Mar 26, 2011
By Benjamin K. Sovacool
A SLEW of recent articles have mentioned how the radioactive plume from the struggling Fukushima reactors in Japan will have little to no health impact on those living in the United States (and elsewhere, outside of the Fukushima prefecture).
But how much do we know about the effects of low-level radiation? And what are some of the medical and health risks associated with nuclear power?
Reactors like those in Japan and the United States create more than 100 dangerously radioactive chemicals, including strontium-90, iodine-131 and cesium-137, the same toxins found in the fallout from nuclear weapons.
Some of these contaminants, such as strontium-90, remain radioactive for 600 years, concentrate in the food chain, are tasteless, odourless and invisible, and have been found in the teeth of babies living near nuclear facilities. Strontium-90 mimics milk as it enters the body and concentrates in bones and lactating breasts to cause bone cancer, leukaemia and breast cancer. Babies and children are 10 to 20 times more susceptible to its carcinogenic effects than adults.
Though they are contested, some of the medical and epidemiological studies assessing nuclear power, radiation and health are shocking, to say the least. One medical study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that those living within 10km of the La Hague nuclear reprocessing plant in north-west France had a sevenfold increase in risk to the incidence of childhood leukaemia.
[Interesting that he highlighted that this was from a peer-reviewed journal]
A similar study headed by University College Dublin researchers found twice as much plutonium in the teeth of children living near the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in Britain than in those farther away.
[So how much is twice as much? 2 parts per million is twice as much as 1 part per million. And this is study was not peer-reviewed?]
Even the accident at Three Mile Island (TMI) is not as benign as it originally appeared. One comprehensive study conducted by the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina divided the 16km area around TMI into 69 study tracts, and then assigned radiation dose estimates and correlated them with incidences of leukaemia, lung cancer, and all other types of cancer. The study found that residents living around TMI had abnormally high rates for all three.
[Note: not peer-reviewed (at least not indicated as such). and instead of measuring radiation, the dose were estimates. Such rigorous scientific method!]
Another reason such estimates may be conservative is that new medical evidence suggests that there may be no such thing as 'safe' exposure to radiation. One study of 15 countries that monitored 407,391 workers for external radiation exposure published in the British Medical Journal, with a total follow-up of 5.2 million person years, found that even low doses could trigger high rates of cancer.
Put another way, there is no safe threshold at which the human body can tolerate the unnatural levels of radiation produced by nuclear reactors and their components.
One can actually draw from existing studies to loosely quantify the health risk per nuclear reactor. Evidence from the US, home to 104 operating nuclear reactors at 65 sites, has documented elevated rates of leukaemia and brain cancers at nuclear power plants.
Mr Joseph Mangano from the Radiation and Public Health Project and his colleagues estimate that roughly 18,000 fewer infant deaths and 6,000 fewer childhood cancers will occur over a period of 20 years if all reactors in the US were closed - or that each nuclear plant was associated with 175 deaths and 58 cancers.
Applied globally, and the world's existing 432 reactors could cause 75,600 deaths and 25,056 cancers every 20 years.
[Wow! 75,600 deaths! In 20 years! Worldwide! I mean compared to the number of people killed by vehicles everyday! Or coal miners! Or air pollution. Or the seasonal flu. The numbers are underwhelming!]
To be fair, there are other medical studies that have shown no significant health risk from nuclear power plants and their facilities. Furthermore, the results of the studies above have been fiercely attacked by nuclear industry representatives.
[Nice of him to be fair and just put one line to indicate that the conclusions are not unanimously accepted as final.]
Yet if their frightening conclusions are true, they imply that nuclear power plants are unsafe, and pose significant medical risk, even when they operate normally. The plume currently circulating through the West Coast of the US may not be harmful, but the reactors that produced it certainly appear to be.
The writer is a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
[So IF the frightening conclusions are true...? I think the point of this article is supposed to argue the "IF" is true, not conclude that it is still an "IF".]