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Clinging to the Nuclear Option

The national organization Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), committed to protecting public health, demands the de-commissioning of all currently operating nuclear plants in the US and urges members of Congress to refuse to subsidize the construction of new ones with guaranteed loans and liability insurance premiums. Why? Here is the scientific/common sense justification for such an uncompromising position:

1. After the accident at the Three Mile Island (TMI) plant, the official Columbia U. study found no increased health effects among the surrounding population, consistent with the officially accepted exposure levels as estimated by the TMI plant operators and applying the internationally accepted radiation risk factors, derived from the long-term follow-up of the externally exposed A-bomb survivors. Contradicting these findings, a subsequent study by Wing et al

found statistically significant excess cancers. These cancers have affected the lives of real persons. Yet, Wing’s results were angrily dismissed by the radiation establishment and government health agencies because risk assessments, based on “current radiological science,” precluded that the officially accepted, very low levels of population exposures (doses) released from the TMI reactor could induce the observed excess cancers. The possibility that combining flawed dose estimates with flawed risk models could predict flawed numbers of cancers that might be off by several orders of magnitude (factors of ten), was never considered by the Columbia U. investigators.

Following a tradition illustrated nearly 400 years ago by Gallileo’s fate, accepted beliefs and supporting theoretical models, combined with vested interests, trumped observation. Questioning assumptions in adopted radiobiological models and radiation risk assessments would be equivalent to heresy.

2. All over the former Soviet Union increased incidence of cancers and a multiplicity of other serious health detriment, associated with varying levels of environmental radioactivity from the Chernobyl disaster, have been documented by clinical reports and public health statistics. Until recently, the majority of those studies, however, could only be published in Russian scientific/medical journals and these were arrogantly ignored by the Western radiation health establishment. Instead, the nuclear technology promoting United Nation’s (UN) agency: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)  (the World Health Organization (WHO) is not permitted to conduct independent studies on radiation health) published report after report with estimated numbers of Chernobyl radiation victims that are orders of magnitude smaller than those observed and documented in the recently published compendium of the Russian data in English (Yablokov et al., Annals of the NY Academy of Sciences, 2009, usefully summarized by the German equivalent of PSR). The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation  (UNSCEAR) (and the WHO) had accepted IAEA assertions of very low numbers of radiation victims, purportedly based on the world’s most reliable current radiobiological and radiation risk models. Thus, mainstream radiation health scientists proclaim that the variously documented large numbers of radiation-associated health effects after the Chernobyl catastrophe in the former Soviet Union “cannot be caused” by radiation, rather they must be the result of psychosomatic traumas.

Similarly, in far away Western European countries for which UNSCEAR had estimated very low fallout doses after the Chernobyl explosion, a multitude of excess health effects have been reported in refereed medical/scientific journals, such as neo-natal mortality, Down’s syndrome or lowering of child IQ. However, mainstream radiation regulating and protection agencies, quoting the IAEA/WHO reports, deny any causal relationship between Chernobyl fallout and most of those observations. Vested political and financial interests, cherished theoretical models, mixed with intolerable arrogance, again trump reality.

3. Several years ago, the German government commissioned a team of prestigious government-employed health scientists to design a state-of-the-art study of children <5 years who lived in the proximity of any of the 16 German normally operating nuclear power reactors. Presumably, the study was meant to assuage with maximum credibility the continuing citizens’ concerns about observed childhood leukemia clusters around some of these reactors. Therefore, to my knowledge, it is the only government-sponsored radiation study ever that was designed with full input from and oversight by an independent scientific commission, including several members who had publicly supported the citizens’ concerns.  Contrary to their expectations, the government scientists found irrefutable evidence that for <5 year old children there exists an association between residence within 10 km of any of these reactors and a more than doubling of risk for contracting leukemia or other cancers. This amazing finding caused quite a stir in the German media (and remains underreported and unacknowledged in the US), but it has never been credibly refuted. Some defensive (“ecologic”) studies with negative outcomes around power reactors in France and England claim to have cast doubt on the German results, but critical analysis of their data shows them to lack the necessary statistical power (i.e. sensitivity to detect an effect) to invalidate the German findings. Desperate for an “out,” the government researchers, the health agencies involved and the German government then declared these excess cases of early childhood leukemia and cancers in the proximity of nuclear plants to be “inexplicable” at this time. They claim that according to “currently accepted radiobiological models” the initiation of these excess malignancies would require levels of radioactive emissions to be three orders of magnitude larger (1,000 times) than what the reactor operators claimed to have been released.  However, (1) officially accepted radiation risk factors do not take into account the extreme radio-sensitivity of the developing fetus and of very young children  (R.H. Nussbaum and I. Fairlie).

Also, (2) the officially assumed levels of radioactive emissions ignored, e.g., large releases of radioactive Noble Gases (e.g. Krypton) and of Tritium (radioactive hydrogen). Both of these radioisotopes can easily enter the human body via the food chain. Equally important is the fact (3) that the traditional measure of radiation exposure, the concept of dose (absorbed energy averaged over a unit mass of exposed human tissue), which is a fundamental macroscopic concept in current radiation risk estimates, is clearly inadequate to describe a variety of known injurious microscopic cellular/molecular mechanisms that can be triggered, in particular, by internally lodged radioactivity.

Those who deny or deceptively play down the catastrophic threats to public health from all phases of the nuclear power cycle, from mining to the lack of any proven solution to permanent and safe disposal of very long-term deadly spent nuclear fuel, recklessly ignore the medical/scientific lessons we should have learned from current and previous nuclear accidents. The international radiation health science establishments, such as IAEA or ICRP, many of whose members are solidly enmeshed with nuclear arms and nuclear energy production, have for decades deliberately ignored observed detriment from radioactive emissions. Their estimates of the public health impact from environmental radioactivity are based on partially outdated and flawed theoretical models that had been developed decades ago to quantify the effects of exposures to external radiation, such as those suffered by the Japanese A-bomb survivors. In agencies that are mandated to protect public health a mindset that denies reality is intolerable.

In addition to unacceptable long lasting effects on public health, even if operating normally (see section 3), nuclear energy technology can only be financed by taxpayers worldwide because private capital considers it too risky and refuses to underwrite it. The nuclear power industry holds citizens hostage to protect its profits. The industry’s safety claims and its new marketing gimmick of modular design reactors are largely deceptive, since it has nothing to offer in terms of safe disposal of spent nuclear fuel rods.

It is particularly tragic that the current Japanese population is again a study cohort for the devastating effects of a very different mix of environmental radioactive contamination.

Rudi H. Nussbaum is a Professor emeritus of Physics and Environmental Sciences at Portland State University.

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