History marches on: Assessing the nuclear threat five years after Fukushima

by Janette D. Sherman, MD, and Joseph J. Mangano, MPH, MBA

Sixty years ago the name Bikini became famous for the nuclear bombs detonated there. The military took ships that had been exposed to fallout during those nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands to the United States Radiological Defense Laboratory (USNRDL) located at Hunters Point in San Francisco. In addition to toxic chemicals and nuclear isotopes, the USNRDL is contaminated with asbestos, from the extensive ship building and reconstruction.

This drone’s eye view shows some of the millions of sacks of contaminated soil in Fukushima. When photographer and filmmaker Arkadiusz Podniesiński went to Fukushima last year to see how the cleanup process compared to Chernobyl. He reports: “Twenty thousand workers are painstakingly cleaning every piece of soil. They are removing the top, most contaminated layer of soil and putting it into sacks to be taken to one of several thousand dump sites. The sacks are everywhere. They are becoming a permanent part of the Fukushima landscape.” – Photo: Arkadiusz Podniesiński
This drone’s eye view shows some of the millions of sacks of contaminated soil in Fukushima. When photographer and filmmaker Arkadiusz Podniesiński went to Fukushima last year to see how the cleanup process compared to Chernobyl. He reports: “Twenty thousand workers are painstakingly cleaning every piece of soil. They are removing the top, most contaminated layer of soil and putting it into sacks to be taken to one of several thousand dump sites. The sacks are everywhere. They are becoming a permanent part of the Fukushima landscape.” – Photo: Arkadiusz Podniesiński

I (JDS) worked as a biologist at that “Rad Lab” in the early 1950s, where, to simulate the effects of a nuclear bomb, we radiated and burned animals. My particular part of the grizzly project was to monitor the changes in the bone marrow and blood. The effects quickly became apparent.

Another milestone, on March 11, marks five years since the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan melted down. The release of highly toxic radiation from the reactors was enormous, on the level of the Chernobyl disaster a generation earlier.

But Fukushima is arguably worse than Chernobyl. There, four reactors melted down, versus just one at Chernobyl. And the Chernobyl reactor was buried in a matter of weeks, while Fukushima is still not controlled, and radioactive contaminants continue to leak into the air and into the Pacific Ocean. In time, this may prove to be the worst environmental catastrophe ever.

And while the damage is worst in Japan, the radioactive harm spread for long distances. Right after the meltdown, prevailing winds drove Fukushima fallout across the Pacific, reaching the U.S. West Coast in five days, and moving through the air across the nation. EPA data showed that the West Coast had the highest levels of fallout in the weeks following the accident, up to 200 times normal. In the years since, the slower-moving radiation in the Pacific has moved steadily eastward, reaching the U.S. and contaminating fish and aquatic plant life along the way.

The most crucial question is, without doubt, how many casualties occurred from the 2011 disaster?

Japan had 54 reactors in operation, but the nation’s people, who had suffered from the two atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are adamantly against nuclear power. As a result, despite strong efforts by government and industry, only three reactors have been brought back on line.

Fukushima is arguably worse than Chernobyl.

Public health leaders have addressed the topic with ignorance and deception. A search of the medical literature shows only two studies in Japan that review actual changes in disease and death rates. One showed that 127 Fukushima-area children have developed thyroid cancer since the meltdown; a typical number of cases for a similar sized population of children would be about five to ten.

The other study showed a number of ectopic intrathyroidal problems in local children – a disorder that is extremely rare. No other studies looking at changes in infant deaths, premature births, child cancers or other radiation-sensitive diseases are available.

Public health leaders have addressed the topic with ignorance and deception.

Three recent journal articles (by JJM & JDS) show that babies born on the West Coast in the nine months after Fukushima had a 16 percent increase in defective thyroids, compared to little change in the rest of the country. (See also “Is the increase in baby deaths in the northwest U.S. due to Fukushima fallout?”)

But the literature also shows that researchers have been pouring out articles on mental health and psychological impacts on local residents. Journals from Japan and other nations have printed research on stress, behavioral changes, fears and even changes in average blood pressure – blaming it on concerns about the meltdown. At least 51 of these articles are listed on the National Library of Medicine website.

The same pattern of illnesses occurred after other meltdowns in other countries. The 1979 meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania was followed by a total denial that anyone had been harmed. The first journal article on changes in cancer cases didn’t appear until nearly 12 years after the meltdown; it showed a 64 percent rise in cancer cases within 10 miles of the plant during the first five years after the accident.

Literature shows that researchers have been pouring out articles on mental health and psychological impacts on local residents.

The authors, from Columbia University, blamed this increase on stress and psychological reactions to the disaster.

After Chernobyl, the same thing occurred. The 31 emergency workers who helped bury the red-hot reactor and died from high exposures became almost a mantra (“Chernobyl caused only 31 deaths”) despite the massive amount of fallout it dispersed across the globe. A 2009 compendium of 5,000 articles, published by the New York Academy of Sciences, estimated about 1 million deaths from the meltdown occurred in the following 20 years.

Unfortunately, nuclear supporters have made the claim that nobody died from Fukushima, while churning out study after study on how a meltdown affects mental status – and no other part of the body.

Radiation from all nuclear power plants, including Fukushima, is a mix of over 100 chemicals found only in atomic reactors and nuclear bombs. University of South Carolina biology professor Timothy Mousseau has made multiple trips to Japan and Chernobyl collecting specimens of plants and animals.

He and colleagues have published multiple journal articles showing DNA damage and actual disease near the nuclear plants. So if plants and animals are affected, and not known to be neurotic, it is logical that humans are as well.

Since the meltdown, in Japan the death rate has increased and the birth rate has decreased, resulting in a 5 percent drop in population and resultant social problems, including proportionally more retirees and fewer young workers. There is no place to hide from radioactive fallout.

Not coming to grips with the truth about nuclear power will raise the chance of another catastrophic meltdown in the future.

Not coming to grips with the truth about nuclear power will raise the chance of another catastrophic meltdown in the future.

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. Epidemiologist Joseph Mangano, MPH, MBA, is executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project. They can be reached via www.janettesherman.com.