In the wake of a nuclear disaster, survivors are more likely to have profound effects from psychological disorders like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than from the radiation itself, scientists suggest.

Imagine having to leave the home you’ve known and loved all your life, knowing you likely won’t ever be able to return, and getting mixed messages from the government about the true damage and scope of the disaster. This is the kind of terrifying uncertainty that survivors of nuclear disasters must cope with.

On the 70th anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, The Lancet has published several studies by scientists that counter the misconception that widespread death and illness are the primary traumas of nuclear disasters; rather, researchers found that the mental health effects were far more profound.

Some survivors of the Hiroshima bombing thought they had died and gone to hell because of the terrifying scenes.

“Night came and I could hear many voices crying and groaning with pain and begging for water… so burned that we couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. The sky was red with flames. It was burning as if scorching heaven.”

“Many of [the injured] died along the road—I can still picture them in my mind—like walking ghosts… They didn’t look like people of this world.” [2]

Over the past 60 years, five nuclear accidents have been rated “severe”: Russia’s Kyshtym (1957), Britain’s Windscale (1957), Three Mile Island in the United States (1979), Ukraine’s Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima in Japan (2011). Koichi Tanigawa, one of the study’s authors and a researcher at Fukushima Medical University, said the psychological burden for people living in areas affected by a nuclear disaster often goes overlooked.

A 2006 United Nations Chernobyl study backs Tanigawa’s claim. That study found that the most serious public health issue caused by the 1986 disaster was damaged mental health, which was worsened by the government’s failure to communicate the severity of the health risks caused by radiation. Twenty years later, depression and PTSD are still higher than average.

The same has generally been found to be true of Fukushima survivors. Since the accident, the proportion of adults with psychological distress is nearly five times higher among disaster evacuees (14.6 percent compared with only three percent in the general population).

“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,” Tanigawa said.

Farmers and ranchers who were evacuated from the Fukushima area were allowed to return home in 2012; but they are uncertain of which, if either, government claim is true – that the area is safe or that it could take up to 40 years to clean it. They are afraid to eat their own food, and they feel guilty about selling it to anyone else. [3]

About 170,000 residents from 20 miles (30 km) around Fukushima were forced to flee their homes in the wake of the explosion and subsequent meltdown at the TEPCO plant. Frighteningly, at least a third of the world’s 437 nuclear power plants have even more people living within that distance – more than a million people live near 21 of the plants, and more than three million people live near six of the facilities.

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Post written byJulie Fidler:
Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.