Waking Up to a Nuclear Nightmare

Waking Up to a Nuclear Nightmare

Bravo Test over Enewetak, Marshall Islands, Operation Castle, March 1, 1954. Designed specifically to generate the largest possible cloud of fallout, the Bravo test was the first detonation of hydrogen bomb dropped from an airplane. (Click for complete caption.) (Photo: US Atomic Energy Commission / Department of Energy)

As Japan's nuclear disaster continues to unfold, a growing number of its citizens and residents are beginning their transition, becoming the newest members of the world's radiogenic community. Like the hibakusha, downwinders, uranium miners, atomic vets and the many who live in towns and cities that hosted the nuclear enterprise, they find their lives profoundly altered by a hazardous, invisible threat, where the fear of nuclear contamination and the personal health and intergenerational effects from exposure colors all aspects of social, cultural, economic and psychological well-being.

Some radiogenic communities are the end result of a geographic location: living downwind from or adjacent to uranium mines and mills, nuclear power plants and waste dumps, nuclear weapons tests, battlefields or military training grounds. Others are formed by occupational exposure as a soldier, scientist, miner, plant operator or other worker. Such lives are characterized by degenerative health conditions resulting from their exposure, pain and suffering associated with miscarriages and the birth of congenitally deformed children, the difficulties of raising physically disabled children and caring for increasingly feeble elderly, the fear of and anxiety over additional exposures, the fear of and anxiety over intergenerational and other unknown effects of radiation and the psychosocial humiliation, marginalization and stigmatization that is common to nuclear victimized communities.

Life in a nuclear nightmare often revolves around a series of stressful and difficult questions: Radiation is invisible, so how do you know when you are in danger? How long will this danger persist? How can you reduce the hazard to yourself and your family? What level of exposure is safe? How do you get access to vital information in time to prevent or minimize exposure? What are the potential risks of acute and chronic exposures? What are the related consequential damages of exposure? Whose information do you trust? How do you rebuild a healthy way of life in the aftermath of nuclear disaster?

Finding answers to such questions is hugely difficult in the chaos and context of an ongoing disaster. It is all the more difficult when government and industry maintain control over information, operations and the scientific exploration of nuclear disasters.

We have, for example, the ability to forecast and display meteorological conditions. Yet, other than ultraviolet radiation (UV) predictions, there is no public access to forecasts for radioactive atmospheric conditions. Radiologic atmospheric data is collected by the United Nations Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), a Vienna-based body that monitors radionuclide, seismic, hydroacoustic and infrasound evidence across the globe as a means to implement the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. For decades now, findings have been reported to member nations and have played a role in the development of an early-warning tsunami system. Why is there no early warning system for radioactive deposition? Why, as fallout hits the West Coast, is public knowledge on local radiological conditions limited to Geiger-counter reporting of independent citizens? 

And, as the world once again receives a crash course on nuclear reactors, spent fuel rods, meltdown and fallout, why is there no clear consensus on what this means with regard to local and global human health?

Information on radiation health effects, while increasingly accessible, largely reflects the flaws and biases embedded in classified cold war-era research that served government and industry interests. Findings that contradicted the official narrative were typically censored, and scientists suffered reprisal and blacklisting. Anthropologist Earle Reynolds, for example, whose Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission research demonstrated that Japanese children exposed to the radioisotopes in fallout were smaller than their counterparts, with lowered resistance to disease and a greater susceptibility to cancer, especially leukemia, found his 1953 report censored, as it represented the evidence that supported a global ban on nuclear weapons tests. Reviewing this and other history, the 1994 Advisory Commission on Human Radiation Experiments in the United States concluded that the radiation health literature of the cold war years was a heavily sanitized and scripted version meant to reassure and pacify public protests while achieving military and economic agendas.

Decades of such control reinforced, again and again, the core message: Humans have evolved in a world where radiation from the sun and naturally occurring elements was present, and radiation at some levels is natural and beneficial. Any adverse heath effect of radiation exposure is the occasional and accidental result of high levels of exposure. Any resulting adverse heath effect from radiation exposure is limited to the individual, not his or her offspring. Nuclear power operations are safe, and their periodic low-level releases represent no threat to human health. This narrative, in one form or another, has been present in government and industry press releases and media reports in these past weeks.

Example: In the initial hours after the earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese government and Tokyo Electrical Power Company issued statements reporting minor damage at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. In the days that followed, government and industry officials reported the “venting of hydrogen gas,” but claimed that there was “no threat to health.” This reassurance of health safety was echoed when hydrogen gas explosions occurred at the power plant. In fact, the hydrogen released is tritiated water vapor, a low-level emitter absorbed through the skin, by breathing and by drinking contaminated water. Tritium decays by beta emission and has a radioactive half-life of about 12.3 years. As it undergoes radioactive decay, tritium emits a very low-energy beta particle and transforms to stable, nonradioactive helium. Once tritium enters the body, it disperses quickly, is uniformly distributed and is excreted through the urine within a month or so after ingestion. It produces a low-level exposure and may result in toxic effects to the kidney. As with all ionizing radiation, exposure to tritium increases the risk of developing cancer.

Why no mention of tritium in the government or industry statements? Relatively speaking, the health effects of a low-level emitter like tritium are minor when compared to the other radiogenic and toxic hazards in this nuclear catastrophe. Such omission is a standard industry practice, designed to reassure the public that the normal operating procedures of a nuclear power plant represent no significant threat to human health.

