As we gaze nervously at our beloved West Coast that was battered a few weeks ago as the tsunami hit (relatively mild on this side of the Pacific) we remember the nuclear power plants perched above the rocks at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon over the mirror image of subduction plates that has so altered poor Japan. In the Northwest we have the Hanford Nuclear Reservation (clean-up seems to have no end) and the Richmond Plant. As we pray for the people of Japan, we also pray for ourselves that we will never have to face such a crisis. But it is more than possible. It may be a matter of time. -Editor
Our attention is riveted by the daily worsening of the Fukushima crisis, but there’s a different way of looking at nuclear disasters. It involves seeing all nuclear industries as an ongoing disaster. If accumulating radionuclides on the planet is unacceptably risky then operating nuclear power plants, that inevitably create radionuclides, is disastrous.
The individual releases of man-made radionuclides are each tragic and far more destructive than we are being told, and their number and scale are not really being placed in the public consciousness. Each individual release does not stand alone but is part of the ongoing disaster that is unfolding as radionuclides are created and accidentally or intentionally released.
The disaster is the buildup of radionuclides in the environment.
We do know that this disaster is killing and maiming people, and will continue to do so; we don’t really know how many people, or how badly it is damaging our ecosystems. A recently published book by some respected scientists suggests that the Chernobyl disaster has killed about a million people so far. This is not hysterical pseudoscience, it was published by the New York Academy of Sciences last year.
Some radionuclides last for very long times, far longer than human civilizations have existed. And as the disaster unfolds, they are slowly and inexorably building in quantity. The Fukushima disaster is added to Chernobyl, which is added to Three Mile Island, which is added to the above-ground testing that went on after WWII, and all the disasters we have been told about are added to the releases that have been concealed from us. And this is added to all of the exposures from natural sources that the proponents of nuclear power use as an excuse for creating more exposures. Even the amounts that have not been released into the environment yet but are “safely stored” are part of the disaster, for as they increase in quantity and the number of places they are kept, the risk of their escape (or theft and intentional release) is steadily increasing.
They all cause cancer, they all cause birth defects, and they all cause mutations. Their environmental toxicology is largely unknown, but as the disaster unfolds we will surely find out about it.
In writing this, I’m trying to avoid breaking one of my own rules, my rule against fear-mongering. Having watched the U.S. constitution being crippled by a group of people using fear as their tool of choice, I promised myself that I wouldn’t use fear as a means of persuading people to do things that are not in their own interest. But ignoring the buildup of radioactive substances in the world may be catastrophically not in our interest.
And I am quite well frightened right now, and looking at the available data has not calmed those fears, it has increased them. Paranoia is irrational fear that has been rationalized. If the check for paranoid fantasies is to analyze the fears by real logical risk assessment and study of actual risks, my attempts to do assessment and risk analysis have not helped. The data seem to indicate the human race is being very stupid about its approach to nuclear power.
The following three paragraphs are at the beginning of the “User’s Guide to Radionuclide Carcinogenicity” from the EPA:
Ionizing radiation has been shown to be a carcinogen, a mutagen, and a teratogen. [Teratogen means it causes birth defects.] Radiation can induce cancers in nearly any tissue or organ in both humans and animals, and the probability of cancer induction increases with increasing radiation dose. Cancer induction is a delayed response that has been documented extensively in epidemiological studies of Japanese atomic bomb survivors, underground uranium miners, radium dial painters, and patients subject to a variety of radiation treatments. Laboratory animal research and mammalian tissue culture studies have provided additional, collaborative data.
Mutagenic effects of radiation have been demonstrated primarily in animal and tissue culture studies; limited data from studies of A-bomb survivors indicate that humans may be as sensitive or less sensitive than animals to radiogenic mutagenicity (heritable genetic mutations). Data are also available from both human and animal studies on the teratogenic effects of radiation. These data show that the fetus is most sensitive to radiation injury during the early stages of organ development (between 8 and 15 weeks for the human fetus). Resultant radiation-induced malformations depend on which cells are most actively differentiating at the time of exposure.
