Civil Defense Perspectives September 2012, Vol. 28 No. 6
After Fukushima, people are asking questions such as: Should Japan, and the world, totally give up on nuclear energy(Nature 6/7/12)? Casualties from radiation, from the worst nuclear accident in history, are still zero. But what about the projected later cancers? What if an accident contaminates the environment forever? Should people be allowed to return home?
A rational discussion of evacuation policy must begin with the question: “What is the dose?” The follow-up: If we evacuate Fukushima, should Denver be evacuated? How about Finland?
The Harm of Over-reaction
The 172,000 people living within a 30-km radius of the Fukushima Daiichi plant have been forced or advised to leave. More than two-thirds of the world’s 211 nuclear power plants have more people than that living with 30 km (Nature 4/28/11).
Because of shutting down most of its nuclear reactors, Japan’s imports of fuel increased by $55 billion in 2011. This, coupled with slowdowns in manufacturing from power shortages, reversed Japan’s trade balance from 20 years of trade surpluses to an $18 billion deficit (W. Tucker, WSJ 3/6/12).
Uprooting people from their homes, work, and usual support systems, and forcing them into crowded refugee centers, causes casualties, especially among the elderly. It may permanently destroy their livelihood from farm or business. After Chernobyl, the most widespread and devastating effects were psychological, including suicide and psychosis, writes Z. Jaworowski (http://tinyurl.com/95rdafa). He attributes this to excessive remedial measures and global radiophobic propaganda.
Consistent, Meaningful Doses
The public is often frightened by doses given in tiny units, or confused by new international units (sieverts, grays) versus older units (rems, rads). For example, some workers “suffered” exposures of 100,000 μSv [100 mSv, 10 rad] after wading in radioactive water (WSJ 6/14/11).
Another scary number is the 36,000 terabequerels (~1 million curies [Ci]) of radioactivity that the plants “spewed”—which amounted to 11 kg of radioactive material out of the 60,000 kg of fuel per unit (http://tinyurl.com/9mvb5du). Alarmists warned that the reactors contained about 134 million Ci of Cs-137 or 85 times as much as was released at Chernobyl. In contrast, U.S. and Russian weapons complexes have released some 1.6 billion Ci, compared with an inventory of ~140 billion Ci in the oceans.
Exposures from a contaminated environment, suggest Buongiorno et al., should be compared with average total natural background rates (http://tinyurl.com/c6whqb8). This accounts for the low dose-rate and is thus more scientifically valid than comparisons with medical exposures delivered over a few seconds. Comparison with the range of natural levels is also much more informative than with government permissible limits, which may be thousands of times too low.
The world average dose-rate for natural background is 0.27 μSv/hr (times 8766 hr/y gives 2.4 mSv/y). The excess dose received in Denver is 3 mSv/y—what Richard Muller calls the “Denver dose.” The current International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) evacuation standard of 1 mSv/y would appear to require the immediate evacuation of Denver, Muller notes (WSJ 8/18-19/12), among many other places.
Some approximate lifetime (70-y) exposures in mSv:
|United States (avg)||
|Chernobyl (“high” contamination)*||
|Kerala, India (coastal)+||
|Ramsar, Iran (high background area)‡||
*Jaworowski, op. cit.; +Luckey http://tinyurl.com/9jrt52u;
‡Health Physics 2002;82:87-93.
These estimates are approximate. Different values are obtained depending on the location of the measurement, and values in mSv may be different from mGy because of alpha emitters. Natural levels of 1,400 mSv/y and even higher have been found.
Establishing a Rational Evacuation Standard
At the 30th annual meeting of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness, Jerry Cuttler discussed radiation protection standards. Between 1920 and 1955, it was established that 2 mSv/day, or 1/100th of an erythema dose of 600 Roentgens/30 days, was a safe dose limit. In 1924, the American Roentgen Ray Society set 600 mSv/yr as a dose that could be tolerated indefinitely. This is equivalent to high natural background levels—and to the dose in the red area around Fukushima. No one has been identifiably injured while working within this dose limit (Cuttler and Pollycove, http://tinyurl.com/747x2e6).
How then does one come up with the cumulative, collective “cancer dose” of 2,500 rem (25,000 mSv) cited by Muller? If you take the dose in rems within a certain area in a given time period, multiply by the number of persons exposed, and divide by 2,500, you get the number of predicted excess cancers. It doesn’t matter how many people share the dose, and thus how little each person gets. Each hit has the same theoretical probability of producing a cancer, by some mechanism yet to be described.
Not only does this contradict all experience; it is biologically absurd. DNA is not a stable molecule that remains safe unless assaulted by a gamma ray. Every cell experiences some 200,000 spontaneous DNA-damaging events per day, as from reactive oxygen species, compared with less than 0.03 events per cell per day from 1 mSv radiation spread over a year. Most damage is repaired, and low-dose radiation appears to stimulate the process in a nonspecific way, protecting the cell from other harms.
This effect, called “hormesis,” appears to have bestowed “an effective immunity to cancer” upon residents of apartments in Taiwan inadvertently built with Co-60 contaminated steel, writes Tucker, citing a 2004 article (http://tinyurl.com/9jwnnc3).
If we were, however, to admit that low-dose radiation is not only safe but might cure cancer and prevent birth defects, what would happen to compensation payments to people irradiated at Hiroshima or Chernobyl, or the reputation of health physicists?
