Fukushima: Nuclear Apologists Play Shoot the Messenger on Radiation

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TWENTY-FIVE years after Chernobyl, many billions of dollars are at stake if the Fukushima reactor meltdowns cause the so-called “atomic renaissance” to halt or even slow down. This is evident from the nuclear industry’s vociferous attacks on its critics.

We see this especially in Australia, where the industry is conducting a whatever-it-takes propaganda campaign to ensure that nothing stands in the way of vast profits to be made from continuing to export uranium; from the plan to establish a radioactive waste dump at Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory; and from the industry’s desire to dot the continent with reactors.

Proponents of nuclear power – including George Monbiot, who has had a mysterious road-to-Damascus conversion to its supposedly benign effects – accuse me and others of ”cherry-picking” data and overstating the health effects of radiation. Yet by reassuring the public that things aren’t too bad, Monbiot and others misrepresent and distort the scientific evidence of the harmful effects of radiation exposure.

Their first piece of disinformation is to confuse the effects of external and internal radiation. The former is what populations were exposed to when atomic bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Internal radiation, by contrast, emanates from radioactive elements that enter the body by inhalation, ingestion, or skin absorption. Hazardous radioactive elements being released in the sea and air around Fukushima accumulate at each step of various food chains (for example, into algae, crustaceans, small fish, bigger fish, then humans; or soil, grass, cow’s meat and milk, then humans). Entering the body, these elements – called internal emitters – migrate to specific organs such as the thyroid, liver, bone, and brain, continuously irradiating small volumes of cells with high doses of alpha, beta and/or gamma radiation, and over many years often induce cancer.

Further, many remain radioactive in the environment for long periods, posing danger for future generations.

The grave effects of internal emitters are of the most profound concern at Fukushima – as indeed they continue to be at Chernobyl. It is erroneous and misleading to use the term ”acceptable levels of external radiation” in assessing internal radiation doses. To do so is to propagate inaccuracies and to mislead the public worldwide and journalists who are seeking the truth about radiation’s hazards.

Further, nuclear industry proponents assert that low doses of radiation produce no ill effects and are therefore safe. But, as a US National Academy of Sciences report concluded in 2007, no dose of radiation is safe, however small, including background radiation; exposure is cumulative, so that each dose (whether, for example, from a medical x-ray or from passing through the whole-body scanners soon to be introduced in Australian airports) adds to an individual’s risk of developing cancer during his or her lifetime.

Regarding Chernobyl, various seemingly reputable groups have issued differing reports on the morbidity and mortalities resulting from the 1986 radiation catastrophe. The World Health Organisation in 2005 attributed only 43 human deaths directly to the disaster and estimated an additional 4000 fatal cancers. In contrast, a 2009 report published by the New York Academy of Sciences comes to a very different conclusion. Its scientist authors estimated the number of deaths attributable to the Chernobyl meltdown at about 980,000.

Monbiot wrongly dismisses the report out of hand as worthless, but to ignore and denigrate an entire body of literature is arrogant and irresponsible.

Finally, there is widespread confusion about the roles of the World Health Organisation and the International Atomic Energy Commission. Monbiot expresses surprise that a UN-affiliated body such as WHO might be under the influence of the nuclear power industry, causing its reporting on nuclear power matters to be biased. And yet that is precisely the case.

In the early days of nuclear power, WHO issued forthright statements on radiation risks, such as its 1956 warning: ”Genetic heritage is the most precious property for human beings. It determines the lives of our progeny, health and harmonious development of future generations. As experts, we affirm that the health of future generations is threatened by increasing development of the atomic industry and sources of radiation.”

After 1959, the organisation made no more statements on health and radioactivity.

What happened?

On May 28, 1959, at the 12th World Health Assembly, WHO drew up an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. A clause of this agreement says the WHO effectively grants the right of prior approval over any research it might undertake or report on to the IAEA – a group that many people, including journalists, think is a neutral watchdog, but which is, in fact, an advocate for the nuclear power industry. Its founding papers state: ”The agency shall seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity through the world.”

The WHO’s subjugation to the IAEA is widely known within the scientific radiation community, something which Monbiot chose to ignore. But it is clearly not the only matter on which he is ignorant, after his recent apparent three-day perusal of the vast body of scientific information on radiation and radioactivity. The confusion that he and other nuclear industry apologists sow about radiation risks is very similar to the way that the tobacco industry propounded misinformation and lies about the true effects of smoking.

