Why Cancer may not be the Main Concern about Radiation

After a nuclear accident, the one thing that is sure to appear along with the radioactive fallout, like a law of nature itself, is a number of scientists ready to appear in the media giving comforting and optimistic opinions that all precautions are being taken and health effects will be minimal. They have ready access to the media, while experts with contrary views have more trouble getting their voices heard.

The starkest difference between these two types of experts is that one speaks of cancer being the only effect of radiation, and that it will add only a small percentage to the cases of cancer that will happen anyway. The other type of expert cites research showing cancer is only the last of many effects to be suffered by a body that has been exposed over a long period to internal radiation.

These non-cancer effects have been demonstrated in people who absorbed high doses of fallout after weapons testing, soldiers and civilians in war zones who are exposed to depleted uranium, Chernobyl victims, people exposed to radiation during medical treatments, and people who were exposed through work in the nuclear industry.

I’m just an amateur, so far be it from me to question the comforting messages from the optimistic experts, but here’s what I’ve been able to figure out:
This chart is a simplified illustration of another one, inserted at the end of this article, which appeared in a Japanese medical journal.

If I have got something wrong here, I’m open to being corrected, but for the time being it’s a mystery to me how anyone with a medical degree could not have learned what I have learned in a short time about the basics of how radiation damages DNA and causes two possible outcomes: cell death or a mutation that lives on to become cancer. Increasing amounts of cell death lead to organ failure and the weakening of the endocrine and immune systems, or at some point a malignant growth sets in.

The human body puts up a pretty good fight against radiation. It eliminates most of the radionuclides, and cells kill themselves in most cases rather than reproducing and passing on genetic damage. But this survival strategy cannot last indefinitely if the onslaught continues, as it has done with children in Belarus who continue to consume contaminated food. The body forestalls cancer as long as it can by killing cells, but it suffers a lot of declining health in that struggle. It’s a sub-optimal trade-off to a threat to life.

This onslaught of radiation could be compared to a nation at war. It sends its healthy young soldiers into battle, but as more of them die, the society becomes less viable. It may survive for years in this way, but no one would say this is the normal way to live. This is why the health and quality of life of radiation victims has to count as much as, or more than, the lives lost to cancer. The number of people affected is much higher, as are the costs to society.

Cancer is the more famous example of radiation damage because it is seen in the dramatic cases of intense, short-lived exposure. A Chernobyl firefighter gets exposed to a massive dose and dies a few weeks later in a Moscow hospital. This is dramatic and frightening news, but also terribly irrelevant to the millions of people who have to live with the aftermath of Chernobyl and Fukushima. High level exposures are easily avoided. Experts appear in the media to tell us we are only minutely more likely to get cancer at some future time, but this is totally beside the point. The main concern is the non-cancerous effect of long-term, low-level internal radiation absorbed through food, water and air. It seems like some experts, knowing that the C-word is the bogeyman of popular consciousness, exploit the public’s fear of it and deliberately avoid discussing other effects of radiation.

Experts can also dismiss public fears because they know radiation doesn’t leave a trace in the body telling scientists that a tumor or a heart attack was ultimately caused by radiation exposure. But we do know that since the dawn of the nuclear age, rates of childhood cancers have increased, so, no, it’s not just that there is more cancer because people live longer (In the U.S., from 11.5 cases per 100,000 children in 1975 to 14.8 per 100,000 children in 2004 - a period that coincides with worldwide Chernobyl fallout that affected everyone born after 1986).

We also know that modern civilization suffers from “epidemics” of diabetes, chronic fatigue, immune disorders, depression and heart disease. All of this has co-occurred with the age of man-made chemicals and adverse changes in diet and lifestyle, so we’ll never sort out the confounding variables. If someone really wants to believe that radiation has not contributed to these health crises, he’s free to ignore all the evidence that points to a strong link. It is impossible to know for certain what the effects on populations have been, even though the effects have been more convincingly demonstrated in lab experiments on animals and living cells. We have to make our best judgment with the evidence available.

