by Janette D. Sherman, M.D.
A little over six months ago I wrote: “Given profound weather effects (earthquakes, floods, tsunamis etc.), human fallibility and military conflicts, many believe that it is only a matter of time before there is another nuclear catastrophe. Nuclear fallout knows no state or national boundaries and will contribute to an increase in illnesses, decrease in intelligence and instability throughout the world. The economic costs of radioactive pollution and care of contaminated citizens are staggering. No country can maintain itself if its citizens are economically, intellectually, politically and socially impoverished.”
(My submission, which had been requested by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, was ultimately rejected … too alarmist?)
While thousands of miles and 25 years separate the sites and the events that led to the catastrophes at Fukushima and Chernobyl, the effects will be very similar – and will remain so for years to decades to centuries.
After Chernobyl, there was a delay in collecting and releasing information. The nuclear industry and many governments are reluctant to alarm the public, but the public has a right to know what the risks are and how, if possible, to avoid those risks – as much as possible.
The science of radiobiology is not new. When we know the identity of a radioisotope, we can predict how it will interact with living matter – human, animal or plant. Decades of research have confirmed that radioisotopes become deposited in various parts of living systems.
In humans, I-131 and I-129 concentrate in the thyroid, Cs-137 in soft tissue and Sr-90 in teeth and bones.
Key to understanding effects is the difference between external and internal radiation. While external radiation, as from x-rays, neutron, gamma and cosmic rays, can harm and kill, internal radiation – alpha and beta particles – when absorbed by ingestion and inhalation release damaging energy in direct contact with tissue and cells.
There is serious concern for the workers at the Fukushima plant because of their proximity to the disabled reactors and to the fuel rods that have lost their protective cover of water. Some of the Fukushima workers, as with the “liquidators” at Chernobyl, are exposed to dangerous levels of gamma and neutron radiation.
Those not in close proximity to those sources of radiation will be spared some of the intense exposure but will not escape the exposure from radionuclides that emit alpha and beta particles, as well as gamma radiation. These enter the bodies of humans by inhalation and ingestion of food and water.
Of the Chernobyl “liquidators,” the young and healthy men and women who worked to stop the fires and to contain the release of radioactivity from Chernobyl, by 2005, some 125,000 – or 15 percent – of the estimated total of 830,000 were dead, mostly from circulatory and blood diseases and malignancies.
Children born to liquidator families were seriously affected with birth defects and thyroid diseases, including cancer, and loss of intellect. As for other children, based upon the work of multiple researchers, it is estimated that in the heavily contaminated areas of Belarus, only 20 percent of children are considered healthy, placing an enormous burden upon governmental resources to provide medical care and education for those affected.
Many pro-nuclear critics have downplayed the risks from Chernobyl, attributing concerns to “radio-phobia”; but documentation of disease is not limited to the human population. With few exceptions, animal and plant systems that were studied demonstrated structural abnormalities in offspring, loss of tolerance and viability, and genetic changes. Wild animals and plants do not drink alcohol, smoke or worry about compensation – so those factors cannot be held responsible.
When a radiation release occurs, we do not know in advance the part of the biosphere it will contaminate, the animals, plants and people that will be affected, nor the amount or duration of harm. In many cases, damage is random, depending upon the health, age and status of development and the amount, kind and variety of radioactive contamination that reaches humans, animals and plants.
For this reason, open and transparent data must be collected and maintained for all biological systems – human, animal, plant. We must have international support of research on the consequences of the Fukushima, and support of Chernobyl research must continue in order to mitigate the ongoing and increasing damage. Access to information must be transparent and open to all, across all borders.
The World Health Organization (WHO) must sever its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in place since 1959, and assume independent responsibility in support of international health.
Given the emerging problems from the Fukushima nuclear plants and the continuing and known problems caused by the Chernobyl catastrophe, we must ask ourselves this: Before we commit ourselves to economic and technological support of nuclear energy, who, what and where are we willing to sacrifice and for how long?
Janette D. Sherman, M.D., is the author of “Life’s Delicate Balance: Causes and Prevention of Breast Cancer and Chemical Exposure and Disease” and is a specialist in internal medicine and toxicology. She edited the book “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and Nature,” written by A.V. Yablokov, V.B. Nesterenko and A.V. Nesterenko, published by the New York Academy of Sciences in 2009. Her primary interest is the prevention of illness through public education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.janettesherman.com.