Despite their claims, it is they, not the ”anti-nuclear movement”, who are ”misleading the world about the impacts of radiation on human health”.

Dr Helen Caldicott is the founding president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and the author of seven books, including Nuclear Power is Not the Answer.

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Contributed by Dr Helen Calidicott of global research.ca.

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  • Locus

    Yes, there are re-assessments of public health stats in the former USSR regions that are attempting to attribute almost a million deaths to Chernobyl.

    On a planet full of background radiation it is difficult to directly attribute such things.

    One case in point, with traditional building materials houses had always been cold at times and ‘drafty’, especially basements. People got used to it.

    Then in the 1970s energy crisis there was a major move to completely weatherstrip joints and pad attics to insulate houses. With infrared viewers showing heat release many homes then, and by direct effort all homes now, are energy efficient and hermetically ‘sealed’.

    Once the dust settles, is what remains breathable and healthy? Not necessarily if you live in one of the many areas where radon accumulates. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/40965577

    Anyone who smokes who got lung cancer got it from smoking, a done deal science does not investigate further. Then in the later 70s non-smokers who got lung cancer (for wont of any better explanation) got it second-hand from smokers, and since there were still many smokers in these households to take the blame science did not immediately investigate further.

    Which left lung cancers in people who had never smoked. Second hand smoke in the workplace or the subway? Presence of smokers anywhere else on the planet?? The mere odor of smoke on smokers’ clothing?? Fortunately the investigation veered off the cigarette rails and made real progress on other fronts.

    Now radon vent sumps in the basement and testing of living and public spaces is code. And the link between radon exposure in badly ventilated spaces and lung cancer is well established.

    The meaty question is, how many lives were ‘lost’ while an opinionated public and complacent science felt they had cracked the cancer mystery?

    As people are doing now with the cancer/man-made radiation causation for radiation levels that are lower than natural background radiation in many other densely populated areas.

    Among people who also take in chemical carcinogens in varying amounts in ways that cannot be reliably surveyed.

    But cancer is more syndrome than disease, it is a malfunction that has many possible causes chemical and radiological. It is also related to manifestations such as cysts that are ‘not’ cancer yet very common. And it is Slightly Politically Incorrect these days for science to attribute disease to ‘bad genetics’.

    Add to that studies that seem to indicate that the presence of high background radiation may actually have a mitigating effect on cancer, such as the Hopi Indians’ extremely low cancer rate.

    No it’s not a ‘done deal’.

    • RickE.

      Locus, you presented an interesting post. ANd it compelled me to think. However, I live in northern Arizona and in the specific area that was impacted by the nuclear testing in the 1950s and 60s. (the down winders).

      As you probably know, there’s a definable and verifiable record of a marked increase in radiation-related cancers.
      HOWEVER, the native Americans in this area which are; Hualapai, Navajo, and the Hopi, all have lower cancer rates than the rest of the population. The present scientific opinion are of that perhaps DIET has much to do with this.
      That being said, who really knows for sure?

      It IS known factually, that radiation does kill, does interrupt genetic code, etc., apparently dependent upon if it’s internal, external, and or continual.

  • RickE.

    It is FACT that NO radiation is good for living organisms.

    Some folks can blather on and on about comparatively harmless CO2, that plants need for life, when radiation and radioactive waste is TRULY polluting our world slowly but thoroughly.

    Nuclear power plants leak. This is a known fact! They can be destroyed by natural causes. This is FACT.

    How many more Fukushimas and Chernobyl incidents can our world take before it’s permanently poisoned??

    And there WILL be more in the future. Count on it.

  • Aila D. Linas

    Back to Chernobyl Incident, people should be aware what the positive and negative effects of have a Nuclear Reactor in their country. Compare our country (Philippines) we have a Bataan Nuclear reactor here but suddenly stopped our operation because we saw what happened in Ukraine back to 1983.
    We are not depending our energy sources through Nuclear Reactors, but instead we are using Natural Resources like Geothermal Energy, using dams to produce electricity through the waters and also we use wind energy like windmills in Vigan. So for me, usage of Nuclear Reactors as a source of energy must stop. It more be more hassle to the people if something happened and it will regret it for their rest of their lives. Again for example like what happened in Japan and Ukraine, those sites where not longer inhabitable to live and it cost thousands of lives because of the disasters. People should think right now before its too late.

  • SKIP

    I saw a program on flora and fauna life in the Chernobyl area some time back while at home and it would appear that both or thriving, no evidence of human habitation which may be why everything else is thriving !