For most of the public, the causes of cancer and other health epidemics are just one big head-scratching mystery. We sign up for the latest corporate sponsored pink-ribbon campaign for breast cancer, or grow a mustache to raise awareness of prostate cancer. These efforts are always with our eyes fixed on feeding the research-pharma industrial complex in the hope that it will find “the cure.” Few note the irony of our increasing dependence on the nuclear industry to provide isotopes to diagnose and treat cancer. Of course, no one can deny that millions of lives have been saved or extended by this emphasis on treatment, but much more could be accomplished in the long-term by looking at the obvious causes, and taking actions to minimize them.

Naming names:

1. Shunichi Yamashita radiation specialist with decades of experience in Japan and Chernobyl, special advisor to the government on the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster.

 “… we clearly know that animals who are very susceptible to stress will be more affected by radiation. .... Besides, mental-state stress also suppresses the immune system and therefore may promote some cancer and non-cancer diseases…. We know from Chernobyl that the psychological consequences are enormous. Life expectancy of the evacuees dropped from 65 to 58 years -- not because of cancer, but because of depression, alcoholism and suicide.

Dr. Yamashita here seems to claim that depression is caused only by social circumstances. He admits no neurochemical basis of depression. It is theoretically possible that radiation affected endocrine systems and neurochemistry to such an extent that it was the ultimate cause of depression and suicide.

About anti-nuclear activists he says, “...they are not scientists, they are not doctors, they are not radiation specialists. They do not know the international standards, which researchers worked on very hard. It makes me sad that people believe gossip, magazines and even Twitter.” [or is it sad that they believe reports in magazines and tweets that quote experts who disagree?]

About the risks to residents of Fukushima: “I do not think there will be any direct effect of the radiation for the population. The doses are too small.

2. Alexey V. Yablokov, Vassily B. Nesterenko, Alexey V. Nesterenko - rebuttal to views of Professor Yamashita:

Researchers from the former Soviet Union who lived through the Chernobyl disaster have the advantage of knowing the local languages, the research that has been done in these languages, the victims and medical personnel who were on the ground at the disaster (many of them now dead), and the political and bureaucratic culture. In other words, they lived through it. They ought to know better than anyone. They don’t fly in from other countries with the preconception that they are visiting a backward country full of depressed, lazy, chain-smoking alcoholics. These scientists from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine published a comprehensive meta-study of the research, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment (most of the sources were in Slavic languages that UN agencies paid little attention to), in which they came to conclusions such as these:

“We believe it is unreasonable to attribute the increased occurrence of disease in the contaminated territories to screening or socioeconomic factors because the only variable is radioactive loadingIn independent investigations scientists have compared the health of individuals in various territories that are identical in terms of ethnic, social, and economic characteristics and differ only in the intensity of their exposure to radiation. It is scientifically valid to compare specific groups over time (a longitudinal study), and such comparisons have unequivocally attributed differences in health outcomes to Chernobyl fallout.

Endocrine dysfunction, particularly thyroid disease, is far more common than might be expected, with some 1,000 cases of thyroid dysfunction for every case of thyroid cancer, a marked increase after the catastrophe.”

This issue has also been covered in the HBO documentary Chernobyl Heart (2003). It is astounding that UN agencies and so many scientists have heartlessly dismissed the eye-witness testimony recorded in this and other documentaries. If the situation was critical enough for aid groups to send American surgeons to Belarus to repair childrens' damaged hearts, how can they say there is no proven link between cesium absorption and the health of the population?

3. Dr. Yoshiya Shimada of National Institute of Radiological Sciences, who is known for his claim that radiation exposure up to 100mSv/year is safe. (Follow this link to see video of students at Kyoto University demanding a chance to debate with him).

4. Toshiso Kosako

In contrast to Dr. Shimada, another expert government advisor and professor at Tokyo University, Toshiso Kosako, resigned primarily because of the government decision to allow children in Fukushima to be exposed up to 20 millisieverts annually (equal to the international standard for nuclear power plant workers). He said simply, I cannot allow this as a scholar.”

