“In the generation of nuclear energy, manmade hazards seem unavoidable, but bankruptcy strikes us as a needless risk.”
– Barron’s Weekly (the business magazine), summing up the experience of the near meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, March 21, 1981
“The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll, and we can be grateful for that.”
– Larry Kudlow, business commentator, CNBC
The massive earthquake in Japan, tsunami, and now the explosions and releases of radioactive gases and water at a number of Japan’s nuclear power plants glues the world’s population to newscasts, watching the horror in real time, as it unfolds. Turning off the TV provides no respite.
The radiation cloud from Japan knows no borders nor national boundaries. Ground winds are carrying it to Tokyo, and then to Singapore, Indonesia, and Australia. Higher atmospheric winds will be spreading radioactive material to Hawaii and the western Hemisphere, and according to government officials as reported in the New York Times, it should be reaching the U.S. by Friday night or Saturday morning (March 18-19).
What they’re not saying is that: 1) they denied this would happen earlier in the week; and, 2) the radioactive plume will continue for weeks, maybe months, similar to the toxic plume from 9/11; this is not a one-shot deal.
U.S. officials are also claiming that the increased levels of radiation here will be insignificant. Nothing could be further from the truth, as shown by Dr. Sternglass, below. Following the horrific accident at Chernobyl (in the Ukraine) 25 years ago next month, Dr. Ernest Sternglass showed that radiation emitted by the accident at Chernobyl spread all around the globe and caused huge increases in infant mortality and diseases that only receded statistically month by month as the radiation dissipated.
Dr. Sternglass concluded that even low-level radiation emitted during the “normal” functioning of nuclear power plants creates havoc with people’s immune system as well as the surrounding environment.
At the same time, the corporate media in the U.S. ignored the hundreds of thousands of people killed or sickened throughout the world and portrayed Chernobyl as a “Soviet” thing due to what they incorrectly claimed was faulty construction. The media, at the behest of the U.S. government, twisted every which way to avoid what were obvious implications for people and the environment facing nuclear power plants everywhere. (William A. Dorman and Daniel Hirsch, “Chernobyl — The U.S. media slant.”
This is especially important today, as President Obama has made the construction of new nuclear power plants a central part of his energy policy, painting that deadly technology, as did Jimmy Carter, with a “green” brush. (In so doing, he has the support, unfortunately, of such important scientists as James Hansen, one of the foremost exponents of the need for industries to stop emitting the gases that are causing global climate change.
The radioactive plume and the events around it appear to us as the result of a “natural” calamity; and yet the nuclear nightmare is entirely man-made, the result not just of technology gone wild but a certain kind of technology, a centralized, metered, capitalistic way to essentially boil water — very expensive, and profitable, given all the government subsidies the industry receives.
And yet, amidst all the terror, the U.S. government is intent on constructing new nuclear power plants. In fact, a story posted on March 12, 2011 to the Nuclear Energy Institute website (http://www.nei.org) in the midst of the Japanese nuclear catastrophe praises legislation facilitating the development of a new round of small, scalable nuclear reactors. The legislation, sponsored by Democrats as well as Republicans,
was introduced March 8 in the U.S. Senate. The Nuclear Power 2021 Act (S. 512) was introduced by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), along with Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). The legislation directs the Secretary of Energy to implement programs to develop and demonstrate two reactor designs, one fewer than 300 megawatts of electric generating capacity and the other fewer than 50 megawatts. This public-private, cost-shared program would facilitate the design certification by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of two small reactor designs by the end of 2017 and the licensing of the reactors by the end of 2020.
At the same time as the nuclear industry bulls ahead regardless of the potential catastrophic accidents inherent in that technology, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility reports that as the intense nuclear nightmare plays out in Japan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “is preparing to dramatically increase permissible radioactive releases in drinking water, food and soil after ‘radiological incidents.’
