Mental Illness Biggest Risk in Modern Nuclear Disasters

Mental Illness Biggest Risk in Modern Nuclear DisastersMental Illness Biggest Risk in Modern Nuclear Disasters

There are very few radiation effects suffered physically by people struck by modern nuclear accident. Instead, mental illness is the biggest risk, write authors of a series of papers in The Lancet.

Dr. Koichi Tanigawa, of Fukushima Medical University in Japan, says although the radiation dose to the public from Fukushima was relatively low, and no discernible physical health effects are expected, “psychological and social problems, largely stemming from the differences in risk perceptions, have had a devastating impact on people’s lives.”

There are 437 nuclear power plants in operation around the world, but nuclear accident is uncommon. The most recent disaster was at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan in 2011.

There have been four other severe nuclear accidents (rated as level  5 or higher - “an accident with wider consequences”) - Kyshtym in Russia in 1957, Windscale Piles in the UK also in that year, Three Mile Island in the US in 1979 and Chernobyl in Russia in 1986.

 Mental Distress

In 2006, the UN Chernobyl Forum report concluded that the accident’s most serious public health issue was the adverse effects on mental health.

Poor communication about the health risks associated with radiation levels made the problem worse, reports Medical News Today.

Rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) remain elevated 20 years after the accident.

Fukushima saw similar problems. The Fukushima Health Management Survey reported that the proportion of adults with psychological distress was almost five times higher for evacuees. The proportion was 14.6%, compared with 3% in the general population.

Mortality among older people in the first three months following evacuation went up by a factor of three.

Prof. Akira Ohtsuru, of Fukushima Medical University, and colleagues discuss ways to protect the millions of residents who might be exposed to radiation after another nuclear accident.

Minimizing potential harms to physical and mental health could include responding to parental concerns about cancer risks for children and helping evacuees to adjust to new places.


Fukushima offers lessons, the authors say. “Physicians must play a key role in helping residents understand the health risks. Additionally, screening for mental illness in residents relocated from their homes and providing mental health care is essential.”

A clear higher lifetime risk of cancer in survivors is shown by the Japanese Life Span Study, which followed 94,000 atomic bomb survivors from 5 years after the bombings in 1950 to the current day.

There was a dose-response for solid cancers and a higher risk for people exposed at younger ages. After Chernobyl, an increased risk of childhood thyroid cancer among those with internal exposures from consuming radioactivity in food was also seen in affected areas.