5. Gerry Thomas, Chair in Molecular Pathology, Department of Surgery and Cancer, Imperial College Hospital, UK

Even the Japanese government admitted before the end of March, 2011 that people in Fukushima should have been given potassium iodide pills. Nonetheless, New Scientist has for some reason repeated the lie that they did receive potassium iodide. It was reported on August 16, 2011, quoting Dr. Gerry Thomas:

"First, there was lower exposure to radioiodine [in Fukushima]. Second, iodine pills were quickly distributed. Third, the Japanese enjoy natural protection as there is a high amount of iodine in the diet [Enjoy?]. Finally, thyroid cancer is quite treatable, and Japan has efficient testing and treatment options." 

(Note the implication – from a cancer specialist – that for the patient, the surgical removal of the thyroid gland, followed by a lifetime of hormone replacement therapy, is no big deal.)

New Scientist repeated the lie two weeks later in another report (August 30, 2011), going again to the same expert for an opinion:

"’We've got to stop these sorts of reports coming out, because they are really upsetting the Japanese population,’ says Gerry Thomas at Imperial College London, who is attending the meeting. ‘The media has a hell of a lot of responsibility here, because the worst post-Chernobyl effects were the psychological consequences and this shouldn't happen again.’
Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency report that the release of radioactivity from Fukushima is about 10 per cent that of Chernobyl [also not true – no final figure has been determined, but a recent report puts the number at 42%]. ‘The Japanese did the right thing at the right time, providing stable iodine to ensure that doses of radioactive iodine to the thyroids of children were minimal,’ she says."

The lie still goes uncorrected on the web site three months later, in both reports. The sad fact is that because of bureaucratic inertia and indifference, no one in Japan got iodine tablets (except for people in one town where the mayor disobeyed the central government order to hold back), as was reported in Asahi Shimbun and other mainstream media:

“The Japanese government has not instructed any residents to take iodine tablets since the start of the nuclear crisis.”

I’m not a chair of  a prestigious medical institution. I’m just a blogger and a professor of English at a middle ranked private university in Tokyo, but at least I’ve made an effort here to list reliable sources. But I suppose when one is urgently trying to blitz the media to “stop these sorts of reports coming out,” and to defend the nuclear industry in its time of peril, there is no time for fact-checking.

The diagram above is a simplified version of the chart below illustrating process by which long-term internal exposure to Cesium 137 gives rise to bladder inflammation and eventually cancer. The chart appeared in the medical journal cited below it.

chart excerpted from an article by Katsuhiko Kodama,  Head of Tokyo University Isotope Synthesis Center
チェルノブイリ膀胱炎: 長期のセシウム 137低線量被爆の危険性


Malthus, Slaves, Servants, Energy, the Industrial Revolution: Is a Travelling Wave Reactor the Answer for Peak Oil and Peak Everything on a Planet with 7,000,000,000 people?

The English scholar Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) is famous for developing a theory of population that stated that the growth and wealth of societies are limited by their resources. All living things are limited by this law which is observed in the simple demonstration of bacteria growing in a petri dish with a finite supply of nutrients.

Basic Malthus:
  1. The increase of population is limited by the available resources.
  2. Population increases when resources increase.
  3. Misery and vice are the outcome of the unavoidable competition for scarce resources as they run out.
Malthus’ views had implications for social policy. If he is correct, then helping the poor by giving them food only encourages them to increase in number. Suffering in the present will be reduced, but suffering in the future will be increased as those dependent on charity increase in number. In a similar way, it would be dangerous for a country to import food because that would only increase the population and make it dependent on remote food sources. A nation should be able to feed itself from its local resources.

Malthus could not imagine the great increases in food production that were achieved after he lived, but even if he had lived to see the large increases in food production, he might have still said that eventually food supplies will reach a limit and populations will crash.

Shortly after Malthus’ time, the Industrial Revolution took off in England, and Malthus’ theory faded from influence. It seemed like limitless growth was possible. No one could explain why Malthus was wrong, but the evidence showed that populations were increasing while the standard of living was also increasing. Society never fell into the Malthusian trap.