“This is taking place without announcement entirely behind closed doors because this plan is ‘guidance’ and does not require public notice as a regulation would. The radiation guides (called Protective Action Guides or PAGs) are protocols for responding to radiological events ranging from nuclear power-plant accidents to “dirty” bombs. Drinking water, for example, would have a huge increase in allowable public exposure to radioactivity, including —
- A nearly 1000-fold increase in strontium-90;
- A 3000 to 100,000-fold hike for iodine-131; and
- An almost 25,000 rise for nickel-63.
“The new radiation guidance would also allow long-term cleanup standards thousands of times more lax than anything EPA has ever before accepted, permitting doses to the public that EPA itself estimates would cause a cancer in as much as every fourth person exposed.
“These relaxations of radiation protection requirements are favored by the nuclear industry and allies in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Energy Department but they are vigorously opposed by public health professionals inside EPA, according to documents PEER obtained by suing EPA under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).”
Back in the 1980s, and together with Jens Scheer, Dr. Ernest Sternglass correlated fluctuations in infectious diseases — and significantly, those associated with the then-emerging AIDS epidemic and other immune compromising conditions — with releases of radiation into the atmosphere due to nuclear weapons testing over the 25 preceding years. Dr. Sternglass gave me permission to publish that research.
In that seminal essay, reproduced below, Dr. Sternglass explains the dangers of nuclear radiation not only from weapons tests and nuclear power plant accidents, but — perhaps unexpectedly, for many — from the everyday low-level radiation generated in the normal functioning of nuclear power plants.
Figure 1. Concentration of Iodine-131 in fresh farm milk, May-June 1986, in the NY metropolitan area. (Recorded by the Environmental Measurement Laboratory of the Department of Energy)
by Dr. Ernest J. Sternglass
Since the tragic accident at Chernobyl on April 26, 1986, there has been mounting evidence of far more severe effects of very small doses of radiation from nuclear fission products in the environment than had been predicted on the basis of studies of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And yet, scientists and government policy makers continue to ignore the seriousness of all releases of fission products into the environment; they’ve made no effort to end nuclear weapons production and testing, nor to phase out nuclear reactors, which regularly release “low-level” radioactivity into the air and water under normal operating conditions.
Figure 2. Percent change in monthly infant mortality in the Pacifica states of the U.S., 1986/1985.
The Chernobyl accident spewed into the atmosphere around one-tenth of the amount of nuclear fission products released by all atomic bomb tests since 1945 put together. In areas of the Soviet Union hundreds of miles from Chernobyl, there has been a much larger increase in thyroid diseases, leukemia and infectious diseases than expected, in some areas ten-times as much and more. Even as the radioactive materials spread out and thinned, low-level radiation from the Chernobyl accident, which arrived in the United States by around May 9, 1986, caused a measurable increase in mortality almost immediately. Infant and fetal mortality rates as far from Chernobyl as Germany and the U.S. increased significantly in the period immediately following the arrival of the fallout, just as they had done during the period of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. Total mortality for all ages from all causes also dramatically increased in both periods.
The effects of atomic bomb tests and low-level radiation releases on health and mortality are particularly severe for those most heavily exposed to fallout during intrauterine development and early infancy. In examining U.S. Monthly Vital Statistics and Environmental Protection Agency data on radioactivity in milk, we now have statistical evidence that the large increases in total and infant mortality that occurred across the United States in the summer of 1986 are directly related to the heightened amount of radioactivity in rain and milk.
The arrival in the U.S. of low-level radiation from Chernobyl was recorded and identified by the Environmental Protection Agency’s milk-monitoring stations in each state. The concentration of Iodine-131, which has a half-life of eight days, peaked in Mid-May. [Figure 1] Other radioactive isotopes like cesium-137, strontium-90, strontium-89, and barium-140 were also identified.
