We are now a week and a half into the Japanese disaster, which encompassed a terrible trio of catastrophic events: an earthquake, a tsunami, and a near-nuclear meltdown that looked to be vying for a top spot in the record books. The death toll tops 9,000, with another 13,000 still missing. And today at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, although a large scale meltdown looks to have been narrowly averted, the extent of the radiation leaks and the related damage are still yet to be fully assessed.
The heroes of the past week, those credited with keeping events at the nuclear plant from spiraling irretrievably out of control, are being hailed as "the Fukushima 50." In actual numbers, they are more like 200 courageous souls, taking turns in 50-person shifts while the world watched from outside the 20 kilometer evacuation zone.
When the full extent of the crisis at the Fukushima plant became apparent in the wee hours of March 15, TEPCO wanted to remove all staff. Prime Minister Kan summoned TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu to his Office and told him that leaving was was not an option. "This is not a matter of TEPCO going under; it's about what will become of Japan," he said.
ABC news sheds a bit more light on the team who struggled to restore order to the crippled plant. The crews are though to be hands-on workers, technicians, rather than managers.
"The crews are not necessarily made up of strong young men. Emergency nuclear scenarios suggest asking older retirees to volunteer, not because they're more expendable, or even because they're more skilled, but because even if they're exposed to massive amounts of radiation, history has shown they would die of old age before they die of radiation induced cancers, which can take decades to develop."
And what's the extent of the health risks they are facing? The Power company reports that at least 25 workers and 5 members of Japan's Self Defense Force had were exposed to unsafe levels of radiation. There are other injuries and two workers remain missing. As for "the fifty," ABC says that not all experts believe that the radiation levels the workers are exposed to will be fatal.
"While radiation-induced cancers are a serious worry for those exposed to high doses of radiation, they usually take at least a few years to set in.
"You may see an incidence of cancer 30 years down the road. Cataracts can set in in 30 to 40 years," said Jenkins. "Leukemia showed up within a few years in the atomic bomb survivors, but solid cancers did not appear until 10 years and continue [to show up] to this day," said Hall."
Wikipedia's page on the Fukushima 50 offers more detail about the radiation exposure these workers faced in comparison to that of other nuclear workers.
"The international limit for radiation exposure for nuclear workers is 20 millisievert (20 mSv) per year, averaged over five years, with a limit of 50 mSv in any one year, however for workers performing emergency services EPA guidance on dose limits is 100 mSv when "protecting valuable property" and 250 mSv when the activity is "life saving or protection of large populations."
Prior to the accident, the maximum permissible dose for Japanese nuclear workers was 100 mSv in any one year, but on 15 March 2011, the Japanese Health and Labor Ministry enforced the permitted 250 mSv limit, in light of the situation at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant."
For additional perspective on the numbers, see this excellent radiation dose chart
As we approach the 25 year anniversary of the world's worst nuclear disaster, the inevtiable comparisons have been made. But Japan's a markedly different scenario than the one faced by the workers at Chernobyl, where 29 firefighters, rescuers and nuclear plant workers died in the two months following
the nuclear disaster. At least 19 other workers have died since 1987, and others have reportedly died from leukemia and other illnesses. You can read the gruesome story of deceased Fireman Vasily Ignatenko
, as told by his wife Lyudmilla Ignatenko.
Subsequent clean-up teams were called The Liquidators of Chernobyl
. These were folks tasked with the cleanup. Of this cleanup. Wikipedia says:
Between 1986 and 1992, it is thought between 600,000 and one million people participated in works around Chernobyl and their health was endangered due to radiation. Because of the dissolution of the USSR in the 1990s, evaluations about liquidators' health are difficult, since they come from various countries (mostly Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, but also other former Soviet republics). Furthermore, the government of Russia has never been keen on giving the true figures for the disaster, or even on making serious estimates. However, according to a study by Belarusian physicians, rate of cancers among this population is about four times greater than the rest of the population. (Wikipedia notes that "All the figures quoted by various agencies are controversial.")
Insurance issues related to Japan's disaster
According to the Insurance Information Institute, Japan's earthquake could cost $15 billion to $35 billion, one of the costliest ever. This would be a tough enough kick in the shins for the insurance industry, but III notes that, "... four of the five costliest earthquakes and tsunamis in the past 30 years have occurred within the past 13 months."
See more from III at their excellent resource page on the Japan earthquake and Pacific Tsunamis
Here are some other insurance-related articles that shed light on one or another aspect of this mammoth event.
We aren't up our international compensation law, but our Googling turned up this overview of Workers Accident Compensation in Japan.
Joanne Wojcik tackled the nuclear topic in Business Insurance in her article Coverage restrictions expected to limit nuclear claims (subscription required). We offer this excerpt:
Under Japan's 1961 Law on Compensation for Nuclear Damage, which was amended in 2010,
power plant operators' liability for accidents such as those after the earthquake and tsunami is limited to 120 billion yen (about $1.5 billion), with the Japanese government assuming responsibility for any third-party damage or bodily injury claims beyond that amount.
To meet the requirements of the law, Japanese nuclear power plant operators buy property and liability insurance from the Japan Atomic Energy Insurance Pool. JAEIP provides nuclear property, nuclear liability, general liability and terrorism coverage to nuclear power plant operators. However, JAEIP does not sell the utilities coverage for earthquake damage, tsunami damage or business interruption, leaving the Japanese government responsible for those costs.
If a nuclear incident similar to that occurring in Japan were to happen in the United States, the U.S. Price-Anderson Act limits liability for nuclear power plant operators to $12.6 billion.
At Risk Management Monitor, Emily Holbrooke looks at the issue of business interruption and its effects on global corporations. Many think the real story is one of good engineering saving thousands of lives - Jared Wade discusses this in his posting about how Japan's bulding codes prevented casualties.
Also in Business Insurance, Judy Greenwwald looks at the complicated claims process ahead:
Corporate policyholders that do business with companies in Japan face a complicated process when they attempt to tap their contingent business interruption coverage because of the intertwining nature of the disasters that have struck the nation, observers say.
"This is going to be one of the most complicated catastrophes that I've seen," said William Okelson, Chicago-based director of property claims for Lockton Cos. L.L.C. There are "so many variables," including the original quake, the tsunami, resulting fires, nuclear power plant dangers and the government rationing of electricity.
At LexisNexis, Julius Young examines a "what if " scenario: What If? Workers' Comp and Earthquakes. Jon Gelman puts the events in some historical context relative to other large-scale disasters and nuclear events: A Nuclear Workers' Compensation Disaster.