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Less than one lifetime: Eyewitness to nuclear development, from Hunters Point to Chernobyl and Fukushima, issues a warning

April 17, 2015

by Janette D. Sherman, M.D.           

While sorting through papers, correspondence, news clippings, records etc., I realized that nuclear bomb and nuclear power development has occurred within my lifetime.

It was July 16, 1945, when Trinity, the first atomic bomb, was detonated at Alamogordo nuclear site in New Mexico, followed by the uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima and the plutonium bomb on Nagasaki in August.

The Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard placed prisoners and others in a bomb shelter during exercises simulating a nuclear attack. – Photo courtesy TimePix

The Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard placed prisoners and others in a bomb shelter during exercises simulating a nuclear attack. – Photo courtesy TimePix

Just seven years later, in 1952, after graduating from college with a bachelor degree in biology and chemistry, I was hired by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC, now NRC, Nuclear Regulatory Commission) as a radiological monitor at the “Rad Lab,” University of California in Berkeley. Even though I wrote human in the space for race, I passed a security clearance test, but why not? How much trouble can one get into when you are just 22 years old?

For the first two weeks after I was hired, I was assigned to read a stack of books on radiation physics. I had taken classes in biology and chemistry but only a year of physics, and it did not include anything labeled nuclear. After I was hired, I carried Geiger and alpha counters and measured levels of radiation in laboratories, around the Cyclotron, in various buildings on the university campus, and at a local hospital.

This era was early in the use of radioactive isotopes to measure biological processes. Professor Melvin Calvin, his laboratory glowing with light, won his Nobel Prize for his work on photosynthesis at the Rad Lab using radioactive isotopes.

I remember monitoring a building where John Gofman isolated 1.2 miligrams of plutonium, the largest amount in the world at that time. It was discovered that when plutonium emits alpha particles, there is a “kick back” and that plutonium had crept out of the laboratories and contaminated the stairs as far as the entrance to the building.

I don’t know if the building is still standing or if anyone found a way to contain the relentless creep of plutonium, a deadly element with a half-life of 25,000 years. We know that plutonium is released from bomb tests and nuclear power plants and that a single atom, ingested or inhaled, can radiate nearby living cells and initiate cancer and birth defects.

While sorting through papers, correspondence, news clippings, records etc., I realized that nuclear bomb and nuclear power development has occurred within my lifetime.

I had never heard of polycythemia vera (a red cell leukemia), but the Rad Lab attracted a number of patients who were treated with radioactive phosphorus (P-32) via the University-AEC program. On one occasion I accompanied Dr. Joseph Hamilton and his team to a hospital near the university where radioactive gold was injected into a woman’s abdomen to treat her ovarian cancer.

My Geiger counter needle was off the scale as I was standing in the doorway. I have no idea if these patients were healed or not.

Significant criticism of Dr. Hamilton’s and other experiments upon humans, using plutonium and other radioisotopes, is documented in Eileen Welsome’s book, “The Plutonium Files.” It is chilling reading.

It is hoped that passage of laws in the U.S. requiring informed consent has stopped such exposures. Unfortunately, those working on “cleaning up” Chernobyl and Fukushima and those living downstream from the bomb and nuclear power plant emissions have not been afforded such consent.

While working at the university “Rad Lab,” I was offered a research job at the U.S. Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, located at Hunters Point in San Francisco. Hunters Point was the destination of ships that had been used in the Marshall Islands nuclear tests and contaminated by radioactive fallout. I think I started as a GS-5, low on the pay scale, but my name was included on two publications.

The Shipyard, undergoing over $700 million in cleanup of radiological and toxic contamination since the early 1990s, is still extensively radiologically impacted in areas slated for residential and commercial development, as shown in this 2008 Navy graphic.

The Shipyard, undergoing over $700 million in cleanup of radiological and toxic contamination since the early 1990s, is still extensively radiologically impacted in areas slated for residential and commercial development, as shown in this 2008 Navy graphic.

It was grizzly work. We received some animals from the Nevada test site, but basically we studied the effects of radiation and thermal burns. We used a depilatory to remove the hair from rats, which were then given various levels of x-ray radiation, but the hardest aspect was when they were anesthetized and then burned over various areas of their bodies, using a powerful searchlight.

The stench was awful, and the animals died in misery. That was in 1954, and there was no doubt in my mind, and certainly not in the minds of people with whom I worked, that an atomic bomb means painful and terrible suffering and death. In addition to the radioactivity that cannot be seen, heard, smelled or tasted, the heat, powerful light, sound and blast brings devastation.