The greatest rise in mortality occurred in the Pacific Region, where the highest fallout levels were measured, as shown in Figure 2. There, infant mortality per thousand live births rose by 54 percent in June of 1986 relative to the same month the previous year. The greatest rise took place in the state of Washington, which showed an increase of 245 percent from 5.8 in June 1985 to 20.2 deaths per thousand live births in June 1986. The next greatest increase on the West Coast occurred in California, where infant mortality rose by 48 percent from 7.6 in June 1985 to 11.3 deaths per thousand live births in June 1986. The excess infant mortality persisted throughout the following two months, generally decreasing everywhere from the peak reached in June, as shown for the U.S. as a whole in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Percent change in monthly infant mortality in the U.S. as a whole, 1986/1985
The greatest rise in infant mortality in any state took place in Massachusetts, where the rate increased nine-fold, from a low of 5.2 in March of 1986 to 48.8 per thousand live births in June, when infant mortality in the U.S. as a whole also reached its peak. This unprecedented sharp rise in the mortality rate was due to an extremely large and sudden decline in live births. In the case of Massachusetts, the number of live births decreased from 6,999 in April to 4,566 births in May, and to only 1,352 in June of 1986, an enormous decline of 70 percent. [Figure 4]
A similar though smaller percentage decline in live births took place in the U.S. as a whole, when the seasonally adjusted fertility rate — defined as the number of live births per 1,000 females of age 15 to 44 — reached an all-time record low during July and August of 1986. The fertility rate dropped 8.3 percent from 67.5 live births per thousand women of child-bearing age in April to only 61.9 in July and August, contributing to the lowest fertility ever observed in the history of the United States.
All together, some 60,000 live births were missing in the eight months following the accident in April, based on the observed rise of live births in the four months before the accident. This sudden decline in live births, followed by a sharp rebound to a rate of 67.8 per thousand women in September, cannot be explained by a gradual change in the decision of women to postpone child-bearing; it represents a sudden increase in miscarriages, fetal deaths and still-births.
The strong effect of low-level radiation on reproduction is supported by observations by David DeSante, who documented a massive and unprecedented reproductive failure of landbirds at the Point Reyes Bird Observatory some 25 miles north of San Francisco, from May 15 to Aug. 15, 1986. The number of newly hatched birds dropped 62 percent from the mean of the preceding 10 years.
Figure 4. Monthly live births in Mass. during the year of the Chernobyl Accident, April 26, 1986.
The particularly large effect of the Chernobyl fallout in Massachusetts appears to be related to the fact that the greatest concentration of radioactive iodine-131 in rainwater on the East Coast — and the largest total deposition of radioactive iodine-131 in a single day anywhere in the country — was measured at Montpelier, Vermont. Montpelier is located in the Appalachian mountains of New England, which supply drinking water to the heavily urbanized areas to the south.
The effect on the sensitive developing fetus was accompanied by a sharp rise in total mortality at all ages, which again was highest in Massachusetts and the states of the West Coast that recorded the most radioactivity in the air, water and milk. In Massachusetts, total deaths jumped 43 percent, from 4,297 deaths in April to 6,151 in May of 1986, while in California, the number of deaths rose from 14,550 in April to 17,202 in May. This was followed by a further abnormal rise to 20,188 in June for a total rise of 39 percent relative to April. In the state of Washington, the peak mortality occurred in July, the increase being 40 percent, from 2,959 deaths in April to 4,149 in July, a summer month that normally shows the lowest mortality.
For the U.S. as a whole, total mortality due to all causes combined increased by 2.7 percent during the months of May through August of 1986 relative to the same period the previous year, while the largest monthly increase in the infant mortality rate came in June 1986, with an 8.2 percent increase over June 1985. All together, the statistics show that some 35,000 more deaths than expected occurred in the U.S. during the eight months after the Chernobyl fallout arrived.
All of these rises in mortality varied widely across the U.S. in direct — but not linear — relation to the measured fallout. In Figure 5, the percent changes in the number of deaths for the summer months of May through August of 1986 has been compared with the same months in 1985, and plotted against the regional averages of the peak concentration of iodine-131 in milk, as reported by the EPA.
