Hiroshima Memo: Myth of nuclear energy safety has collapsed

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

Experts warn of dangers of low level radiation exposure

The appearance of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, run by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), is now a chilling sight after hydrogen explosions, and other events, damaged the roofs and walls of the reactor buildings. Over three weeks have passed since the crisis began, and yet radioactive materials leaking from four reactors, huddled in a line by the Pacific Ocean, continue to be released into the air, the sea, and the soil. Some of this radioactivity, though a miniscule amount, has even wafted over the Pacific Ocean and been detected in New York City, on the east coast of the United States.

The Japanese government has ordered residents within a radius of 20 kilometers from the nuclear station to evacuate. Lingering in that area, however, are presumed to be about 1,000 bodies, victims of the earthquake and tsunami. Meanwhile, the invisible and odorless radioactive materials persistently bathe the dead. It must be assumed that the work of searching for these bodies, due to the risk of exposure to radiation, will make it a forbidding task for local police officers and rescue workers.

If the nuclear accident had not occurred, family members would have scoured the site daily to search for their missing children and mothers and fathers, seeking to locate them as quickly as they could. It is painful to imagine the sentiments of family members who now reside in evacuation centers and have no idea when they can return to the area. Many of these residents had believed the nuclear plant to be safe and they received benefits accorded to those living in the shadow of the TEPCO facility. Even so, imagining our own lives upended by such a catastrophe, the accident is proving to be far too cruel.

The risk of secondary exposure to radiation in connection with recovery work stirs memories of the rescue workers who were dispatched to Hiroshima in the aftermath of the atomic blast that had reduced the city to ash. With no knowledge of the hazards in store, including the danger of residual radiation, they set to work recovering bodies and removing debris from the ground. After engaging in these relief efforts for a week or so, some were dead by the end of the year or came down with cancer 20 or 30 years later.

During their relief efforts, they not only faced external exposure to radiation, but they also suffered internal exposure by inhaling radioactive materials along with the dust and dirt.

A true comparison between the level of residual radiation in Hiroshima in the aftermath of the atomic bombing and that of the area around the nuclear power plant in Fukushima cannot be easily made. Today we can be well-equipped with radiation protection devices, too. However, the risk of radiation exposure nevertheless exists, and we must maintain vigilance.

“The level of radiation is not significant to the extent that it will have any immediate effects on the human body,” the Japanese government and TEPCO officials have claimed repeatedly. In this context, the word “immediate” means that the level of radiation will not induce acute symptoms of radiation sickness. No one, however, can deny the possibility that there will ultimately be late-onset disorders. A declaration that would negate any such possibility could only be construed as deception.

Dr. Karl Morgan (1907-1999), an American, is known as one of the founders of health physics, which studies measures to protect the human body from radiation. Dr. Morgan served as the head of the Internal Exposure Committee under the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) for 21 years, as well as the director of Health Physics at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the state of Tennessee. Dr. Morgan, a leading figure in the field, responded to a question in my interview with him in 1994 by saying, “The level of permissible radiation on the human body has been lowered over the years because, in the beginning, no one knew about the effects of low level radiation. As research has progressed, however, it turns out that there is no threshold figure which would indicate a safe level with regard to radiation exposure.”

Dr. Morgan also revealed to me that, over the course of his life, he had been exposed to more than 100 rem (1000 millisieverts) of radiation as a result of his presence at atmospheric nuclear tests and nuclear accident sites. In the late stage of his life, he developed a brain tumor. He told me, “I have lived this long thanks to the strong immune system I inherited from my parents. But some people have inherited a weaker immune system. Such people are susceptible to developing disease because their immune functions are easily damaged by radiation.”

In the United States, the nuclear energy industry, which has promoted nuclear power, as well as the military, which has advanced the development of nuclear arms, have continued to take the position that “low level radiation is not dangerous.” Such experts as Dr. Morgan and Dr. John Gofman (1918-2007), a professor at the University of California, became alienated from the nuclear energy industry and the military. Dr. Gofman wrote the large volume entitled “Radiation and Human Health.” Dr. Morgan remarked, “Beyond the United States, the same thing is happening in France, the U.K., and even in Japan.”

A similar state of affairs can be seen in the current crisis at Fukushima. While officials of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency within the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, along with TEPCO, have persistently announced that current radiation levels are not dangerous, researchers and other figures inside and outside of Japan who are concerned about the effects of internal exposure, have expressed harsh criticism, contending that this outlook is overly optimistic.

Dr. Steve Wing, an expert in the field of epidemiology, is one such critic. Dr. Wing, a professor at North Carolina University, conducted health examinations of the residents living in the area around the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island in the wake of the accident there. Dr. Wing points out: “Any amount of radiation is dangerous, though the signs of damage will depend on the level of radiation.”

The residents who live in the vicinity of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant were regularly assured, and led to believe, that the facilities were safe and that there was no risk of health effects from radiation. They never dreamed that they would be forced to evacuate, fleeing from the land where they had set roots. The people who live outside a radius of 30 kilometers are facing frustration, too, as their agricultural products and other resources have become contaminated by radiation or undermined due to harmful rumors.

Currently there is no choice but to urge those involved to do their utmost in order to minimize the release of radiation into the air, the sea, and the soil, while bringing down the temperature inside the reactors to below 100 degrees so that the nuclear fuel can be cooled and contained.

(Originally published on April 4, 2011)

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