I liked laboratory research and loved library research as when one of the professors sent me there to find a way to measure strontium and calcium in the presence of one another. Now that I understand the link between the uptake of radioactive strontium (Sr-90) in place of calcium, I wonder if that research (done in the late 1950s) was pertinent to bomb testing. As could be predicted, Sr-90 is deposited in teeth and bones of the fetus and young children and linked by various researchers to leukemia.

Off and on, I worked for my family physician when his nurse needed time off. He urged me to apply to medical school. I wanted to continue in laboratory research, but professional advancement seemed hopeless.

I took the medical school exam and was certain that I had failed “directions.” It was the first time that I had taken an exam that was not a written essay exam and answering A, B or C if 1, 3 and 5 were correct, or 2 and 4 were correct, nearly threw me.

When I arrived for my interview at Wayne State University in Detroit and was asked where else had I applied, I answered, “no place.” When asked why, I said, “Because I wanted to go to Wayne.” The interviewer must have been stunned. I was naive and did not know that students applied to multiple schools.

There was no doubt in my mind that an atomic bomb means painful and terrible suffering and death.

Radiation and its effects largely disappeared from my mind from 1960 to 1969 while I was in medical school and finished my internship and residency training. Except in 1968 I was hospitalized to investigate why I had developed significant loss of weight and tachycardia.

After many tests, I was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism and treated with radioactive iodine-131. Each time I went to my physician’s office, I noticed the waiting room was usually filled with patients. A year later, my mother, who had moved from upper New York State to Detroit, was also diagnosed with hyperthyroidism. This is not a familiar disease!

It was not until years later that I learned that Fermi, the nuclear power plant located near downtown Detroit, at the east end of Lake Erie had been close to a meltdown. There was no discussion of a link at the time I was sick.

Love lavished on the children in this orphanage near Chernobyl cannot cure the terrible effects of radiation. To see a series of photos taken by this photographer in 1997, 11 years after the catastrophe, go to http://todayspictures.slate.com/inmotion/essay_chernobyl/. – Photo: ©Paul Fusco, Magnum Photos 1997

Love lavished on the children in this orphanage near Chernobyl cannot cure the terrible effects of radiation. To see a series of photos taken by this photographer in 1997, 11 years after the catastrophe, go to http://todayspictures.slate.com/inmotion/essay_chernobyl/. – Photo: ©Paul Fusco, Magnum Photos 1997

During that same period of time, the U.S. conducted nuclear bomb tests in Nevada, the Marshall Islands in the Pacific and at still other sites. France, Britain, Russia, India and Pakistan also conducted bomb tests and built nuclear power plants.

After a trip to Hawaii, I decided I wanted to spend more time there, so I passed the Hawaii medical exam and started to work part time there, commuting about ever three months from my base in Detroit.

I examined Honolulu shipyard workers who had been exposed to asbestos, as well as a number of civilian men who had been sent to the Marshall Islands to construct facilities for the nuclear tests. As outlined in the chapter “From Bikini Island to Long Island” in my book, “Life’s Delicate Balance: Causes and Prevention of Breast Cancer,” radiation exposures were extensive.

Some time later, I was asked to examine seven or eight patients in San Francisco who had been exposed at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, where I had previously worked in the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory. It was the only time in my life that in one week, I saw three patients who had mesothelioma – each more tragic than the other.

At the deposition of one of their cases, the defense attorney questioned my using a citation from the British Medical Journal during my testimony, as he opined that an American reader would not know of the publication. When I pointed out that stamped at the top of the article were the words, “New York Public Library – Harlem Branch,” he asked no more questions.

That does not mean that any of the sick workers received compensation and, as history shows, little prevention – a situation that continues today, especially in the field of worker and environmental “protection.”

Sometime in the 1980s, I was asked to review the case of two young boys, brothers who had developed bone cancer. They lived in proximity to the Fernald uranium processing plant, located about 20 miles northwest of Cincinnati, Ohio.

The AEC had opened the plant in 1948 to fabricate uranium fuel cores by chemical and metallurgical means. The plant was known as the Feed Materials Production Center, since the uranium fuel cores it produced were the “feed” for the AEC’s plutonium production reactors, located in Oak Ridge, Tenn., Savannah River, S.C., and Hanford in Washington state.

The nuclear industry is very powerful and it exerts control of the collection – and dissemination – of information. Following the Chernobyl meltdown in the former USSR, there was a block on diagnosing illnesses as a result of exposure to radioactivity, and it was three years before health data were released.