Figure 5. Percent change in total mortality for May-Aug. 1986 after Chernobyl, relative to same period in 1985 vs. Iodine-131 in milk. (W-SC: West South Central region; PAC: Pacifica Region, etc.)
Mortality in the West South Central region, which includes Texas and Oklahoma, remained the same for the summer of 1986 as in 1985; there, the milk registered the lowest concentrations of radioactivity. And in the Middle Atlantic region, which comprises New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, New York environmental groups warned residents not to drink fresh milk, which may explain why the infant mortality rate in New York declined by 7.9 percent in the state from June 1985, and in New York City by an amazing 19.6 percent. Milk consumption declined in New York in May 1986 but not in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, further implicating the milk even before Chernobyl. But in sharp contrast, in the Pacific Region, where the largest levels of fallout in the milk were reported, the mortality rate in the summer months of 1986 rose by as much as 4.9 percent. Overall, there was a 5.3 percent increase in mortality in the United States in May 1986 over May 1985.
Even during the regular operation of nuclear power plants within government guidelines, the threat to life in the surrounding area is significantly higher than the average.
In earlier studies, Jay Gould and I had assembled, from official sources, comprehensive databases on radiation and mortality. These permitted us to quantify the deaths associated with low-level radioactivity at specific times and places in ways not possible before, and to separate the effects of radioactivity from those of other, more slowly varying, environmental and socioeconomic factors. The close correlation between the increase in total, infant and fetal mortality rates with the measured amount of radioactivity in the milk following the Chernobyl accident makes it extremely likely that this unprecedented mortality pattern is causally related to the fallout from this accident; and yet, the U.S. government has consistently underestimated the significance of steady doses of low-level radiation barely above the level of “background radiation”in compromising people’s immune systems and rendering them susceptible to diseases they had been previously able to ward off.
The most recent confirmation of such a great underestimation of health effects comes from the observation of an increase in the risk of cancer, leukemia and total mortality rates for an extremely well-monitored group of workers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratories, reported in the March 20, 1990 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The increase in cancer, leukemia and mortality rates was observed at yearly dose levels comparable to those measured at great distances for releases from Chernobyl or near Three Mile Island, and those observed for various accidental releases at other nuclear plants.
Figure 6. Changes in mortality rates, May 1986 vs. May 1985, compared with May 1985 vs. May 1984.
Another recent study that indicates a high risk from very low environmental radiation doses is that reported for a large group of Mormons in Utah who had been exposed to bomb-test fallout (Stevens, et. al., JAMA, Aug. 1, 1990). As in the Oak Ridge workers study, the risk of developing leukemia per unit dose of radiation was much higher than previously expected.
Yet another extremely important confirmation of these findings is an October 1990 case-control study of leukemia around the Pilgrim nuclear plant near Boston, Massachusetts, carried out by the state’s Department of Health. It shows as much as a four-fold rise in the incidence of leukemia for residents in nearby areas, increasing with proximity to the plant and the calculated radiation dose, again at levels close to that of background radiation (meaning that steady exposure to very small amounts of radiation barely above the norm has vast and profound consequences, far beyond what had been previously projected by the government).
Doses delivered slowly and continuously over extended periods of time, such as from the ingestion or inhalation of fission-products, are hundreds of times as damaging as short, high-intensity exposures at the same small total dose produced by a brief X-ray.
The argument used to maintain the rationale that these enormously significant increases in cancer rates could not be attributed to radiation was that the measured doses were too small to have caused them; consequently, they could not be explained by the currently existing official risk estimates based on a simple linear extrapolation of the high doses received by the A-bomb survivors. But we have found that lessened doses did not produce an equally lessened cancer risk. Instead, as measured for different populations in the 10-mile zone around Three Mile Island, the dose level/risk ratio did not follow the anticipated straight line relation, but a logarithmic one, with risk rising most sharply at low doses and levelling off at high doses, demolishing all official risk-estimates for workers and the public exposed to fallout and nuclear plant releases, and proving the whole nuclear industry and weapons program to be unsafe for workers and the surrounding communities.
