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Health and Trust: Hard Lessons from Chernobyl and Fukushima

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Health has barely made it into the federal election. But it and the related issue of “trust” are at the top of our concerns. There’s been some talk about increasing healthcare costs but nothing about protecting environmental and human health.

As we approach Chernobyl’s 25th anniversary (the melt-down occurred April 26, 1986), the nuclear disaster continues at Fukushima. As with Chernobyl, various “experts” continue to reassure us that the radioactivity isn’t a threat to our health. We knew otherwise before Fukushima. In 2010, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment was published by the New York Academy of Sciences. It was written by three internationally-noted scientists - a biologist, ecologist and physicist - who reviewed 5,000 scientific reports and concluded that between 1986 and 2004 there were 985,000 people who died, mostly of cancer, as a result of Chernobyl.

CHERNOBYL FALLOUT

Chernobyl had a global reach. Ten percent of the poisons fell on Asia, including northwest Japan, now being poisoned again. Five percent fell on North Africa; plutonium was even found in Nile River sediments. At least one percent made it to North America, largely due to the explosion of reactor # 4 which sent a radioactive cloud 10 km upwards. There was significant irradiation of Arctic plants and animals.

But the hardest hit regions were Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. Cancer mortality increased 40% in Belarus. The radioactive poisons causing the devastating cancers included Cesium 137, Plutonium 239, Iodine 131, Strontium 90 and their decay-products. Because some of the poisons have half-lives ranging from 20,000 to 200,000 years, their concentrations “will remain practically the same virtually forever”.

The number hospitalized for acute radiation sickness turned out to be more than 100 times the IAEA estimate. Children in particular were affected; in the most contaminated areas the percentage of children who were healthy dropped from 80% to 20%. And not only humans were affected; plant mutations increased sharply. Increased tumors, immune disorders and shortened life expectancy occurred in animals. Survival rates of barn swallows in the most contaminated areas have been “close to zero”; those that hatched had ghastly abnormalities such as two heads. But we no longer have to look to birds (the canary in the mine) as an early warning system. After Chernobyl children have become “our canaries”.

The scientists concluded that Chernobyl “was the worst technogenic accident in history”. They condemned “the nuclear industry’s willingness to risk the health of humanity and our environment with nuclear power plants”, noting these “will result, not only theoretically, but practically, in the same level of hazard as nuclear weapons.”

HALF-TRUTHS ABOUT JAPAN

We now face half-truths or outright lies about Fukushima, which could still turn out to be worse than Chernobyl. After a month we know that three nuclear reactors and four spent fuel storage areas are still at risk. A cement crack near reactor # 2 recently allowed nearly 3 million gallons of highly radioactive water to leak into the ocean, where fish are now contaminated. One hundred and sixty-five Japanese groups are rightly calling for an expansion of the evacuation zone around Fukushima.

But we continue to be told that the radiation is too low to affect our health. Ignorance abounds! Thankfully on March 29th the Scientific Secretary of the European Commission on Radiation Risk, Dr. Chris Busby, weighed into the debate. He notes that one reassuring British “nuclear expert” was a past employee of Nuclear Fuels. Another turned out to be a psychologist, not a radiation scientist. And then there’s George Monbiot, who, claiming no one had yet died from radiation sickness, has embraced nuclear power because of fears that Fukushima will lead to a return to coal plants.

Busby correctly points out that all these pseudo-experts fail to distinguish between external radiation and internal radioactivity. Once you experience external radiation, it’s over, though it may affect you, depending on the dose, over time. However if you ingest radioactive particles, such as those released when a reactor’s containment system is breached, or when there is a melt-down, they can endlessly irradiate your DNA.

CANCER RESEARCH

Epidemiological studies (e.g. by Steve Wing) show the greater incidence of cancer from the Three-Mile partial melt-down in 1979, and, as Busby says, “…court cases are regularly settled on the basis of cancers” from this. Busby notes that Swedish research (by Martin Tondel) found a direct link between the level of contamination from Chernobyl and increased cancer: an 11% increase for every 100 kBq per square metre of contamination. (kBq or kilobecquerel means 1,000 nuclear decays per second). He notes that the IAEA already estimates that the contamination rates from Fukushima are from 2 to 9 times this (i.e. 200 to 900 kBq/sq metre) “out to 78 km from the site”. This means cancer rates could increase between 22% and 99%. This 78 km radius around Fukushima is about 7 times greater than the area known as the Chernobyl exclusion zone, which is defined as “555 kBq/sq metre and above”.

The “nuclear experts” interviewed by the mainstream media accept a mathematical risk model long discredited by empirical research. It is based on “absorbed dose”, which is an average, and greatly underestimates internal radioactive exposure. As Busby says, it “would not distinguish between warming yourself in front of a fire and eating a red hot coal”. Yet it’s the internal radioactive particulates that are the most dangerous because their ongoing dose can go to a single cell and it is this “that causes the genetic damage and ultimate cancer.”

NUCLEAR SECRECY

Why can’t we trust the “nuclear experts”? It goes right back to the beginning of the military-industrial nuclear system. In 1959, when the superpowers were still testing H-Bombs, the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) signed an agreement to allow the pro-nuclear regulator, the IAEA, to do the research on radiation. Even since it has hidden behind erroneous risk estimates which, as Busby points out, are “based entirely on external acute high dose radiation from Hiroshima”. The March 16, 2011 The Independent, notes the nuclear industry from its start “has taken secrecy to be its watchword”. History’s biggest secret ever was the Manhattan Project which built the first A-Bomb. The UK had the first catastrophic nuclear accident at Windscale in 1957; the official report on this was kept confidential until 1988. Numerous nuclear mishaps at the US weapons plant at Rocky Flats were kept secret for over four decades. The Soviet Union kept secret three major nuclear accidents at its weapons plant in the Urals, and tried to keep Chernobyl secret until scientists discovered the radioactive plume over Sweden.

This has all happened here too. That uranium mined around Uranium City in the 1950s was going into US nuclear weapons was kept secret from us until the late 1970s, and this is still not widely known or reported in the daily press. Tepco, the Fukushima operator and a major customer and partner of Cameco, has a litany of cover-ups. In 2002 its senior executives resigned for covering up “a large series of cracks and other damage to reactors”. In 2006 Tepco admitted “it has been falsifying data about coolant materials in its plants.” Tepco has regularly misreported levels of radioactivity at Fukushima.

Those who spout falsehoods about the safety of the nuclear industry perhaps should be held criminally responsible for the devastation that they try to cover-up. To re-earn the public trust, politicians and authorities must start telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth about radioactivity and health. This didn’t happen after Chernobyl and it isn’t happening about Fukushima.