Recent disclosures of tons of radioactive water from the damaged Fukushima reactors spilling into the ocean are just the latest evidence of the continuing incompetence of the Japanese utility, TEPCO. The announcement that the Japanese government will step in is also not reassuring since it was the Japanese government that failed to regulate the utility for decades. But, bad as it is, the current contamination of the ocean should be the least of our worries. The radioactive poisons are expected to form a plume that will be carried by currents to coast of North America. But the effects will be small, adding an unfortunate bit to our background radiation. Fish swimming through the plume will be affected, but we can avoid eating them.
Much more serious is the danger that the spent fuel rod pool at the top of the nuclear plant number four will collapse in a storm or an earthquake, or in a failed attempt to carefully remove each of the 1,535 rods and safely transport them to the common storage pool 50 meters away. Conditions in the unit 4 pool, 100 feet from the ground, are perilous, and if any two of the rods touch it could cause a nuclear reaction that would be uncontrollable. The radiation emitted from all these rods, if they are not continually cool and kept separate, would require the evacuation of surrounding areas including Tokyo. Because of the radiation at the site the 6,375 rods in the common storage pool could not be continuously cooled; they would fission and all of humanity will be threatened, for thousands of years.
Fukushima is just the latest episode in a dangerous dance with radiation that has been going on for 68 years. Since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945 we have repeatedly let loose plutonium and other radioactive substances on our planet, and authorities have repeatedly denied or trivialized their dangers. The authorities include national governments (the U.S., Japan, the Soviet Union/ Russia, England, France and Germany); the worldwide nuclear power industry; and some scientists both in and outside of these governments and the nuclear power industry. Denials and trivialization have continued with Fukushima. (Documentation of the following observations can be found in my piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, upon which this article is based.) (Perrow 2013)
In 1945, shortly after the bombing of two Japanese cities, the New York Times headline read: "Survey Rules Out Nagasaki Dangers"; soon after the 2011 Fukushima disaster it read "Experts Foresee No Detectable Health Impact from Fukushima Radiation." In between these two we had experts reassuring us about the nuclear bomb tests, plutonium plant disasters at Windscale in northern England and Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains, and the nuclear power plant accidents at Three Mile Island in the United States and Chernobyl in what is now Ukraine, as well as the normal operation of nuclear power plants.
Initially the U.S. Government denied that low-level radiation experienced by thousands of Japanese people in and near the two cities was dangerous. In 1953, the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission insisted that low-level exposure to radiation "can be continued indefinitely without any detectable bodily change." Biologists and other scientists took exception to this, and a 1956 report by the National Academy of Scientists, examining data from Japan and from residents of the Marshall Islands exposed to nuclear test fallout, successfully established that all radiation was harmful. The Atomic Energy Commission then promoted a statistical or population approach that minimized the danger: the damage would be so small that it would hardly be detectable in a large population and could be due to any number of other causes. Nevertheless, the Radiation Research Foundation detected it in 1,900 excess deaths among the Japanese exposed to the two bombs. (The Department of Homeland Security estimated only 430 cancer deaths).
Besides the uproar about the worldwide fallout from testing nuclear weapons, another problem with nuclear fission soon emerged: a fire in a British plant making plutonium for nuclear weapons sent radioactive material over a large area of Cumbria, resulting in an estimated 240 premature cancer deaths, though the link is still disputed. The event was not made public and no evacuations were ordered. Also kept secret, for over 25 years, was a much larger explosion and fire, also in 1957, at the Chelyabinsk nuclear weapons processing plant in the eastern Ural Mountains of the Soviet Union. One estimate is that 272,000 people were irradiated; lakes and streams were contaminated; 7,500 people were evacuated; and some areas still are uninhabitable. The CIA knew of it immediately, but they too kept it secret. If a plutonium plant could do that much damage it would be a powerful argument for not building nuclear weapons.
Powerful arguments were needed, due to the fallout from the fallout from bombs and tests. Peaceful use became the mantra. Project Plowshares, initiated in 1958, conducted 27 "peaceful nuclear explosions" from 1961 until the costs as well as public pressure from unforeseen consequences ended the program in 1975. The Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission indicated Plowshares' close relationship to the increasing opposition to nuclear weapons, saying that peaceful applications of nuclear explosives would "create a climate of world opinion that is more favorable to weapons development and tests" (emphasis supplied). A Pentagon official was equally blunt, saying in 1953, "The atomic bomb will be accepted far more readily if at the same time atomic energy is being used for constructive ends." The minutes of a National Security Council in 1953 spoke of destroying the taboo associated with nuclear weapons and "dissipating" the feeling that we could not use an A-bomb.
More useful than peaceful nuclear explosions were nuclear power plants, which would produce the plutonium necessary for atomic weapons as well as legitimating them. Nuclear power plants, the daughter of the weapons program -- actually its "bad seed" --f was born and soon saw first fruit with the1979 Three Mile Island accident. Increases in cancer were found but the Columbia University study declared that the level of radiation from TMI was too low to have caused them, and the "stress" hypothesis made its first appearance as the explanation for rises in cancer. Another university study disputed this, arguing that radiation caused the increase, and since a victim suit was involved, it went to a Federal judge who ruled in favor of stress. A third, larger study found "slight" increases in cancer mortality and increased risk breast and other cancers, but found "no consistent evidence" of a "significant impact." Indeed, it would be hard to find such an impact when so many other things can cause cancer, and it is so widespread. Indeed, since stress can cause it, there is ample ambiguity that can be mobilized to defend nuclear power plants.
