The Fukushima Daiichi disaster claimed the hearts and lives of thousands of people. Once the disaster struck, evacuation notices were issued to towns sprinkled throughout the country. A recent, provocative piece of research suggests that the turmoil and stress that accompanied the evacuations may have been more detrimental to the health of senior citizens than nuclear radiation.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach with respect to evacuation notices. Some people are better able to cope with the chaos and disorder that ensues after a major disaster strikes than others. While families scrambled to collect their belongings to escape the land of terror, nursing home residents struggled to flee the premises with the rest of the herd.
A team of researchers decided to study whether the evacuation notice was a greater threat to elderly health than the radiation from the power plant. According to their research based on residents in three nursing homes located roughly 25 kilometers from the nuclear accident, the answer is an unequivocal “yes.”(1)
To fight or flight? That is the question
But how do you compare whether an evacuation notice is worse to an individual’s health than nuclear fall out? In an effort to answer this question, the authors of the study conjured four hypothetical scenarios which could/did have happen following the disaster:
In scenario one, nursing home patients immediately evacuate after catastrophe strikes, as was the case when the Fukushima disaster occurred. In scenario two, citizens are given 90 days to evacuate, which would give officials enough to time to consider the needs and interests of nursing home patients. In scenario three, nursing home patients and workers do not evacuate and are exposed to relatively low doses of radiation. And in scenario four, nursing home patients and workers are exposed to high doses of radiation and do not evacuate.(1)
Accompanying these hypothetical scenarios, the researchers estimated the cancer risk by considering the amount of radiation that nursing homes in proximity to the power plant were exposed to. The nursing homes considered were approximately 250 kilometers from the Fukushima site. Furthermore, the researchers compared the mortality rates before and after the disaster for residents at three nursing homes near the disaster that did evacuate, versus two nursing homes farther away from the disaster that didn’t evacuate.(1)
Why evacuations could do more harm than good
After the calculations were all said and done, the researchers found that immediately evacuating after the disaster could have been much worse to the health of senior citizens than staying put. In particular, the researchers concluded that the nursing home residents would lose about 11,000 days of their lives, which is about two months for each of the 191 evacuated residents. The staff, on the other hand, wouldn’t lose a day of their lives.(1)
In the 90-day delayed-evacuation scenario, staff would only lose a few hours off their lives from low radiation exposure. The high-radiation scenario was the only one with a comparable loss of life expectancy, which was about 5,800 days of their lives. In other words, the results of the study suggest that immediately evacuating senior residents after the Fukushima disaster may not have been the best move. In fact, the best move would have been to not move at all, according to the researchers.(1)
“‘Here, our intention is not to insist that the decisions made by nursing homes in the 2011 accident were inappropriate,’ especially given the uncertainty following the accident, the researchers write,” according to Pacific Standard. “But, they add, ‘[t]here needs to be serious deliberation as to whether to reduce evacuation-related risks or pursue protective actions other than evacuation.’”(1)
While the research team did not criticize the decision to rapidly evacuate senior residents, criticisms were made against Japanese officials who restarted a reactor at the Sendai nuclear power plant – the first since the Fukushima disaster. One of the main criticisms is that officials at the nuclear reactor lacked a well developed evacuation plan in the event of a disaster. An active volcano is near the No. 1 reactor, as well as several nursing homes. In the event of an eruption, the same short comings at the Fukushima power plant could repeat themselves.(2)