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U.N. Downplays Health Effects of Nuclear Radiation

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 26 2013 (IPS) - The United Nations has come under criticism from medical experts and members of civil society for what these critics consider inaccurate statements about the effects of lingering radioactivity on local populations.

Ana Pancenko, one of the many Ukrainian children affected by the Chernobyl disaster. Credit: José Luis Baños/IPS

Ana Pancenko, one of the many Ukrainian children affected by the Chernobyl disaster. Credit: José Luis Baños/IPS

Scientists and doctors met with top U.N. officials last week to discuss the effects of radioactivity in Japan and Ukraine, and the U.N. has enlisted several of its agencies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), to address the matter.

In May, UNSCEAR stated that radiation exposure following the 2011 Fukushima-Daichii nuclear disaster in Japan poses “no immediate health risks” and that long-term health risks are “unlikely”.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Helen Caldicott, an Australian doctor and dissident, in response to the UNSCEAR report.

“There have been health effects. A lot of people have experienced acute radiation illness, including bleeding noses, hair loss, nausea and diarrhoea,” she told IPS.

The UNSCEAR report followed a February WHO report, which also predicted low health risks and normal cancer rates in Japan after the Fukushima disaster, even while noting that long-term studies are still needed. WHO warned instead of resulting psychosocial damage to the population.

Asked why UNSCEAR and WHO released such statements if they were medically inaccurate, Caldicott referred to a 1959 WHO-IAEA agreement that gives the IAEA – an organisation that promotes nuclear power – oversight when researching nuclear accidents.

“The WHO is a handmaiden to the IAEA,” said Caldicott, who engaged in a 2011 debate on the subject with The Guardian’s George Monbiot. Monbiot had argued that nuclear plants are a viable alternative to coal plants. 

"A lot of people have experienced acute radiation illness, including bleeding noses, hair loss, nausea and diarrhoea."
-- Helen Caldicott

“It’s a scandal which has not really been exposed in general literature and to the public,” said Caldicott of the WHO-IAEA agreement.

When the U.N. General Assembly proclaimed 2006-2016 the “Decade of Recovery and Sustainable Development of the Affected Regions”, it committed to a “development approach” to redress the areas affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear fallout in the former Soviet Union.

The U.N.’s action plan was based on scientific studies from the 2005 Chernobyl Forum, which brought member states Belarus, Russia and Ukraine together with experts from the IAEA and seven of the world’s most influential development agencies, including the World Bank Group, WHO and UNSCEAR.

The Chernobyl Forum noted that the Chernobyl nuclear accident was a “low-dose event”. It stated, “The vast majority of people living in contaminated areas are in fact highly unlikely to experience negative health effects from radiation exposure and can safely raise families where they are today.”

Caldicott said of WHO, “They didn’t do any studies of Chernobyl, they just did estimates.” She cited a 2009 report by the New York Academy of Sciences, which painted a different picture.

Radiation from uranium mining

The IAEA promotes “safe, responsible development of uranium resources”, the raw materials used to fuel nuclear reactors and build nuclear bombs.

For Ashish Birulee, a Ho tribal resident of Jadugoda, India, safe uranium mining in his community is far from reality, and the health effects of radiation are as clear as the photographs he has taken to document them.

Birulee, a student and photojournalist, lives next to a tailings dam, filled with radioactive waste from a uranium purification plant operated by the Uranium Corporation of India.

“Lung cancer, skin cancer, tumours, congenital deformities, down syndrome, mental retardation, megacephaly, sterility, infertility in married couples, thalassemia [and] rare birth defects like Gastroschisis [are] common in the area,” he told IPS.

“We are like guinea pigs here,” he said, citing government negligence on the matter. “I’m experiencing everyday radiation exposure and also witnessing how my people are suffering.”

Radiation from nuclear tests

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union conducted 456 nuclear tests at the Semipalatinsk test site in present day Kazakhstan.

“Based on information collected during the missions and subsequent research, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that most of the area has little or no residual radioactivity directly attributed to nuclear tests in Kazakhstan,” according to the IAEA.