EPA classifies all radionuclides as Group A carcinogens, based on their property of emitting ionizing radiation and on the extensive weight of evidence provided by epidemiological studies of radiogenic cancers in humans. At Superfund radiation sites, EPA generally evaluates potential human health risks based on the radiotoxicity, i.e., adverse health effects caused by ionizing radiation, rather than on the chemical toxicity, of each radionuclide present (an exception is uranium, where both radiotoxicity and chemical toxicity are normally evaluated). These evaluations consider the carcinogenic effects of radionuclides only. In most cases, cancer risks are limiting, exceeding both mutagenic and teratogenic risks.
To this I would add that the amounts required to cause cancer, mutations, and birth defects are desperately small. It is pretty clear that there is no minimum dose, and the dose effects are cumulative.
My intent is not to frighten people, it is to show them some alarming data, and to persuade them to look carefully at the information being provided to them by the “mainstream media” concerning nuclear energy and industries. Some of this information is clearly biased, obvious propaganda generated by the nuclear industries to control the reaction to disasters like Fukushima and repair the damage done by Chernobyl. It typically is a mix of outright lies, a great deal of misinformation, and the ongoing promulgation of some common misconceptions.
Whether the information being given by our common data sources is intentionally biased or just plain ignorant is less important than some of the misconceptions it commonly carries. These misconceptions make it likely people will make decisions that are not in their interest, and not in the interest of the rest of the life on the planet. The foundation of propaganda is persuading people to make decisions that are not in their interest. So to pull the rug out from under the pro-nuclear propagandists, here are some of the commonest misconceptions, and the real concepts that they are missing.
The “radiation” vs. “radioactive substances” misconception
A common statement is “only a small release of radiation.” Radiation is created by radioactive substances, and most intact nuclear facilities are shielded from the release of most radiation. When an accident occurs radioactive substances are released that continue to release radiation long after the accident. So the radiation from nuclear accidents or leakage is not like the light from a lightbulb, it doesn’t stop when the damage is repaired.
It involves the release of radioactive substances (isotopes) which do not stop emitting radiation as they disperse into the environment. For a nuclear facility to say “only a small release of radiation,” when what has happened is the release of radioactive isotopes, is like a zoo saying that they experienced “only a small release of leopards.” Except that in the case of the release of radioactive isotopes the particles of isotopes (leopards) are usually so small as to be invisible. Plus being eaten (or just killed) by a leopard is usually pretty obvious, it is unlikely that a half-eaten or mauled body will be attributed to some other cause. The isotopes kill by cancers, leukemias, and birth defects, and maim by mutations, which happen long after the “small release of radiation” and may or may not be attributed to the “small release of radiation.”
Accurate and competent reporting would define how much of what kinds of radioactive substances were released during any nuclear accident, and what paths they are following after release. That way the folks in the neighborhoods with isotope contamination (leopards) could take precautions against the dangers. (Although it’s hard to take precautions against large numbers of invisible killers wandering around in your environment.)
An accompanying bit of misunderstanding is the “very small risk to the general public” statement. The folks who live next to the zoo don’t really give a damn that the leopards pose only a “very small risk to the general public.” And the leopards are likely to get caught or killed fairly quickly. Radionuclide particles are much harder to find, they can’t be killed, and often the “very small release” involves millions, billions, or trillions of them. And some of them, like plutonium, will still be around hundreds of thousands of years from now.
The “spent” fuel misconception
In the current Japanese nuclear crisis, some of the “spent” fuel stored at the reactor site was also exposed. The media don’t mention “spent” fuel much, which leads people to believe that it is not important, that like ashes it can no longer burn.
Actually “spent” fuel is not less radioactive than fresh fuel being loaded into the reactor, it can no longer be used because it has become hideously more radioactive. It has become so radioactive that continuing to use it has become too risky.
