Fukushima, Chernobyl and You

by Anna Tilman

The crippled and leaking nuclear reactors at Fukushima, Japan continue to emit radiation into the air, ocean, and probably groundwater, and the Japanese struggle to keep the fuel rods covered with water to prevent further explosions. The disaster at Fukushima, just 6 weeks prior to the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe, is a tragedy of utmost proportions.

The Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986 has caused thousands of deaths and has left behind a highly radioactive uninhabitable wasteland. Even far to the west, in areas of England, to this day farm produce has to be tested because the sheep accumulate radioactive cesium that came from Chernobyl.One forest fire in 1992 blew carcinogenic radioactive particles 500 kilometres away.  

The studies of actual health impacts are deeply flawed and mired in controversy. International agencies downplay the impact but Ukrainian government agencies say that hundreds of thousands of people, especially children, are suffering health effects. As the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan voiced:

"The exact number of victims can never be known. But three million children demanding treatment until 2016 and earlier represents the number of those who can be seriously ill … their future life will be deformed by it, as well as their childhood. Many will die prematurely."

The cement sarcophagus built to cover the stricken reactor has been crumbling for years. An international fund has dedicated over $1.5 billion to build a massive new steel covering which is supposed to last for 100 years. But this work has yet to begin. At this point in time, the entire disaster site has not been investigated, and groundwater may be threatened by the molten core.

We do not yet know the extent or severity of the ultimate effects of radiation exposure on the population near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station and further afield in Japan, or what the effects will be on future generations. We do know that essential food items (milk and produce), and seafood are contaminated with radioactive substances.

The radioactive plume in the air and oceans has extended well beyond Japan, to areas in North America, extending from BC to Newfoundland. And the global burden of radioactivity has increased forever.

Public Health and Safety – Assignment of Risk  

Ionizing radiation is powerful enough to initiate and promote cancer. Radiation damage can affect any part of a cell, and can interfere with many cellular processes, like a "madman loose in the library." It causes damage to the genetic material of the cell, which can lead to cancer, non-cancerous tumours, birth defects, hereditary illness, and reduced fertility. It also causes other illnesses, including heart disease and stroke, immune suppression, and diabetes.

All radioactive material that comes out of a reactor produces ionizing radiation. How long this material continues to produce ionizing radiation depends on the half-life.

Radioactive substances are dangerous in minute quantities. For example, even one particle of plutonium ingested into the lung can cause lung cancer.

From a health perspective, the maximum safe dose of any ionizing radiation is zero. This means there is no safe level of exposure to ionizing radiation. Any value described as a "safe" dose is based on the probability that a given exposure will result in an excess number of fatal cancers and does not take into account other radiation-related health effects. In fact, the current "safe" level of exposure for nuclear workers is based on the expectation that 3.2 excess cases of fatal cancer per 100 workers would be generated over a 40-year career.

(These so-called "safe" doses are expressed in milliSieverts (mSv). For example, for Nuclear Energy Workers, this dose is 100 mSv per year over a five year period, while for "general public", it is one mSv per year).

Increasing the global burden of radioactivity increases the incidence of all health effects, including cancer. It may not be possible to directly attribute radiation exposure to illnesses, but given a large enough population exposed to low doses of radiation, over time, there will be predictable increases in cancer, leukemia, and genetically damaged offspring, as well as other radiation-related diseases.

Caution On Food Intake

The most vulnerable to harm from radiation are pregnant women, infants and small children. For them, the main food items to be concerned with are drinking water, leafy vegetables, and milk products.

It is recommended that distilled  water from a reliable source should be used; leafy vegetable intake be limited, and powdered milk be used as a substitute for milk.

It is difficult to advise how long or to what degree these cautionary measures should be followed. Much depends on geographic location, wind patterns, rainfall levels and most importantly, on events unfolding in Japan over the next months and years. What few measurements are publicly available in Canada have not indicated major contamination, but monitoring is spotty and public information is scant.

Unfortunately, each nuclear disaster contributes to elevating the global pool of radiation for a very long time, effectively forever. At the same time, we are exposed to many other toxic chemicals in many ways, for example, mercury in fish.  Future generations will bear the largest burden from our chemical and nuclear industries.

Future Generations

A single radionuclide can cause a lethal cancer, and damage to DNA that may be carried to future generations. This is why there is no safe dose of any radionuclide. Human exposure, measured in Sieverts, estimates the probability that a given exposure will result in a fatal cancer. This acknowledges that human casualties are an inevitable result of releasing radionuclides into the environment, and merely strives to keep these casualties at an "acceptable" or "reasonable" level.

But no level of casualties is "acceptable" or "reasonable" to a population that has not given the informed consent that scientific ethics require, nor is even a single casualty "acceptable" to the unfortunate individual and family that suffer it.

Choosing to expand nuclear technology, and thus increase the global burden of radioactivity and radioactive waste, is like determining that it is acceptable that some people are expendable, now and in the future. Why would any country pursue the most dangerous way of producing steam to generate electricity, only to face the very real possibility of burdening future generations with lethal radioactive waste that lasts essentially forever? 

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Toxics researcher Anna Tilman has a background (M.A.) in Medical Biophysics (University of Toronto) and is a Board member of the International Institute of Concern for Public Health (IICPH). See also "The Yellowcake Trail" series found in our Favorite Feature Articles box on the right hand side of our homepage which tracks all aspects of uranium in Canada through its eighty-year history.

[From Watershed Sentinel Summer Issue, 2011]

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