Even more devastating for the nuclear industry was the finding that childhood cancer and leukemia rates in the area around the Three Mile Island plant showed a clear relation to the measured gamma radiation from radioactivity in the soil at levels that were barely above normal. It confirms a similar finding by Dr. Alice Stewart in England, who concluded that the majority of childhood cancers are probably due to background radiation.
All of these new results are consistent with the growing evidence accumulated during the last twenty years that doses delivered slowly and continuously over extended periods of time, such as from the ingestion or inhalation of fission-products, are hundreds of times as damaging biologically as short, high intensity exposures at the same small total dose produced by a brief X-ray exposure. This can be understood in the light of the 1972 discovery by Dr. Abram Petkau working at the Canadian Atomic Energy Laboratories in Manitoba that at low doses absorbed at very low rates, the dominant biological damage is produced by highly toxic, short-lived excited molecules called “free-radicals”(such as that of oxygen), a single one of which can destroy a cell by rupturing the cell membrane.
The action of free-radicals is a far more efficient process at very low dose-rates than direct hits on the DNA in the nucleus of the cell, which is the dominant form of biological damage at the high doses and dose-rates of external medical and direct bomb exposures. As a result, radioactive releases from nuclear bomb testing, and normal as well as accidental releases from nuclear plants, turn out to be hundreds to thousands of times more serious than is presently maintained by the nuclear industry and official government organizations, as reflected in the existing standards for permissible releases. It leads to a supra-linear relation between dose and effect that rises rapidly at small doses and levels off at high doses, exactly what the Hatch and other recent studies have found for cancer at low, protracted environmental or workplace exposures.
Other studies have shown that the developing infant is hundreds to thousands of times more sensitive to radiation than the adult, especially in the earliest stages of intrauterine development. Particularly serious for any society is prematurity and reduced weight at birth, which is often accompanied by breathing problems and a much higher than normal incidence of neurological damage. This in turn can lead to reduced learning ability and increased risk of emotional disturbance, with all the consequent societal implications and costs that we are now facing.
Radiation and AIDS
Furthermore, as reported in Red Balloon (Spring, 1988), widespread exposure to fallout can affect the immune defenses of the body and increase the mutation rate of micro-organisms. Thus, radioactive releases due to nuclear bomb tests and nuclear powerplant accidents (among other man-made factors) correlate directly with the worldwide epidemics of new diseases and disease complexes such as AIDS, and with a resurgence of older infectious diseases such as measles, hepatitis, tuberculosis, cholera and syphilis. [See Figure 6] The correlation is direct, and the lack of government and scientific concern over the evidence is astounding. Wherever heavy rainfall, diet and social disintegration combine to decimate immune systems and introduce radioactive materials — Strontium-90 being a leading culprit — into people’s bodies, modern plagues are being introduced in populations unable to ward them off.
In recent years, it has become clear that the damage to the immune defenses of the body also lowers its ability to fight cancer. Strontium-90 and other fission products similar to calcium contaminate milk, meat, and root vegetables that are the staples of most western diets. They concentrate in bones and damage the cells of the immune system originating in the bone marrow of newborns as well as adults.
Interestingly, a study by the March of Dimes (NY Times, Apr. 20, 1991), showed that in the mid-1980s, the infant mortality for the Asian population of New York City had plunged to an all-time low of five per 1,000 live births, as low or lower than reached in any other large city in the world — although the infant mortality rate remained about four times greater for the Black population.
The enormous discrepancy fits exactly the hypothesis that it is chiefly the milk, cheese and large amounts of high fat, high Strontium-90 beef that compose the diet of most people in the U.S., but which are not part of most Asians’ diets, that have been devastating the immune systems of the rest of the world’s population since the nuclear age began.