Economists have debated for a long time why this Malthusian trap was avoided, and why the Industrial Revolution occurred first in England instead of somewhere else. Some views state that it was England’s control of resources from its colonies that made it rich. Others say that it was the unique situation in England that combined the right mix of political power, geography, history, culture, institutions and scientific knowledge. Another theory is that it was the application of new energy sources that cancelled out the usual Malthusian limitations on population growth. The Industrial Revolution happened just as coal was being mined and burned to power the new machines of industry.

The discovery of new energy sources also made food production increase tremendously. For example, fossil fuel energy is used to fix nitrogen which allows food to grow. Yields of corn in the US have increased tremendously in the last fifty years, but this is achieved by the industrial production of ammonia. Natural gas is burned to fix the nitrogen in the air into a form that can be used by plants. Without the input of fossil fuel energy, global food production would decline greatly. This energy source took millions of years to form underground, but we have used up most of it in two centuries. It is a finite source that will run out sometime in the next one or two centuries. Even if it doesn’t run out, the continuation of burning this fuel will lead to catastrophic global warming.

What are the implications of this depletion? Matt Ridley in The Rational Optimist explains fossil and nuclear fuel as the slaves of modern life:

Today, the average person on the planet consumes power at the rate of about 2,500 watts, … or 600 calories per second. About 85% of that comes from burning coal, oil and gas, the rest from nuclear and hydro… Since a reasonably fit person on a bicycle can generate about fifty watts, this means that it would take 150 slaves, working eight-hour shifts each, to peddle [sic] you to your current lifestyle. (The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley p. 236)

Ridley states that it was the sudden availability of coal and oil that was one cause of the end of slavery in the US. It coincided with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution. Machines could now do much of the hard work on farms, and do it more cheaply than the cost of buying and owning slaves. In addition to the moral arguments for ending slavery, it was also no longer economically rational.[1] The use of fossil fuels not only liberated slaves, but it increased freedom and living standards for everyone. The average person could now have luxuries that were once beyond the reach of kings. This greater material progress might be the cause of moral progress. It allows us to obtain more education, more entertainment, and more travel, all of which expand our empathy. Since the Industrial Revolution, violence has decreased and human rights have increased.

This way of looking at fossil and nuclear energy emphasizes that they were the causes of the Industrial Revolution and the escape from the Malthusian trap. Money is just paper. Gold and silver are just metals. Fossil and nuclear fuels are the real currencies that make our economy function. If we don’t find substitutes for these limited resources soon, it is difficult to imagine how our society will be structured in the future.

In a world of depleted energy sources, if some people wanted electricity, they would have to produce it on land with biofuels, hydroelectricity, wind farms and solar panels, or even with human power, but the total amount of solar energy falling on the planet (which creates these forms of energy) is limited in comparison with all the energy that was stored underground (as oil, coal and uranium) over millions of years. Perhaps some of the energy would be produced by animals, and human servants and slaves turning turbines, but these would also need energy inputs in the form of food calories. It might be a very hierarchical society, with most people having a low standard of living.

It is not likely that society would transform into a feudal hierarchy in which a small elite soaks in heated swimming pools while a hundred slaves pedal bicycle turbines to provide the heat for the mansion, but it is certain that there would be a reverse in the steady decline in the number of people working in food production. Whether you are rich or poor now, this shift back toward an agricultural lifestyle is unthinkable. There will be fewer people pushing information around the Internet, and many more people pushing ploughs.

This is why the environmental movement has so much trouble getting its issues onto the political agenda. Powerful corporations don’t really need to control the media or cover up truth because the average citizen essentially has the same fears as the richest corporate baron. When we hear about the horrors of the Alberta Tar Sands or the nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima, we want to just put our heads in the sand and not think about it.

Jeremy Grantham is the head of an asset management firm in Boston. He speaks quite bleakly of the vindication of Malthusian theory that is now apparent. He believes that in the early 21st century, the Industrial Revolution has ended and a new era has begun. During the Industrial Revolution, economists thought Malthus had been wrong, but now resources are running out and it is clear that Malthus’ laws cannot be avoided. The use of fossil and nuclear fuels for 200 years just allowed us to delay the end of the growth cycle in our little petri dish called Earth.