Of the 400,000 children living near Fukushima on March 11, 2011, when the earthquake and tsunami caused the meltdown of the Dai-ichi nuclear plant, a survey in July 2012 found 36 percent with abnormal thyroid growths. – Photo: Kyodo-Reuters

Of the 400,000 children living near Fukushima on March 11, 2011, when the earthquake and tsunami caused the meltdown of the Dai-ichi nuclear plant, a survey in July 2012 found 36 percent with abnormal thyroid growths. – Photo: Kyodo-Reuters

Since Fukushima, there has been a dearth of funds for research into the effects of the on-going radioactive releases worldwide and barriers to publishing papers that look for associated effects.

Since the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, we must thank those who observed, collected and published their findings. The original Chernobyl book was published in Russian; since then it has English and Japanese editions.

In 2008, Alexey Yablokov brought me a copy of his Russian edition, which I cannot read, and said they needed an editor to put it into English, but did not have any money to pay the person. I have written two books and enjoy writing and editing, so said I would edit it, but I did not realize how long it would actually take: 14 months.

The Chernobyl Catastrophe is a story of people – many of whom don’t know they are part of it. It includes essentially all who live in the Northern Hemisphere, the path of the radioactive fallout, but some people must be recognized for what they did under not only adverse environmental conditions, but also adverse political conditions.

The senior author is Professor Yablokov, who holds two doctoral degrees – one in biology for marine mammals and a second in science for population biology – and is the author of more than 400 scientific publications and 22 books. From 1992 to 1997, he was chairman of the Interagency Committee for Ecological Security for the National Security Council of the Russian Federation, then president of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy and deputy chairman of the Council of Ecological Problems of the Russian Academy of Science and vice president of the International Union of Conservation of Nature, as well as a consultant to Russian presidents Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

The second author is Vassily Nesterenko, who at the time of the Chernobyl catastrophe was director of the Nuclear Energy Institute at the Belarus Academy of Science. He requisitioned a helicopter and flew over the burning reactor, recording some of the few measurements available.

The nuclear industry is very powerful and it exerts control of the collection – and dissemination – of information.

In 1990 he established BELRAD, the Institute of Radiation Safety, which was supported by Andrei Sakarov, the nuclear engineer and dissident, and Garry Karparov, the chess master. At BELRAD, Professor V. Nesterenko measured levels of cesium-137 and cesium-134 in some 340,000 food samples and, using whole-body counters, measured the radiation levels in the bodies of 290,000 children who lived in the most contaminated areas.

Professor Nesterenko devised a method to reduce radionuclide levels in children employing a food additive containing apple pectin. The usefulness of his research was demonstrated in double blind, placebo-controlled tests. He was the author of over 300 articles, despite failing health. Sadly he died shortly before the Chernobyl book was published in English.

The third author, Professor Alexey Nesterenko, is the son of Vassily and continues to work at BELRAD, the Institute of Radiation Safety in Minsk, Belarus.

Some whose work appears in this book and who spoke out were in peril. These included Yuri Bandazhevsky, who at the time was professor of anatomy and director of the Medical Institute in Gomel, Belarus.

“Fukushima Is Here” is spelled out by 500 people on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach on Oct. 19, 2013. – Photo: John Montgomery

“Fukushima Is Here” is spelled out by 500 people on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach on Oct. 19, 2013. – Photo: John Montgomery

Bandazhevsky determined cesium-137 levels in children’s organs, examined at autopsy. The highest accumulation of cs-137 was found in the endocrine glands, in particular the thyroid, the adrenals and the pancreas. High levels were also found in the heart, the thymus and the spleen.

Bandazhevsky also measured radioactive cesium-137 in the food supply and discovered the same adverse findings in cs-137 fed laboratory animals. He criticized the government for not monitoring the food supply and protecting children.

He was arrested in 2001, allegedly for taking bribes from students and sentenced to eight years in prison. Efforts by his wife, pediatrician Galina Bandazhevskaya, who continued his work, resulted in his parole from prison on Aug. 5, 2005. He was prohibited from leaving Belarus for five months.

Afterward the mayor of Clermont-Ferrand in France invited him to work at the university and at the hospital, to continue his work on the consequences from Chernobyl. Since 1977 Clermont-Ferrand has been linked to Gomel, where Bandazhevsky formerly worked. In France, he is notably supported by the Commission de recherche et d’information indépendantes sur la radioactivité (CRIIRAD).

By knowing the chemical family of a nuclide, one can, with reasonable certainty, predict the site of action and its effect upon living matter, plant or animal. With nearly a century of data, why do we believe that nuclear power can be safe?

The time comparable to my lifetime became more critical to me as I read an article in the April 2013 issue of Chemical Engineering News concerning the decommissioning (closure) of a nuclear power plant. The NRC allows a combination of options: “immediate dismantlement, a delay of up to 60 years before beginning dismantling, or permanent reactor entombment in which radioactive contaminants are permanently encased on-site.”