No socio-economic or medical care changes could explain the sudden large fluctuations in mortality over so short a time. Likewise, no other toxic agents such as DDT, PCB, dioxin or other herbicides, pesticides, industrial chemicals or seepages from toxic waste dumps could explain the sharp rises and declines in the U.S. Monthly Vital Statistics across the country as a whole. Only a short-lived toxic agent such as iodine-131 together with other short-lived isotopes could account for such rapid rises and declines of mortality. Indeed, it is the appearance of this short-lived radioactive agent that highly correlates with the sudden rises and declines of all three types of mortality reported for the different regions of the U.S.
Radioactive iodine-131 and other fission products damage key hormone-producing organs such as the thyroid, the pituitary and other glands involved in the control of vital functions such as growth, development, reproduction and immune resistance. As the evidence provided by the Chernobyl accident strongly suggests, low levels of fission products in the air, drinking water and the diet are likely to be the principal factors in the otherwise unexplained changes in mortality and fertility seen in the United States during the years of nuclear weapons testing following World War II.
The levels of I-131 in milk measured during May and June of 1986, typically only 20 to 60 picocuries per liter, are comparable to those observed in the course of releases from underground bomb tests such as the Mighty Oak accident on April 10, 1986. Thus, it is no longer possible to say that underground nuclear tests result in negligible effects on human health, as claimed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Indeed, the pattern of early rises in mortality rates in Nevada, California and the northern plains states during April and May of 1986 suggests that the fallout from the Mighty Oak accident contributed significantly to the effects of the Chernobyl accident in those areas 16 days later.
The total amount of iodine-131 taken in through the consumption of milk in the months after the accident in the U.S. averaged only about 320 picocuries, or just under a single picocurie per day when averaged over a whole year. Yet the government’s present permissible limit for a single intake following an accident is 15,000 picocuries per liter per day, illustrating the total inadequacy of present radiation standards for iodine-131 and other radioactive fission products in our milk and drinking water.
This minute amount — one trillionth of a Curie — is much less than the present reporting limit used by the EPA of 15 picocuries per liter of milk — even though, as we have shown, such small amounts, far below the government’s reporting requirements, have drastic health ramifications. In fact, concentrations of one to 10 picocuries per liter of milk occur routinely during normal operation of commercial nuclear reactors under existing radiation standards. It therefore appears that the existing standards for allowable radiation — based on observing the effects of short exposures to high doses of external X-rays and gamma rays that occur in medical uses and the direct flash of bomb-radiation — have vastly underestimated the risk of low-level, chronic exposures. [See Figure 7]
Figure 7. Dose-response curve: Percent increase in mortality as a function of Iodine-131 levels.
Thus, the rapid rise of serious biological effects at very small doses followed by a levelling-off at higher doses explains the present underestimate of low-dose effects, which are based on a linear extrapolation from studies done at high doses. The new studies following Chernobyl and Three Mile Island not only point to the dangers from nuclear accidents but explain the unexpectedly large increases of infant and total mortality rates in areas near nuclear reactors observed in recent years.
These results imply that the effects of releases of radioactivity into the environment are thousands of times more serious than presently calculated on the basis of cancer risk to adults from short external X-rays and gamma radiation exposures.
In conclusion, serious damage to human immune systems and infant development occurs at much larger distances from the site of radioactive releases than presently admitted; the nuclear industry’s push for smaller evacuation zones around nuclear plants while still allowing for releases of iodine-131, in however small an amount, runs completely counter to the new evidence produced by the Chernobyl accident and other related studies of low dose radiation effects.
The medical and scientific community has long believed, on the basis of linear extrapolations from high doses, that low-level radiation from fallout and nuclear plant releases can be dismissed as posing a negligibly small danger. This is the principal assumption that scientists must now reevaluate. The new evidence cries out for an end to the manufacture and testing of nuclear weapons, and the immediate shutdown of all nuclear power plants.
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