Grantham believes that energy problems will be solved with new technologies, but he points to shortages of other vital resources such as potassium and phosphorous (essential for fertilizers), water, soil and many metals. He believes that the negative effects of these shortages can be avoided if governments stop their short-term planning and aim for the long term. As far as energy is concerned, he sees hope in renewable energy and the next generation of better and safer nuclear reactors. Others point out, however, that uranium is running out just as fast as fossil fuels. As I wrote above, going backwards is unthinkable, so the futurists hope for a technological fix.

The wealthy philanthropist, Bill Gates, supports a next generation “travelling wave” nuclear reactor called Terrapower that he claims would be safe and use up spent fuel already in existence. By investing in this revolutionary, untried technology, Gates seems to be admitting what critics of nuclear energy have been saying for years; that is, the present concepts of reactor designs have no hope of solving global warming. Nuclear energy supplies about 14% of the world’s electricity, which is just about the amount we could reduce with a modest attempt at conservation. Raising this percentage to meaningful levels is impossible, given the dwindling supplies of nuclear fuel, spent fuel storage problems, and the political and ecological constraints on further construction of reactors.

Gates says the world population will increase from 7 billion to 9 billion this century, and that all these people deserve to be lifted out of poverty. The only way to do this is to give them “services,” and doing so requires cheap energy supplies for everyone. In Bill Gates’ vision, there is no Malthusian trap, no limit to growth that cannot be matched with improvements in technology. Reverting to a pre-industrial, low energy lifestyle is not an option in Gates’ vision.

I would rather hold out hope for a breakthrough in fusion energy, which, according to recent reports, may be within reach if we invest heavily in it now. Without a breakthrough, we will have to admit, as Jared Diamond says in his book Collapse, that the earth will solve the problem for us. We will return to a less energy intensive way of life by necessity. 

Renewables have a limited potential, and nuclear fuel is finite and likely to run out in the next few decades. In addition, any serious consideration of the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear catastrophes leads us to have serious doubts about the wisdom of continuing with this form of energy, regardless of how safe future nuclear technology might be. How can we talk about nuclear power as a solution to global problems when these accidents have already poisoned so much arable land for centuries to come? In both of these accidents, fortunate winds and a few good decisions (that came amid many bad decisions) prevented them from becoming much worse global catastrophes. If we continue with nuclear energy, we may not be so “lucky” with the next accident. When Chernobyl occurred, many people called it our “final warning” (the subtitle of a book and movie about the disaster), but since then the human race has only displayed its tendency to double down on bad bets. Russia and Japan have been undeterred from pursuing reactor sales of their “newer and better” reactor technology since their catastrophes.

Even if most people in the developed world don’t think too much about the energy crunch, they think about it enough to realize they don’t want to think about it too much. Rich or poor, we know our quality of life has depended on abundant energy supplies, but there are no answers on the horizon. Yet if we want to find a way out of the energy crisis, we’ll have to think a little more seriously about those “150 slaves” we each have at our command.

[1] A similar explanation of the economic rationale for American slavery is described by Charles C. Mann in the book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. African slaves were used only because they had more immunity to malaria, which was common in the South. Plantation owners had originally preferred to use indentured servants from Europe because they spoke the same language, came from the same culture and knew how to do farm work, and were less likely to flee because their bondage had an expiry date. However, in the South, these servants died from malaria in great numbers. The African slave trade was already established in Spanish colonies, and when American farmers started using Black slaves, they soon noticed an economic advantage in doing so. The region of the US that used slaves corresponds exactly with the regions where malaria was endemic.


Soothe your T-Zone with Cesium

Experts then, experts today. Is it any different today as we see many medical specialists telling us that international standards for radiation exposure are needlessly much too low? Just relax, breathe it all in and soothe that T-Zone.

A recent column in the Japan Times by Minoru Matsutani sought to allay public fears of radiation by telling readers that, basically, yes, there are some health problems among people who have lived for years with high levels of the Chernobyl fallout, but, gosh, there are just so many confounding variables that make it impossible to conclude that radiation is harmful. The stigma and fear of these areas cause the educated class to flee, economic investment never comes, and these areas become dismal backwaters of poverty. Many people drink and smoke, and eat unhealthy diets, and fall into a depression not caused directly by radiation. All of these factors are compounded by the economic difficulties that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union shortly after the Chernobyl accident.