But the IAEA narrative differs from those who live around Semipalatinsk. According to the preparatory committee for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO),”A number of genetic defects and illnesses in the region, ranging from cancers to impotency to birth defects and other deformities, have been attributed to nuclear testing.”

“There is even a museum of mutations at the regional medical institute in Semey, the largest city near the old nuclear testing site,” it noted.

“What radiation does – gamma, alpha or beta – is it either kills the cell or changes the biochemistry of the DNA molecule,” Caldicott, who has worked on nuclear issues for 43 years, explained. “One day [the cell] will start to divide by mitosis in an unregulated way, producing literally trillions and trillions of [mutated] cells, and that’s a cancer,” she said.

“You don’t know you’ve been exposed to radiation,” Caldicott pointed out. “You can’t taste or see radioactive elements in the food, and when the cancer develops, of course it doesn’t denote its origin.”

Fukushima on the Hudson

Meanwhile, two nuclear plants at Indian Point Energy Centre – just 60 kilometres upriver from U.N. headquarters in New York – are fighting for new licences, making the health and radiation question more relevant to diplomats from the 193 U.N. member states who live and work in the area.

Critics have dubbed Indian Point, which sits on two fault lines, as “Fukushima on the Hudson”, in reference to the nuclear disaster in Japan that was sparked by an earthquake and a tsunami.

However, there are a few differences between Fukushima and Indian Point. “Fukushima was directly over the ocean, and the winds were favourable. They were blowing most of the radiation out to sea,” said Manna Jo Greene, environmental director for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, noting that the remaining radiation was still disastrous.

But the winds in New York would blow plumes of radiation from north to south and from east to west. “There are 20 million people living within [100 kilometres], and there are 9 million people between Indian Point and the nearest ocean,” Greene told IPS.

“If there was a problem at Indian Point,” she added, “there’s a very good chance that the radiation could move in a southeasterly direction and expose millions of people to radiation before it blew out to sea.”

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  • downwinder

    The item below is a transcript of an editorial written in 1952 by T Keith Glennan, then Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission.

    The editorial makes unmistakably clear that the birth of the nuclear electricity program was necessarily based on the production of plutonium for bombs. One key sentences states that:

    ” … there now exists a basis for the creation of semirisk industrial
    nuclear- power enterprise while the military demand for plutonium
    Semirisk meant subsidised.

    Ironically, the editorial, toward its conclusion, says:
    “A multitude of other factors also must be considered, such as preferential position, adequate security measures, suitable safety precautions, public liability, and international relations. None of these problems admits to an easy solution.. If such were the case, this whole matter would have been solved long ago because many able minds have thought long and hard on these points.”

    The problem of nuclear waste is not even mentioned.
    The editorial can be found in “Nuclear Science and Technology”. Volume 2 No 3, published (then) 3 times a year by the (then) United States Atomic Energy Commission.

    Meanwhile, renewable energy and energy efficiency measures have become far more acceptable and economically competitive options than an industry which builds giant radioactive boilers – which no-one wants in their backyard, which are disasters begging to happen in an era of terrorist threats, which would cause vast downwind contamination in the event of being successfully targeted in a nuclear exchange – a scenario that would make Fukushima’s aftermath look like a glass of spilt milk
    The article below makes very clear how nuclear electricity has always contributed to the risk of nuclear war, from the very beginning to the very perilous present.

    === Glennan, T. K — Editorial — Reactor Science and Technology Vol 2
    No 3 — October 1952 ======

    “For those of us who look forward to the day when American industry will no longer be the hired hand of government in atomic energy affairs but will assume a role of equal responsibility this issue of Reactor Science and Technology strikes a hopeful note. I would prefer to use the stronger adjective promising, but I fear it would ill serve the future progress of the industrial participation program to appear overly optimistic at this stage. Formidable problems must be overcome before the seeds already sewn can bear fruit. Yet when we compare these problems to those which have been solved thus far in the atomic energy program, we have reason to believe that given faith, time, sustained effort, money and patience, the goal of industrial nuclear power can be achieved.

