In March 2011 a giant earthquake and tsunami struck Japan and killed over 20,000 people. These events also seriously damaged 4 nuclear plants at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The subsequent release of radiation led to local, precautionary evacuations since the course of the accident and potential contamination was unknown at the time.

According to a June 2011 report by the IAEA International Fact Finding Expert Mission, “To date no health effects have been reported in any person as a result of radiation exposure from the nuclear accident”. This included the operators and others who worked from the beginning of the shutdown.

Despite this finding, today over 80,000 Japanese are prevented from returning to Fukushima, prevented from returning to their homes, their jobs, and to farming their lands. The basis for this prevention is radiation standards based on a “conservative” model called Linear No Threshold (LNT), which asserts that any radiation exposure causes health effects. The LNT assumption is a simple projection of health effects data from high-level exposures – like those at Hiroshima and Nagaski – and in nuclear bomb tests: levels of radiation exposure above 100,000 millirem. The effects of this level of exposure are real, and demonstrable, but extrapolating them all the way down to zero on a straight (linear) line is not only simplistic, it’s inaccurate, and it leads to impossible predictions. There is no scientific biological data that shows any evidence of any human health impact (much less cancer) at radiation dose levels of less than even 10,000 millirem.

In the case of Fukushima, the application of the LNT principle has caused demonstrable economic and social harm to thousands of people. This misguided policy has resulted in decontamination programs that have stripped off the rich top soil, which is being called radioactive waste; left homes abandoned and destroyed by the weather and looting; and driven people toward poverty, alienation and depression, and even suicide. While there are radioactive “hot spots” around Fukushima that need to be avoided and cleaned up, the majority of the affected areas have radiation levels significantly lower than some areas in Norway, Brazil, Iran, and India, areas where generations of people have lived without harmful effects.

What is the right thing to do? Are “conservative” standards such as LNT – standards based on a principle rather than on scientific data – in the best interest of real people? All energy sources have attendant trade-offs, so what about nuclear power makes people and policymakers unable or unwilling to responsibly confront its trade-offs?