Many of these confounding variables have, in fact, been sorted out by researchers in the former Soviet Union, and they claim that the accident caused an additional 1,000,000 deaths and enormous declines in health among millions more of the survivors. But let’s assume for a moment that one of these variables is indeed confounding. Minoru Matsutani refers particularly to the high incidence of smoking among Chernobyl victims. When they get cancer and cardiovascular disease, it is impossible to know how much of it was caused by radiation. It’s interesting to note here that thirty years ago it was still controversial that smoking had these effects on health. Now that many people are trying to demonstrate that the radiation Japanese people have been exposed to is harmless, the pollyanas who once said that smoking was harmless now say that the harm believed to be caused by radiation is caused by smoking!

But, oh, the irony. The inconvenient thing about bringing tobacco into the discussion is that there is the little known fact that tobacco smoke contains radionuclides that are the likely causes of lung diseases associated with smoking. This information is not difficult to find, but there seems to have been a deliberate attempt by non-government pressure groups, government regulators and tobacco companies to not publicize this hazard. The latter had obvious reasons not to reveal it, while the former groups were just starting to win battles with the tobacco companies based on research on the chemical hazards in tobacco smoke. The research on radionuclides was a totally new dimension to the problem, and anti-smoking groups took a pragmatic approach to dealing with the tobacco industry. Instead of opening a new battle in the war when victory was at hand, they chose to stay on the narrative about the dangers of carbon monoxide, tar and nicotine.

The photos above illustrate that many experts are just as ignorant as the amateurs, and some of them are willing to sell out to special interests. Lay people, now as before, are on their own in the search for reliable information and experts who are not in the sway of optimistic delusions or corrupting influences.

The way that this issue has stayed hidden from public awareness illustrates a general pattern of ignorance in society about background threats that we should all be paying more attention to. If you read the top news stories of the past, you find no hint of the disasters that actually happened later and bit us in the collective ass.
  • During the Cold War, we had the ability to detect within minutes a nuclear weapons attack that never came, but for days after the explosion at Chernobyl, no Western spy satellites or spy networks were able to detect what was happening (or so we are told). Even Gorbachev had to be told by the Swedish government after nuclear engineers there had detected fallout at a Swedish nuclear plant. Soviet officials close to the accident were afraid to tell Moscow what had happened.
  • In 2003, the SARS virus came out of nowhere and put international air travel into lockdown.
  • Most amateur and professional investors failed to foresee the collapse of the global economy in 2008.
  • The long record of corruption and reckless disregard for safety of the Japanese nuclear industry was totally off the radar until a giant tsunami hit Japan in 2011.
  • Cigarette smoke is radioactive? Who knew?

The research into this question is found easily through internet searches.

For over 40 years, researchers and tobacco corporations have known that cigarettes contain radionuclides. The contamination is sourced in naturally occurring radioactive radon gas which is absorbed and trapped in apatite rock. Apatite, or phosphate rock, is mined for the purpose of formulating the phosphate portion of most chemical fertilizers. Polonium releases ionizing alpha radiation which is 20 times more harmful than either beta or gamma radiation when exposed to internal organs.
Lung cancer rates increased significantly during most of the 1900's. It's no coincidence that between 1938 and 1960, the level of polonium 210 in American tobacco tripled commensurate with the increased use of chemical fertilizers and Persistant Organic Pollutant (POP) accumulation.
In 1982, tobacco researchers DiFranza and Winters concluded that smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes per day exposed a person to the same radiation as 300 chest x-rays per year. Due to improvements in X-ray technology and increasing levels of radionuclides in tobacco, the Institute of Medicine now estimates that a heavy smoker is exposed to the equivalent radiation as up to 2,000 chest X-rays every year. The National Institutes of Health state that tobacco is by far the largest source of radiation for the American public…
Recently released tobacco corporation internal memos and reports indicate that they were well aware of radiation contamination as early as 1964, and discussed methods to remove polonium from tobacco in 1975. In 1977, Phillip Morris confirmed that superphosphate fertilizer was a source of polonium.