    The Atomic Energy Commission and its staff, during its early stewardship of the program, speculated at length on ways of bringing industry into the atomic energy picture on a more realistic basis, consistent with our normal competitive private enterprise economy. It remained however for Dr. Charles A Thomas, then Executive Vice-President of Monsanto Chemical Co., to crystallize this thought into a definite, concrete proposal. On June 20, 1950, Dr. Thomas sent the Commission a letter, stating that he believed the time was ripe for industry, with its own capital, to design, construct and operate reactors for the production of plutonium and power. This suggestion was based on the following assumptions: that the long-term military requirements for plutonium exceeded the then existing and planned production facilities; that it would be desirable to reduce the cost of existing and planned production facilities; that it would be desirable to reduce the cost of this metal to the government; that it would likewise be desirable to make use of the large quantities of heat attending the production of plutonium and not being utilized under existing conditions; and, finally, that the most nearly practicable use of such heat would be for the generation of useful quantities of electric power. It was Dr. Thomas’s contention that the program he envisaged would accomplish these objectives and, at the same time, would offer industry an opportunity to contribute to the reactor program directly and to earn a profit which could be related to the effort put forth.
    Meantime a second proposal, rather similar in objective to the Monsanto approach, had been received from the officers of the Dow Chemical Co. and the Detroit Edison Company. The Commission addressed itself to a serious consideration of these suggestions and arrived at a basis on which it was willing to support the study phase of such programs. A public announcement was issued by the Commission on Jan 28, 1951, setting forth the general policy which had guided the consideration of these propositions and opening the door for further proposals from qualified groups. It was emphasized that in agreeing to such studies the Commission was not entering into any commitment to continue beyond the study phase. This public notice elicited further interest, and on May 16, 1951, it was announced that a maximum of four industrial study groups would be considered for the initial program. By early June agreements had been signed with the four groups, and the studies which are digested in the following pages had been set in motion. A maximum period of one year was permitted for the study. Under terms of the agreement, the contracting parties were to carry out a survey and study of the Commission’s reactor development activities: (1) to determine the engineering feasibility of their designing, constructing and operating a materials- and power- producing reactor; (2) to examine the economic and technical aspects of building this reactor in the next few years; (3) to determine the research and development work needed, if any, before such a reactor project could be undertaken; and (4) to offer recommendations in a report to the Commission concerning such a reactor project and industry’s role in undertaking it and carrying it out. So much for the background involved. What do these studies show?

    It would be futile in this space to attempt an assessment of the conclusions reached. However a few points do seem to warrant comment. First, the sophistication and engineering excellence of these reports stand as a real tribute to the scientists and engineers associated with the Commission’s reactor program. Because of their efforts, a wealth of technological data was available, enabling the study groups to move rapidly on their assignment.

    Second, all parties concur in the belief that dual- purpose reactors are technically feasible and could be operated in such a fashion that the power credit would reduce the cost of plutonium by a considerable amount. Conversely, all groups agree that no reactor could be constructed in the very near future which would be economic on the basis of power generation alone. The significance of these conclusions should not be overlooked. They imply that there now exists a basis for the creation of semirisk industrial nuclear- power enterprise while the military demand for plutonium continues. In pointing up the many paths by which one can approach this goal, it is interesting to note that each of the groups settled on a different reactor type as holding the greatest promise from the group’s particular point of view.

    As a final comment on the reports, it should be noted that all four groups wish to continue their efforts into a second phase. This would seem to represent a vote of confidence in nuclear power. Were this concept of a dual-purpose reactor devoid of substance, it hardly seems likely that all parties would continue to show interest in further association with the field.

    This now brings us to the vital question: Where do we go from here? As this journal goes to press the problem is being debated by the Commission. No final decision has been reached. Certainly the time is not yet appropriate for a final answer. The second phase of this program, although intended for prosecution at a more specific engineering level and with somewhat greater effort, will still be operating at a relatively low rate of expenditure. It is when we move into phase three, that is, make commitments for the actual design and construction of a specific reactor, that weighty financial decisions must be made. Still it is not too early to start facing these future questions. Among the more critical seem to be the following:

    1. Can and will the Commission permit private industry to construct, own and operate a dual- purpose reactor with the electric power generated therefrom to be sold and distributed by a private- investment-owned company?