When uranium pellets fission in a nuclear reactor, they break down into many other elements, a goodly number of them also radioactive. These “fission products” (radioactive isotopes) are far more radioactive than the parent uranium. They decay much more rapidly (as in millions or billions of times more rapidly for some of them), and as a result release much more energy per unit of time. One of the fission products is radioactive plutonium, which creates far more of the neutron radiation which drives the nuclear chain reaction than the parent uranium when involved in a chain reaction. So as the uranium fuel experiences decay in the reactor, it becomes more and more contaminated with more energetic radioactive isotopes. It gradually generates more radiation, and becomes progressively harder to control. At some point the neutron flux created by the increasing amounts of plutonium becomes greater than the control rods (which absorb neutrons) can overcome, and the plant will go out of control. So the “spent” fuel is (hopefully) removed before this point, and replaced with fresh uranium pellets in new fuel rods.
These “spent” fuel rods must be kept in pools of continuously cooled water, separated from other fuel rods, or they will overheat violently. If exposed to air they can melt their cladding and auto-ignite, burning and releasing their wild mix of deadly radioactive isotopes into the air.
At the Japanese plants the “spent” fuel was not inside a containment structure, and cooling water was lost, exposing some of the fuel to air. At this point no one knows how much of it has been burned and dispersed, because the area is too radioactive to directly view.
It is quite possible that the Chernobyl disaster was caused by an attempt to use nuclear fuel that was too old, and thus uncontrollably radioactive. Some of the available data about plant operations from immediately prior to the disaster seem to indicate this.
When fresh uranium pellets are loaded into a reactor, they are not very radioactive. A uranium fuel pellet fissions very slowly when it is not being exposed to other uranium. It needs to be placed next to quite a few more pellets for the radioactivity to build up to the point of causing a chain reaction and beginning to emit the heat that drives a nuclear power plant.
At this point a delicate dance is happening. If the radioactivity keeps building, the ability of the plant to cool the fuel will be overcome, and the fuel will melt itself and damage the control structures around it. If this happens the energies being generated can become far more than the normal output of the plant, making the survival of any man-made containment structure very questionable, even as the nature of the radionuclides being created makes the survival of containment a vital necessity.
But in the end game, when such a nightmare is being played out, “a small release of radiation” is not what is happening. Deadly substances are being released that will wander about being deadly for a long time.
How much of what isotopes, and what paths they are taking in the environment are the real questions which need answers. Getting the people who are dealing with the disaster, and who probably caused it, to tell the media, and getting the media to accurately and honestly report the data seems unlikely in most nuclear catastrophes.
The half-life misconception
Often when reporting on nuclear accidents, the half-life of a radioactive element will be stated, and then we hear talk about “levels rapidly declining.” The assumption derived from this is that the risk has gone away.
Radionuclides with short half-lives are some of the most radioactive, and the effect of the exposure to radioactivity is an increase in the risk of cancer. Even if the source of radioactivity were to be removed, the risk of damage to the DNA in cells has already been added to the lifetime total for that person.
And half-life doesn’t mean a radionuclide is gone, it merely means half of it is gone. In the case of some of the truly violent isotopes like iodine, it may take many times the half-life for it to drop to “acceptable” levels. For plutonium-239, the half-life is about 30,000 years, so pretty much all the pu-239 which has been created since the beginning of the nuclear industries is still present, minus the amounts destroyed during nuclear bomb tests. (Some of which was scattered, more of which became other radionuclides and also was scattered.)
The “insignificant risk” misconception
For quite a few decades after the connection between smoking and lung cancer was established, the propaganda engines for the tobacco industry argued that the risk was “insignificant.” I argue that it was quite significant to the millions of people who died due to health effects of smoking during that period. In each nuclear accident there is also a great deal of talk about “insignificant risk.” But the risk from exposure to radionuclides is cumulative, and there is no minimum safe dose. If the risk is one in a million, that still means three hundred people in the U.S. are going to get cancer. If you’re one of those people, the risk is significant.
Cumulative means the risk does not stand alone, but gets added to all the other radiation and other cancer risks you have been exposed to. So the radiation you receive or the radionuclides you get contaminated with from Fukushima are added to the ones from all the other “insignificant risks.”
