people from their homes around Fukushima. The residents suffered huge trauma as a result of the forced evacuations. They would have been much safer staying in their homes. No doubt, media pressure and associated world public scare played a major role in inducing the Japanese authorities to act the way they did.

It is currently playing a role in causing the Japanese authorities to continue acting the way they are. They should rather be using science and not superstition.

Hopefully as time passes, the real truth of Fukushima will be recorded in history and not the knee-jerk scares which have tended to gain centre stage.



Dr. Kemm’s earlier article, Physicist: There was no Fukushima nuclear disaster, remains one of the most popular on CFACT.org.


  • Kelvin Kemm

    Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and CEO of Nuclear Africa (Pty) Ltd, a project management company based in Pretoria, South Africa. He is the recipient of the prestigious Lifetime Achievers Award of the National Science and Technology Forum of South Africa. He does international consultancy work in strategic development.