The knowledge that tobacco smoke is radioactive is either good news or bad news for someone living with the fallout from Fukushima. 
(It certainly puts smokers who want to complain about the accident in an awkward position.) We know that there are radionuclides in the dirt blowing in the wind this year, but how does this risk compare with the risk of smoking for twenty years?

While we live in the Tokyo area with a certain amount of fallout from the Fukushima accident, it is difficult to assess the risks posed by the cesium in the soil and compare them with the risks of tobacco smoke, direct or second hand (I’m not a smoker, but as a child I lived with two parents who smoked before the days when people worried about second hand smoke).

The Japanese government, supported by advice from the IAEA, has decided to try to decontaminate Fukushima prefecture by asking municipalities around the country to incinerate and dispose of their “fair share” of “low level waste.” Apparently, the large cities have electrostatic precipitators in their incinerators that can trap most of the contaminants, but there seems to be no plan in place for safe disposal of the ash, nor is there a way to ascertain the safety of the levels that don’t get retained by the precipitators. It is revolting and jaw-dropping to see this stupid decision endorsed by so many leaders of large urban areas when the obvious safe procedure would be to leave the toxic material where it is and move the much smaller rural population away from it. Fukushima, we’ll take your people but not your garbage.

It is clear that  this dilution and expanded contamination has been done only in the vain hope that the badly contaminated areas in the northeast can be declared restored, remediated or decontaminated – something which will probably prove impossible. Rather than helping residents relocate, the plan is to reduce contamination to a tolerable level. This will, it is only hoped, allow advocates of nuclear energy to say that the Fukushima accident has been resolved.

While it is alarming to know that all the incineration of radioactive waste will re-circulate cesium into the atmosphere and create new wet and dry fallouts in places that can’t be known in advance, it is difficult to compare this threat with the danger we have always tolerated from tobacco smoke. Is an atom of polonium 210 in my lungs more harmful than an atom of various fission products from the Fukushima accident? The estimate that smoking equals 2,000 x-rays per year is just an expert’s guess at comparing internal radiation from smoking to external radiation from medical scans, but whatever the number, it’s a pretty heavy exposure, and yet millions of people live with it. What is the comparison for all the hot particles I will breathe in while living in Japan? I suspect it is much less than the risks of smoking tobacco. We are warned that hot particles have been detected in the air in Tokyo and Seattle, but I also know that millions of children are exposed to second hand cigarette smoke, and millions of smokers smoke thirty cigarettes a day for decades before lung cancer occurs in some of them. Am I supposed to be stricken with fear and a sudden urge to evacuate my family, or should I just carry on here while being angry that this unforgivable accident was not prevented?

Finally, there are two more ironies in the issue of radioactive smoke. One is that the Japanese authorities realized in September that this year’s tobacco crop was contaminated with 217 Bq/kg of cesium 134 and 137. They decided that it’s “safe” to let this go to market, and why not? What are they supposed to say? They could say, “Be careful. Tobacco smoke is radioactive and it might give you cancer,” but that would be only slightly more hypocritical than the long standing policy toward tobacco.

The final irony is that there is another kind of leaf that millions of people like to smoke, but it’s illegal. Researchers have tried to link it to cancer for years but have come up empty-handed. The smoke of this leaf has numerous nasty chemicals that should lead to poor health, but unlike tobacco, it is not grown in fertilizer that contains radionuclides. That lends support to the theory that it is not tar, nicotine and chemicals that cause cancer in smokers, but the radionuclides in the smoke.

UPDATE December 16, 2012:

Wired Magazine covered the history of the tobacco industry's cover up of what it knew about radionuclides in tobacco.