Wildfires—Horrific and Unnecessary
By July 4, Colorado wildfires had devoured 265 sq mi, five times the size of Washington, D.C. More than 32,000 people had to be evacuated. Many bad policies contribute to the damage, writes Paul Driessen (http://tinyurl.com/9kqjapc), including environmentalists’ obstruction of selective cutting, and jurisdictional disputes over firefighting. Still, once the fire started, it could have been stopped, just as a 300-acre fire had been quickly extinguished near Albuquerque 2 days before the Waldo Canyon fire erupted. Nine single-engine plane loads, about 7,200 gallons of a revolutionary fire suppressant called FireIce were needed. Colorado did not contact the manufacturer, GelTech, to ask for assistance. The product can be used to protect homes in an area threatened by wildfire.
Searching for Chernobyl Victims
The number of victims of the Chernobyl accident has been overestimated by about 800,000 writes M.I. Balonov (J Radiation Protection 5/8/12, doi:10.1088/0952-4746/32/2/181). Repeating the same mistakes with respect to Fukushima could cause public panic and erroneous decisions.
In contrast to most other nations, all-cause mortality in Russia (as from alcohol abuse) peaked in 1994 and again in 2001, making it impossible for geographic studies to segregate any Chernobyl effect. Massive population screening has uncovered many cancers that would have otherwise been undetected. The tool needed to overcome the screening effect—dose-effect within a cohort—has been rejected.
Most telling is the fact that mortality in the most highly exposed people, the liquidators, is lower than background.
Zbigniew Jaworowski writes that “in comparison with general population of Russia, a 15% to 30% deficit in solid cancer mortality was found among Russian emergency workers, and a 5% deficit of solid cancer incidence among the population of most contaminated areas (http://tinyurl.com/3qp9tkb).
One of the invaluable lessons from Chernobyl, he states, is the absurdity of the linear no-threshold hypothesis. “Using collective dose as an indicator of possible health effects is nonsense.” Using it led to costs of $100 billion in Western Europe, and much more in post-Soviet countries, causing “unspoken sufferings and the pauperization of millions of people.”
Denver, and other areas of high background radiation, also tend to have a lower than expected cancer incidence.
Facts on Chernobyl
Total radionuclide emissions from the burning reactor were 200 times less than from all 543 nuclear warheads exploded in the atmosphere since 1945. The highest estimated dose to the average person was 0.113 mSv in 1963.
The death rate from the Chernobyl reactor, 0.86/GWe-year, is 9 times lower than from liquefied natural gas.
The average dose in the evacuation area was about 1.6 mSv during the first year; the projected excess lifetime dose is 6, or 28 times lower than the natural lifetime dose.
The incidence of occult thyroid cancer in children in the most contaminated region was 90 times less than the 2.4% rate observed for children in Finland.
Nuclear Energy Worldwide
Even though the total release of radioactive material from Fukushima was only one-sixth that at Chernobyl, the effect on nuclear power generation worldwide may be greater.
“Enthusiasm for a global nuclear revival has stalled—and not before time,” writes Colin Macilwain (Nature 3/31/11). He considers the risk of nuclear power to be “unique and almost existential.” He thinks the real risk of nuclear power is that “human intervention has to be maintained,” no matter what. He thinks that pressurized water reactors are the only viable design for new reactor construction.
The Japanese government has announced its intention to phase out all nuclear reactors by 2040. Greenpeace Japan calls for enacting this into law to avoid giving mere “lip service” to appease the public before elections (Ariz Daily Star 9/15/12).
France, a leader in nuclear energy, speaks of a “before and after Fukushima,” and plans to spend $16 billion on an additional layer of defense, hardened bunkers with protected control rooms and reservoirs of coolant (Nature 2/12/12). A nascent antinuclear movement has finally taken hold in France, which generates 75% of its electricity from nuclear and is thus half as dependent on Russian natural gas as the rest of Europe. It is unlikely to succeed in closing down any reactors, writes William Tucker, and if it did, Italy, which refuses to use nuclear and imports 80% of its electricity, would probably collapse (American Spectator, March 2012).
In a point/counterpoint on a U.S. nuclear future, J. Doyne Farmer and Arjun Makhijani assert that building more power plants would facilitate nuclear proliferation. They claim that each 1,000-megawatt reactor generates about 30 nuclear-bombs’ worth of plutonium each year (Nature 9/23/10). As discussed in 1986, this was a feature of Chernobyl-style reactors, but not Western pressurized water reactors (http://tinyurl.com/8h9dmyj).
China’s construction of 27 reactors is on time and on budget. The first Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, which use “passive” convection currents and do not need electric pumps for cooling, are scheduled to go on line in 2013. Recycling with the use of the Integral Fast Breeder Reactor, which burns any kind of nuclear fuel and eliminates nuclear “waste,” could provide China with 3,000 years of cheap electricity (Tucker, op. cit.).
Russia is prepared to lead a new nuclear renaissance. It has sold reactors to India, Vietnam, and Iran, and hopes to sell as many as 30 abroad in the next decade. It has offered to accept any country’s waste for reprocessing (ibid. and WSJ 4/23/11).
Advances in Nuclear Power Plants
While preoccupied with how many picocuries of tritium were leaking out of Vermont Yankee, America relinquished its lead in nuclear power generation to other nations, writes William Tucker (American Spectator, March 2011). Small modular reactors (SMRs) could allow America to come back. They can be buried, eliminating the possibility that an accident could have widespread consequences. SMRs could decentralize power production, and also provide power to remote areas without long transmission lines. The biggest impediment to safer reactors is the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “The NRC last issued a license for a nuclear reactor in 1976. It is not known whether it will ever issue one again.” While the AP1000 is about to go online in China, the NRC is still trying to figure out how to protect it from airplanes. A redundant concrete wall might fall in an earthquake.