    2. Can and will the Commission make available to private industry the fuel needed for the initial operation of such a reactor and give assurances that continued operation will not be interrupted or curtailed by government order?

    3. Can and will the Commission establish a price policy and a contract that will provide for the purchase of the products of a reactor in order that such projects will be economically feasible in the near future?

    4. What will be the policy of the Commission on the issue of patents and licenses?

    A multitude of other factors also must be considered, such as preferential position, adequate security measures, suitable safety precautions, public liability, and international relations. None of these problems admits to an easy solution.. If such were the case, this whole matter would have been solved long ago because many able minds have thought long and hard on these points.

    That difficulties are involved, however, cannot be used as an excuse to ignore or side-step this pressing issue. The declaration of policy in the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 places on us a responsibility that cannot be evaded. This policy states that “subject at all times to the paramount objective of assuring the common defense and security, the development and utilization of atomic energy shall, so far as practicable, be directed toward improving the public welfare, increasing the standard of living, strengthening free competition in private enterprise, and promoting world peace. It is by no means certain that “assuring the common defense and security” is completely achieved solely through the ever increasing stock piles of nuclear weapons.

    T Keith Glennan
    Atomic Energy Commission
    === other items in the issue of RS&T, from the table of contents
    Monsanto Chemical Company – Union Electric Company
    Plutonium-Power Reactor Feasability Study [page 9]

    Commonwealth Edison – Public Service Company
    Report on Power Generation Using Nuclear Energy [page 29]

    Pacific Gas and Electric Company – Bechtel Corporation
    Industrial Reactor Study [page 81]

    Dow Chemical Company – Detroit Edison Company
    Study of Materials-and Power-Producing Reactors [pp105 – 114]

    Glennan, T. K — Editorial — Reactor Science and Technology Vol 2 No 3 — October 1952

  • NwYk

    Dr. Caldicott is a hero. A true humanitarian.
    If you still don’t understand the dangers of nuclear energy, etc., then go to the highly recommended website to learn more:
    ENENEWS (dot) com

  • Acme

    Dr. Caldicott is spreading propaganda, she isn’t even expert in that she is talking.

  • swissjoe

    Acme wrote; “…. is spreading propaganda”
    That is an utterly subjective statement, with no basis in reality. Worthy only as a byline in the yellow press, if the English grammer made sense.

  • wyynd

    Anyone who thinks radioactive nucleii are source of propoganda should be the first to give them a try. Do we have a volunteer?
    Dr. Caldicott is fighting murderers not political aspirants.
    Do you know what a radioactive isotopes is…what it does…?
    It kills every living thing.

  • WhatTheFlux

    The LNT, or Linear No-threshold Theory, forms the centerpiece of Dr. Caldocott’s rationale. Problem is, the LNT isn’t even a theory, it’s a hypothesis, and a goofy one at that. Here’s the “logic” of a linear no-threshold calculation of risk applied to water:

    Fact: Drinking 2 gallons of water in one sitting will kill 100% of the people who do it. Therefore:

    1) drinking 1 gallon will kill 50%

    2) drinking 1 quart will kill 12.5%

    3) Drinking a shot glass of water will kill 0.58% (there are 21.33 shots in a quart.)

    100mSv/year is the threshold of safe radiation exposure, not zero.
    And after all these years, UNSCEAR finally had the gumption to stand up and say so.

    Bottom line: If Dr. Caldicott and her supporters truly believe that there is no safe dose of radiation, they would be working tirelessly and quite loudly to evacuate Denver at once. The residents there receive a whopping 7 mSv/yr from the granite in the nearby mountains, 3X the global average dosage.

    The LNT is fear-mongering propaganda, and simply bad science.

  • WhatTheFlux

    “Do you know what a radioactive isotopes is…what it does…?
    It kills every living thing.”

    OMG! So THAT’S why every single person who has ever had radiation therapy has dropped dead!

    Wow… Thanks for clearing that up for us, wyynd.

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