Blowing in the Wind

As winter approaches in the Tokyo area, I think of cold, dry wind blowing from the north. The temperature is usually slightly above zero, which means no snow cover on the ground. This is the perfect recipe for the re-volatization of cesium and other radionuclides that settled on the ground over the spring and summer. In addition, we have to think about the big unknown of how much cesium is going to be carried by cedar pollen that begins to appear in December and peaks in March.
In the part of northern Chiba prefecture where I live, local authorities told us that the fallout on the ground had been light and that there was no need to restrict activities. Yet a look at the history of fallout incidents puts the local situation in a different perspective:

1945 – 70
Cesium 137 deposition on USA from global nuclear weapons testing (in most places, some places were higher or lower)
2,000 ~ 6,000
Cesium 137 fallout on Japan from Chernobyl
Cesium 137 fallout on Japan from Asian dust storms that appear each spring
Cesium 134 and Cesium 137 deposition on Narita area of Chiba prefecture
10,000 ~ 30,000
Cesium 134 and Cesium 137 deposition on Fukushima
10,000 ~   3,000,000

Chernobyl designations (Cesium 137 Bq/m2):
weak: <37,000 - mitigation and decontamination, vigilance required
low: 37,000~185,000 - migration not necessary, restrictions and monitoring of food and water, mitigation and decontamination
high: 185,000~555,000 - migration allowed (even in normal circumstances Soviet citizens needed permits for internal migration)
heavy: 555,000~1,480,000 - restricted access, mandatory evacuation

No one can say for sure how our children will be affected many years in the future, but scientists are quite sure that as the fallout level increases, the number of cancer cases goes up from x per 10,000 to y per 10,000. Some of the increase in cancer rates in the US is sure to be due to the relatively low levels of weapons testing fallout, which, in the days before Chernobyl, were considered totally unacceptable. There is no reason to not worry just because the levels in the Tokyo area, by the Chernobyl scale, are called "weak." The chances of negative health effects have increased. It's all a gamble and a question of acceptable risk. The question is, as Dirty Harry would say, "Do you feel lucky, punk?" But the problem is that it is a question of adults deciding this question for the children.
During the winter it is common to see clouds of dust on the school grounds, and sports activities continue as they do in summer. My task now is to shake the local parents and school authorities out of their complacency and ask them if they want to take this gamble with their own lives and those of children, or if they want to play it safe by restricting outdoor activities. What's it going to be? The answer is blowing in the wind.

Notes on the table above

1. Cesium 137 deposition on USA from nuclear weapons testing
This amount is much lower than what we have in northern Chiba right now. Most scientific experts admit that this fallout increased the rate of cancer, although the link between fallout and cancer can never be proven in individual cases.
Cesium 137 deposition density due to global fallout. Institute for Energy and Environmental Research  http://www.ieer.org/offdocs/csdepglo.pdf

2. Cesium 137 fallout on Japan from Chernobyl
There was great shock and concern when the Chernobyl accident affected Japan in 1986, but in the present situation this figure of 99 Bq/m2 is something we would feel relieved to have .

3. Cesium in dust from Asia
In recent years, Japanese researchers have been concerned about radioactive particles that come to Japan in dust storms from the Asian continent. However, they found that the highest level recorded in one year was only 0.82 Bq/m2. Before the accident at Fukushima Dai-ichi, scientists thought that even this low number was something to be concerned about.
Data for 2 and 3 from:
Fujiwara, Hideshi. “Atmospheric deposition of radioactive Cesium 137 associated with dust events in East Asia.” Bulletin of the National Institute of Agro-Environmental Science, 85-115. 2010. Tsukuba, Japan. http://www.niaes.affrc.go.jp/sinfo/publish/bulletin/niaes27-2.pdf

4. Cesium 134 and Cesium 137 deposition on the Narita area
We can now see that the data for Chiba can be considered low only in comparison to the very serious contamination in Fukushima. We might be able to find safe food and water, but we have to worry now about dust on the ground entering the air again when the dry, windy weather of winter comes to us. We should also be concerned that governments have plans to burn contaminated sewage and waste. Governments claim they have effective filtering technology, but there has been no public disclosure about the effectiveness of electrostatic precipitators in trapping radionuclides in incinerators.

5. Cesium 134 and Cesium 137 deposition on Fukushima
Winter winds might also carry dust from places that are much more contaminated than Chiba. No one knows how much cesium will be carried in cedar pollen, for example.