Immediate dismantlement takes decades, but 60 years! What a deal! Perhaps by then, the owner corporation will have been sold, be out of business, or have declared bankruptcy. And for those 60 years, what about security of the fuel and the cost and personnel needed for maintenance?

Chernobyl, which melted down in 1986, is still leaking and the sarcophagus being built to cover it is not finished. But the most critical site is Fukushima – so radioactive and unstable that it may never be contained.

Immediate dismantlement takes decades, but 60 years! What a deal! Perhaps by then, the owner corporation will have been sold, be out of business, or have declared bankruptcy.

If a corporation is allowed to wait 60 yeas before dismantling a reactor, where will we find the engineers and scientists to actually deal with the complexities of a reactor and the spent fuel pools to prevent massive contamination? If institutional memory is approximately a 20-year lifetime, what portends for delaying 60 years?

In 1941, the folk singer Woody Guthrie was hired by the U.S. government’s Department of the Interior to promote the benefits of building the Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams to harness the power of the Columbia River. The Grand Coulee Dam, towering 550 feet, 55 stories, from riverbed to rim, generated more electricity than any power plant in the world.

His monthly salary was $266, and in three weeks he wrote some 26 songs. Ostensibly to provide electric power and irrigation to the eastern part of Washington State, did Guthrie learn that the dams were to provide electricity to Hanford nuclear site that was under construction to produce plutonium for bombs?

“Roll on, Columbia, roll on

“Roll on, Columbia, roll on

“Your power is turning our darkness to dawn

“So roll on, Columbia, roll on.”

Janette D. Sherman, M.D.

Janette D. Sherman, M.D.

Now, more than 70 years later, the many corporations that have been paid billions of dollars have yet to contain the radioactivity leaking from Hanford. As is clear, every nuclear site is also a major industrial operation, contaminated not only with radioactive materials, but multiple toxic chemicals.

Most importantly, radioactive materials cannot be disposed of. And now, four years after the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown, radioactive materials continue to flow into the air and ocean. Given that it takes 10 half-lives for an isotope to completely decay, for sr-90 and cs-137, that will be nearly three centuries.

Courtesy of the military-industrial-governmental complex, nuclear radioisotopes and chemicals continue to be released, so in one lifetime our world has become a massive dumping ground – toxic in various ways to all life.

Courtesy of the military-industrial-governmental complex, nuclear radioisotopes and chemicals continue to be released, so in one lifetime our world has become a massive dumping ground – toxic in various ways to all life.

Janette D. Sherman, M.D., a physician, toxicologist and author, concentrating on chemicals and nuclear radiation that cause cancer and birth defects, is consulting editor for “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and Nature,” a comprehensive presentation of all the available information concerning the health and environmental effects of the low dose radioactive contaminants. Originally published by the New York Academy of Sciences in 2009 for $150, she has had it republished for wide distribution at only $10. See http://janettesherman.com/books/. Dr. Sherman has worked in radiation and biologic research at the University of California nuclear facility and at the U.S. Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory at the Hunters Point Shipyard in San Francisco. Her primary interest is the prevention of illness through public education and patient awareness. She can be reached at www.janettesherman.com.

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8 thoughts on “Less than one lifetime: Eyewitness to nuclear development, from Hunters Point to Chernobyl and Fukushima, issues a warning

  1. carolsiriusb

    This is such a powerful and honest appraisal of where we are and how we got there. Pretty much a condemnation of western science. The arrogance that is killing the planet…. Psychopaths.

    Reply
  2. Owen Gailar

    very intresting and frightening. BUT, if she gets a few stated facts, how much else can be trusted?
    The second "atomic" bomb was not a hydrogen bomb, but a plutonium bomb. Her presentation of the Grand Coulée damn made it sound like it WAS built specifically for nefarious nuclear undertakings….like saying Ford builds cars to kill people!
    All this aside, she still has a few valid points. Did she ever check on the radiation received by the mt. st Helens eruption? A real case of "the sky is falling"!

    Reply
    1. kat

      very little about her article was incorrect…and we are quite an advanced race of beings that CAN use many things that DONT poison us and the rest of the world for three centuries before they go away. Wind Power Solar Power Geo thermal and water can all provide energy…. why would we still be using something that kills us unless….some are making money off it and don't want to stop…ever…

      Reply
  3. mariannewildart

    Brave brave people speaking with authority on the terrible legacy of nuclear. Bewildering that there are nuclear cheerleaders pushing for more and bigger nuclear plants, 3 new reactors planned Near to Sellafield's crumbling plutonium piles. How will we survive? Nothing less than a revolution is needed to halt this juggernaught and contain the demonic legacy.

    Reply

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