Ambiguity was mobilized by the Soviet Union after the 1987 Chernobyl disaster. Medical studies by Russian scientists were suppressed, and doctors were told not to use the designation of leukemia in health reports. Only after a few years had elapsed did any serious studies acknowledge that the radiation was serious. The Soviet Union forcefully argued that the large drops in life expectancy in the affected areas were due to not just stress, but lifestyle changes. The International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), charged with both promoting nuclear power and helping make it safe, agreed, and mentioned such things as obesity, smoking, and even unprotected sex, arguing that the affected population should not be treated as "victims" but as "survivors." The count of premature deaths has varied widely, ranging from 4,000 in the contaminated areas of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia from UN agencies, while Greenpeace puts it at 200,000. We also have the controversial worldwide estimate of 985,000 from Russian scientists with access to thousands of publications from the affected regions.
Even when nuclear power plants are running normally they are expected to release some radiation, but so little as to be harmless. Numerous studies have now challenged that. When eight U.S. nuclear plants in the U.S. were closed in 1987 they provided the opportunity for a field test. Two years later strontium-90 levels in local milk declined sharply, as did birth defects and death rates of infants within 40 miles of the plants. A 2007 study of all German nuclear power plants saw childhood leukemia for children living less than 3 miles from the plants more than double, but the researchers held that the plants could not cause it because their radiation levels were so low. Similar results were found for a French study, with a similar conclusion; it could not be low-level radiation, though they had no other explanation. A meta-study published in 2007 of 136 reactor sites in seven countries, extended to include children up to age 9, found childhood leukemia increases of 14 percent to 21 percent.
Epidemiological studies of children and adults living near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant will face the same obstacles as earlier studies. About 40 percent of the aging population of Japan will die of some form of cancer; how can one be sure it was not caused by one of the multiple other causes? It took decades for the effects of the atomic bombs and Chernobyl to clearly emblazon the word "CANCER" on these events. Almost all scientists finally agree that the dose effects are linear, that is, any radiation added to natural background radiation, even low-levels of radiation, is harmful. But how harmful?
University professors have declared that the health effects of Fukushima are "negligible," will cause "close to no deaths," and that much of the damage was "really psychological." Extensive and expensive follow-up on citizens from the Fukushima area, the experts say, is not worth it. There is doubt a direct link will ever be definitively made, one expert said. The head of the U.S. National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, said: "There's no opportunity for conducting epidemiological studies that have any chance of success....The doses are just too low." We have heard this in 1945, at TMi, at Chernobyl, and for normally running power plants. It is surprising that respected scientists refuse to make another test of such an important null hypothesis: that there are no discernible effects of low-level radiation.
Not surprisingly, a nuclear power trade group announced shortly after the March, 2011 meltdown at Fukushima (the meltdown started with the earthquake, well before the tsunami hit), that "no health effects are expected" as a result of the events. UN agencies agree with them and the U.S. Council. The leading UN organization on the effects of radiation concluded "Radiation exposure following the nuclear accident at Fukushima-Daiichi did not cause any immediate health effects. It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public and the vast majority of workers." The World Health Organization stated that while people in the United States receive about 6.5 millisieverts per year from sources including background radiation and medical procedures, only two Japanese communities had effective dose rates of 10 to 50 millisieverts, a bit more than normal.
However, other data contradict the WHO and other UN agencies. The Japanese science and technology ministry (MEXT) indicated that a child in one community would have an exposure 100 times the natural background radiation in Japan, rather than a bit more than normal. A hospital reported that more than half of the 527 children examined six months after the disaster had internal exposure to cesium-137, an isotope that poses great risk to human health. A French radiological institute found ambient dose rates 20 to 40 times that of background radiation and in the most contaminated areas the rates were even 10 times those elevated dose rates. The Institute predicts and excess cancer rate of 2 percent in the first year alone. Experts not associated with the nuclear industry or the UN agencies currently have estimated from 1,000 to 3,000 cancer deaths. Nearly two years after the disaster the WHO was still declaring that any increase in human disease "is likely to remain below detectable levels." (It is worth noting that the WHO still only releases reports on radiation impacts in consultation with the International Atomic Energy Agency.)
In March 2013, the Fukushima Prefecture Health Management Survey reported examining 133,000 children using new, highly sensitive ultrasound equipment. The survey found that 41 percent of the children examined had cysts of up to 2 centimeters in size and lumps measuring up to 5 millimeters on their thyroid glands, presumably from inhaled and ingested radioactive iodine. However, as we might expect from our chronicle, the survey found no cause for alarm because the cysts and lumps were too small to warrant further examination. The defense ministry also conducted an ultrasound examination of children from three other prefectures distant from Fukushima and found somewhat higher percentages of small cysts and lumps, adding to the argument that radiation was not the cause. But others point out that radiation effects would not be expected to be limited to what is designated as the contaminated area; that these cysts and lumps, signs of possible thyroid cancer, have appeared alarmingly soon after exposure; that they should be followed up since it takes a few years for cancer to show up and thyroid cancer is rare in children; and that a control group far from Japan should be tested with the same ultrasound technics.
The denial that Fukushima has any significant health impacts echoes the denials of the atomic bomb effects in 1945; the secrecy surrounding Windscale and Chelyabinsk; the studies suggesting that the fallout from Three Mile Island was, in fact, serious; and the multiple denials regarding Chernobyl (that it happened, that it was serious, and that it is still serious).
As of June, 2013, according to a report in The Japan Times, 12 of 175,499 children tested had tested positive for possible thyroid cancer, and 15 more were deemed at high risk of developing the disease. For a disease that is rare, this is high number. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is still trying to get us to ignore the bad seed. June 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy granted $1.7 million to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to address the "difficulties in gaining the broad social acceptance" of nuclear power.
Perrow, Charles. 2013. "Nuclear denial: From Hiroshima to Fukushima." Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 69(5):56-67.