There are other sources of conclusive data that allow a very different interpretation of the health hazards posed by this nuclear disaster: cold war classification and the incestuous nature of government, military and industry agendas made it difficult to challenge the assumptions that underlie this “trust us” narrative. For example, the assumption that radiogenic health effects must be demonstrated through direct causality (one isotope, one outcome) meant science on cumulative and synergistic effects was not pursued. Discounting or ignoring the toxic nature of varied radioisotopes meant health risks were assessed and regulations promulgated on the basis of acute exposures and outcomes (radiation poisoning and deadly cancer).

The declassification of the United States' human radiation experiment records in the mid-1990's, release of similar USSR records in the years following the break-up of the Soviet Union, reassessment of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission records, and new research conducted by Japanese scientists, translation and publication of long-term research on Chernobyl workers and other survivors, and the efforts to understand and repair the damages from nuclear weapons testing and related fallout in the Marshall Islands all generate a body of knowledge that stands in sharp contradiction to the assumptions that sustain trust in nuclear power and the ability to prevent, manage, contain, control or remediate any disaster.

From this record of studied and lived experience, what do we know? We know fallout and the movement of radionuclides through marine and terrestrial environments makes its way into the food chain and the human body. We know that bioaccumulation of radioisotopes amplifies the relatively small “trace amounts” in the environment, and, when ingested, generates larger exposures and significant adverse health outcomes. We know that ingestion of even the smallest particle of a long-lived isotope can result in degenerative health and deadly cancers. We know that acute exposures are further complicated when followed by chronic exposure, as such assaults have a cumulative and synergistic effect on health and well-being. We know that chronic exposure to low-level radiation does more than increase the risk of developing cancers; such exposure threatens the immune system, results in changes in fertility, increased rates of birth defect, increased rates of cancers, physical and mental retardation, metabolic disorders and premature aging. We know that the toxicity of contaminants in fallout, as well as the radioactivity, represent significant public health risks. And we know that the effects of such exposures extend across the generations.

Consider, for example Alexy V. Yablokov, Vassily B. Nesterenko and Alexy V. Nesterenko's 2009 summation of Chernobyl experiences published by the New York Academy of Sciences. Health effects not only include widespread occurrence of thyroid disease and cancers (for every case of Chernobyl-induced thyroid cancer, there are about 1,000 other cases of thyroid gland pathology, resulting in the multiple endocrine illness of millions of people), post-Chernobyl studies confirm increased morbidity, impairment and disability; oncological disease; accelerated aging; and increased nonmalignant disease (blood, lymph, cardiovascular, metabolic, endocrine, immune, respirator, urogenital, bone and muscle, nervous system, ocular, digestive and skin). These health effects are not simply limited to the generation of people exposed to fallout. Given the long-lived nature of radioisotopes and mutagenic change resulting from exposure, the intergenerational impacts from Chernobyl are profound.

There are many lessons to be learned, both from the human health outcomes of exposure and from the wide array of strategies that people are developing as they come to understand and adjust to the environmental hazards and health risks associated with life in a radiogenic community. There are proactive strategies that can be taken to reduce risk, to grow healthy and safe food, to enhance individual, family and community health as illustrated in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) Nuclear Claims Tribunal's (a United States funded and initiated tribunal) awards to repair and compensate Bikini, Enewetak, Utrik and Rongelap atoll communities. Years of research and testimony on fallout damages and varied ways in which such damages might be repaired led to RMI Nuclear Claims Tribunal awards meant to decontaminate soils, reduce the presence of radioisotopes in the food chain, educate and train a new generation of Marshallese radiation health experts, provide holistic health care and other measures that seek to rebuild a sustainable and healthy way of life. Such actions however, have not materialized as the United States government under the Bush administration rejected the Nuclear Claims Tribunal findings, in 2010 the Supreme Court rejected the right of the Marshallese to plead their case and the Congress has yet to take action on a request to fully fund the tribunal and thus address the ulcerating injuries incurred by this former US territory.

The ideal of governance as embodied in the world's constitutions is that the state serves as the institutional mechanism that secures the fundamental rights of its citizens to life and livelihood. Japan's nuclear disaster, like other catastrophic events (Katrina, Chernobyl), illustrates how far we have moved from that ideal. Every stage in the evolution of this nuclear nightmare has involved struggles to control the content and flow of information to preempt society-wide panic (and the related loss of trust in government), to reduce liability and to protect nuclear and other industry agendas. Such decisions have profound public health consequences.

There are many lessons to be learned here, not the least of which is how to respond, adjust and adapt to the environmental hazards and health risks associated with life in this nuclear world. As the world's nations reassess nuclear power operations and refine their energy development plans, now more than ever, we need to utilize all data to inform our decisions, especially the experiences of the world's radiogenic communities.


Full Caption: Bravo Test over Enewetak, Marshall Islands, Operation Castle, March 1, 1954. Designed specifically to generate the largest possible cloud of fallout, the Bravo test was the first detonation of a hydrogen bomb dropped from an airplane. With a radioactive cloud that plumed over 7,000 square miles, this detonation of the US's largest nuclear weapon resulted in near-lethal exposures to 23 Japanese tuna fishermen pursuing their catch outside of the “danger” zone, to 28 US Navy weathermen monitoring radiologic conditions on Rongerik and to the entire Marshallese population living on Rongleap and Ailinginae Atolls. Fallout went global, with radioactive debris reportedly reaching the Americas by day five. At the time, the US admitted to the United Nations that dangerous levels of fallout in a 100-mile radius area, and in 1955 Commissoner Willard Libby claimed evidence from AEC research demonstrated fallout would not likely be dangerous. In fact, as evidenced by a declassified document released in 1999, fallout from this test blanketed the entire Marshall Islands with dangerous levels of contamination – 22 populated atolls in an area the size of Mexico – contaminants that remain present in the food chain and the human body to this day. (Photo: US Atomic Energy Commission / Department of Energy)