Saturday, 26 May 2018

Did Japan or the U.S. lose more lives to atmospheric nuclear blasts in the 20th Century?

The answer may surprise you. At least, according to a recent paper by Keith Meyers (a PhD candidate last year from the University of Arizona). Meyers notes that earlier studies have focused on radioactive fallout exposure, but ignored a potentially more important channel to human health:
Fallout deposition may approximate the presence of fallout in the local food supply, but radiation exposure proxied through deposition becomes more inaccurate if local deposition fails to enter the local food supply. The National Cancer Institute (1997) finds that the consumption of irradiated dairy products served as the primary vector through which Americans ingested large concentrations of radioactive material. During the 1950's most milk was consumed in the local area it was produced. It is through this channel where local fallout deposition would enter the local food supply...
Using data on I-131 concentrations in locally produced milk supplies, and county-level panel data from 1940 to 1988 (noting that atmospheric nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site occurred from 1951 to 1963), Meyers finds that:
Depending on the regression specified, I-131 in milk contributed between 395,000 and 695,000 excess deaths from 1951 to 1973. The average increase in mortality across counties is between 0.65 and 1.21 additional deaths per 10,000 people for this same period. The estimates from deposition suggest that fallout contributed between 338,000 and 692,000 excess deaths over the same period...
From 1988 to 2000, valuations of human life by U.S. Federal Government agencies ranged between $1.4 million and $8.8 million in 2016$. These values and my estimates from the preferred specification place the value of lost life between $473 billion and $6,116 billion in 2016$.
The range of estimated social costs is very wide, but regardless this social cost is substantial and Meyers notes in his conclusion:
These losses dwarf the $2 billion in payments the Federal Government has made to domestic victims of nuclear testing through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act and are substantial relative to the financial cost of the United States' nuclear weapons program.
Meyers's paper is an excellent example of evaluating population-level mortality differences due to environmental differences. I have a paper with Matthew Roskruge in progress where we similarly look at the mortality impacts of climate change in New Zealand, which adopts a similar approach (more on that in a later post).

However, coming back to the question in the title to this post, it appears that based on Meyer's models, the number of deaths from atmospheric nuclear blasts at the Nevada Test Site in the U.S. far exceeds the number who died in Japan from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

[HT: Marginal Revolution, last December]

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