And the “insignificant risk” misconception is based on models that usually don’t take into account bioaccumulation and bioconcentration. For example, grass accumulates iodine and cesium, cows eat the grass, and the radionuclides get concentrated in their milk, which is consumed by humans. Similarly, isotopes from Chernobyl were gathered up by moss in Lapland, eaten by domesticated reindeers, and whole herds of animals became so contaminated they had to be slaughtered and not eaten.
There are also “hot areas” in which weather or water phenomena concentrate radionuclides. An example of a hot area would be a thunderstorm washing a plume of radionuclides coming from a damaged nuclear plant onto a watershed and into a pond. The pond would become a hot area. Another would be a runoff collector gathering the drainage from a large roof into a collection cistern. The cistern and the area around it would be hot. Or the radioactive plume blowing from a leaking source might encounter geographical structures (mountains, valleys, etc.) which contain and slow it enough for a lot of its fallout to be deposited there. In hot areas you might find “hot particles” which are larger flakes (larger is relative here, it can still mean microscopic in size) containing enough of the radionuclide to be very risky or certainly fatal. Over a broad area the risk can be spoken of as “insignificant,” but to a person who wanders into a hot area or breathes or consumes a hot particle, the risk is not insignificant.
All of these things combine to create your own personal odds. And odds brings up the subject of gambling. If you are asked to play a game of Russian roulette, would you play if there were one loaded chamber and five empty ones? One and fifty? One and five hundred? One and five thousand? Remember, you’re gambling with your life here.
Whether odds are considered “insignificant” seems to be connected to whether people are dying from them or making a profit from them.
Now apply the “insignificant odds” concept to human health risks. Wherever they land, radionuclides irradiate the living things they come in contact with. Irradiated microorganisms mutate rapidly. What happens when the bacteria, fungi, algae, and lichens that are the foundation of life on this planet mutate rapidly? We don’t know, but we are currently involved in a planet-wide experiment to find out. We can’t compute the odds, because the experiment will determine them. I hope we survive the experiment.
The social and technical stability misconception
Remember, nearly all of the plutonium-239 which has been created since the rise of the nuclear industries is still around, along with a bunch of the other longer-lived radionuclides, and the quantities are being steadily added to as each power plant continues in operation. Half of the plutonium and a good deal of the other elements will still be around in 30,000 years, even if we stop using nuclear power immediately. The amount of plutonium already created is adequate to kill every person on the planet, along with every other living being.
The longest living governments have existed for hundreds of years, most for less than a hundred. Between governments and empires have been periods of violent anarchy and destruction. This has been a consistent pattern planetwide. There are people in some places who think that it is a good idea to blow up a market square full of innocent people. (For some reason they think this will help their cause.)
The promise that the radionuclides created by nuclear power will never fall into the hands of such people is based on the belief that such social and technical stability exists that the governments responsible for the regulation of nuclear industry will never change or fail, that the tools and education required to keep them safe will continue to be available, and that all plant operators, workers, and government agencies involved are incorruptible.
We are already watching one demagogue posturing on the world stage with the threat of nuclear weapons he does not quite possess yet. How many other megalomaniacs are trying to figure out how to get their hands on one of the nuclear power plants scattered all over the planet (some in very socially unstable areas), and thus gain access to the most poisonous substances known to man?
And nuclear power plants create the raw materials for nuclear weapons. The more and longer they operate, the more atomic and hydrogen bomb stuff will exist on Earth.
Has the human race ever shown such social and technical stability that the promise of keeping the ever-increasing store of radionuclides safe for hundreds of thousands of years is even vaguely believable?
I don’t think so.
All of the above observations are part of why I don’t share the desperate belief some people are promulgating that nuclear power is the “technical fix” for fossil fuel pollution. In my opinion, it would merely add a whole new level of risk, with pollution by a far more deadly group of nightmare poisons.
But I also am opposed to nuclear power for religious reasons.
Because radionuclides damage DNA.
