IS FEAR OF NUCLEAR RADIATION EXAGGERATED ? Look to History for the Answer !

| March 7, 2012 | Comments (0)

 

News of the  tsunami-damaged nuclear power  facility in Fukushima, Japan continues to grip the world even though NO deaths have been reported from  the reactor’s radiation. Pollution from coal-powered energy  plants causes more than 100,000 deaths a year yet barely manages to be reported in the back pages of newspapers. Are we getting the true story about what is killing us ?

An examination of the history of nuclear radiation in both war and peace will shed light on our fears and serve as a guide for the future use of nuclear power.

In April 1986 an explosion in the Ukraine ruptured a nuclear reactor adding the name of a heretofore unknown place to the vocabulary of terror: Chernobyl. Fall-out from this disaster spread far and wide drifting into the atmosphere, falling on farmer’s fields, churches and homes.

Six years later a team of scientists assembled by the United Nations descended on the Ukraine to check on the health of  the population in the vicinity of Chernobyl. More than 200 hematologists, oncologists, geneticists and other specialists issued their report stating there was NO indication of problems attributable to the nuclear accident – no abnormal incidence of leukemia, no new patterns of cell damage, no new evidence of birth defects. Medical checks were run on thousands of people and nothing abnormal was found.

Another nuclear accident in 1979 produced a similar result when a reactor at the power Station on Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown. No one got sick and there were no deaths as a result of this accident.

Going back to the biggest nuclear disaster in history, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in August 1945, research has put the death toll at 182, 545 for those who died during five months following the explosions.   From 1950 on, the health of more than 100,000  atomic bomb survivors was monitored to determine the  bombs’ long-term effects on their physical well-being. Average lifespans of surviving victims exposed to the bomb blast in August 1945 were only several months shorter than the non-exposed population and this difference was at least in part due to burns and other physical injuries, not to radiation. Among the survivors, various forms of cancer were within the normal range as was tuberculosis and infantile leukemia.

Logically, following the examples of closing Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011,Hiroshima and Nagasaaki should have been closed in 1945, but they weren’t even though they got a million times more radiation and the life expectancy of the residents of these two cities was no different, apart from the 200,000 killed in  August 1945, than any other Japanese city.

When we speak of  exposure to radiation we seem to lose sight of the fact that people routinely expose themselves to sizeable doses of radiation for medical exams and cancer treatment; dental x-rays  produce the highest level of radiation and are often  given for purely cosmetic reasons. And “normal” everyday exposure to background radiation is a fact of life. When we fly, we are exposed to higher levels of radiation. Where we live also makes a difference; living in areas with a lot of granite rocks increases the exposure to radiation. Thus, living in bucolic Cornwall, England for a year would be more risky than drinking from the Tokyo water system for the same period.

Therefore we must ask ourselves: is it reasonable to fear nuclear power for crises such as Fukushima that have actually killed NO ONE due to radiation while virtually ignoring coal mining accidents that kill thousands every year? Nuclear power is one of the safest sources of energy. So why does radiation get such a bad rap  when pollution from fossil fuels is a fact of life ? The threat of climate change is much greater than the danger from radiation, but we continue to produce gas-guzzling cars and burn coal and oil with no seeming worry about the dangers of carbon dioxide. 

World energy consumption has surged with galloping industrialization and growth in China and India and other parts of the globe.  The current  share of sources of energy are as follows: oil 33%; coal 27%; gas 21%; nuclear power 6%;  hydro-power 2.5%; and renewable sources of energy (such as sun, wind and rain) 10.5 %.

During the next 25 years, many existing US nuclear power plants wll reach the end of their currently authorized US Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses. If nuclear power is not used in the future, alternative energy sources must be found. There is little realistic prospect that  predominant use of fossil fuels (current 81%) will be replaced in the foreseeable future by renewable sources of energy or other innovative processes. This leaves nuclear power as the only possible option for the future.

Nuclear energy is efficient. The amount of energy produced per amount of material consumed is the highest of all energy sources. Costs of nuclear power are competitive with other  energy sources such as coal. The source material – uranium – is abundant and the amount of waste is the least of any major energy production process.

If the  United States – and the world –  wants to avail itself of carbon-free energy, there is no choice but nuclear energy.

Today radiation is as  dreaded as witchcraft was feared in the Middle Ages. The public,  terrified by radiation,  are like villagers of old, avoiding the old crone’s black cat. It’s time for an open dialogue that looks rationally at what radiation can provide and at what cost.

A lifetime of cigarette-smoking is more dangerous than being near the Fukushima power plant. 

 Black cat waiting.JPG

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