I’m a Pagan. And the message in DNA is my holy book.
There is a story written in our cells. And for each living thing the story is different. Blood and bone, skin and hair, muscles and organs and brains, the shape of your face and your personality, the unique story of you, told in your flesh, is shaped by your DNA. This fabulous gift, given to each of us at birth, is the culmination of a billion-year process of evolution: life, one death at a time, learning how to survive.
For each species the stories weave together into a book, the tale of how that species evolved into what it is now.
And for the whole of Life, the tales and the books that contain them are stored in the vast, continent-spanning library made up of every thing that lives. Any time you look at a living thing, you are reading in that library. Each hummingbird and hyena, each pretty girl and rattlesnake are written in the book of its species, its name and naming, its form and forming. The book is written in each of them. The books are all infinitely cross-referenced into each other, for the evolution of everything alive was influenced by, and has influenced, the evolution of every other living thing. Although any one of us is ephemeral, the message in our cells is written back through time past the dinosaurs, back into the first stirrings in the primal ocean.
Strange magic, that a library written in ephemeral twists of proteins has lasted and grown while mountains grew and were worn down again, while continents floated about and oceans opened and closed. It has survived the impacts of asteroids which shifted continents, ages when ice covered great areas of the Earth, the explosions of mountains, and times so hot that tropical plants grew at the poles.
The size of that library is stunning, for in it is the knowledge not just of how everything that lives is put together, but how all of the combined things that live weave together to make a forest, or a migrating herd of antelope, or a pod of dolphins, each woven into its biome with countless other living things.
I would not care to tell anyone else what they should regard as sacred; that is a choice everyone must make for themselves. But for me, the message written in our cells is one of the most sacred things there is.
Because I worship Life.
For those of us who worship Life, that message is the true face of God and Goddess. It is the true form of Life, both the noun, everything that lives, and the verb, the act of living. It speaks the name and face of a being which is many billions of years old. It tells its billion-year story, not in words, but in you and me, and in everything that we see that is alive.
Those of you who have sacred books would be appalled to see them desecrated. If someone were to rush into a church, beat up the preacher, and rip up and defecate on the Bible, the reaction would most surely be violent outrage. In many places a person or group who did such things would probably be attacked, maybe slain.
As I said, my sacred book is not written on paper in words, it is written on living things in the intricate spirals of DNA. The church I worship in and what I worship there are the same thing: Life. They are being hideously desecrated. The great ancient library broken into, the books stored there ripped up, graffiti written onto them, the messages burned, the order of them scrambled.
But I cannot riot against the perpetrators, or punish them, for they are radioactive isotopes. And the arrogant fools who created the isotopes and promised to keep them under control for all time did not intend to wound and mangle the very message which all of Life is based on, they just stumbled over their own hubris.
As I said, I don’t expect you to share my outrage at the desecration of one of my most sacred things. But you are intricately and exquisitely woven into the rest of Life. If its story gets destroyed, what will happen to yours?
However, if you are like me and regard Life as sacred, are you going to stand by and watch its ancient message being destroyed?
Copyright 2011 by Thermal/Bruce Willey
To dig more deeply, comprehensive information and primary-sources documentation can be found at RadNet
Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, by Alexey Yablokov of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy, Moscow, and Vassily Nesterenko and Alexey Nesterenko of the Institute of Radiation Safety, Minsk, Belarus. Publisher in English: New York Academy of Science, 2010.
For copy of book, see: http://www.nyas.org/Publications/Annals/Detail.aspx?cid=f3f3bd16-51ba-4d7b-a086-753f44b3bfc1
For summary of findings, see: http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/apr2010/2010-04-26-01.html
Thermal studied nuclear physics in college, but when he began to understand the human and environmental toxicology of the radionuclides, decided against a career in that industry. He has continued to study the subject informally since then. His main interest is socioecology, the study of the relationships between sociology, technology, and ecology. He is an active member and leader in the Pagan communities in the Sonoma county area of California, and writing a book on his home tradition, the Freefolk of Appalachia.