If 100 mSv per year is safe, could a radiological weapon be harmless?

This is a good question to put out to the world before anyone has to seriously confront it for real, and I hope no one ever does. It would be interesting to know how the IAEA and various national nuclear regulators would answer it. Since the UN concluded its Chernobyl studies, and more so since the Fukushima catastrophe, these agencies that govern “nuclear safety” have been trying to get the world to calm down and accept the notion that people have nothing to fear from living in places that are up to 20 times above normal background levels of radiation.*
The public is told from time to time that another nuclear accident, dirty bomb terror attack, or nuclear bombing (accidental or intentional) could occur at some time in the future, and that it’s going to be important to stay calm and understand that we will be alright even in areas of elevated radiation. But here’s the problem. What are governments going to tell their people if a terrorist’s device spreads radioactive substances around a populated area? The attack will immediately be defined as an act of cowardly aggression that requires swift retribution, but if the device didn’t hurt anyone, and contamination levels are equal to or less than what the citizens of Fukushima City are being told to accept by global authorities on "nuclear safety," the attack would amount to no more than an annoying prank – by the standards of the United Nations. How could governments claim that they had been attacked by evil-doers when the contamination level was the same as what they excuse in a nuclear power plant accident?

*This may sound outrageous, but it is actually what is claimed by many "health physicists." The remarks quoted below come from the article Japan's Cut-Price Nuclear Cleanup:

“These workers may show a tiny increased risk of cancer over their lifetimes,” says Gerry Thomas, professor of molecular pathology at Imperial College, London University.

“100 millisieverts
[about 20X above normal background radiation in Japan] is the dose we use as a cut-off to say we can see a significant effect on cancer rate in very large epidemiology studies. The numbers have to be large because the individual increase is minuscule. But, she added: “I would be far more worried about these workers smoking or feeling under stress due to the fear of what radiation might do to them. That is much more likely to have an effect on any one person's health.”

But Ian Fairlie, a London-based independent consultant on radioactivity in the environment is among those who have challenged the view of 100 mSv as a reliable threshold. Citing studies of tens of thousands of Japanese A-Bomb survivors, Fairlie concluded in a blog post last year that “very good evidence exists showing radiation effects well below 100 mSv”.

Justin McCurry and David McNeill. "Japan's Cut-Price Nuclear Cleanup." Truth-out.org. October 28, 2013.


Wrecks, Lies and Isotopes

   For the past few months, international attention has been on the waterworks of the Fukushima Daiichi ruins. The situation has been spiraling out of control, with TEPCO flailing like the hapless sorcerer’s apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia.
In addition to this fiasco, the precarious condition of the Unit 4 Spent Fuel Pool has also gained a lot of attention because TEPCO will soon be ready to start the delicate operation of removing 1,500 spent fuel rods contained within. The building was damaged by the earthquake and an explosion, leaving it vulnerable to earthquakes and open to the sky. All of the machinery for transferring the fuel rods was damaged, so until now there has been no way to resolve the dangerous situation. If the pool should go dry, or the building should collapse in an earthquake, the spent fuel fire would burn out of control, render the area too radioactive for people to work in, and create an unprecedented disaster. Or maybe not. The only certainties about Unit 4 are (1) that it scares the crap out of everyone, pro and anti-nuke, and (2), although it is exposed to the elements, it remains shrouded in mystery.
Into the void of unanswered questions, all manner of speculation has rushed in. Some say that Japan was running weapons fuel experiments at the time of the earthquake in reactor four, which would account for the secrecy and Japan’s reluctance to accept foreign help. According to this theory, the fire and explosion were in the reactor, not in the spent fuel pool. This could account for the contradiction we hear now. There was definitely an explosion in Unit 4, and some fuel rods burned and became distorted, but TEPCO now says everything should go well with the removal of the rods because none of them appear to be damaged. If this assessment is wrong, one mishap, one dropped fuel rod, could set off a civilization-ending disaster, or a mass species extinction. Or minor fumbles with the rods might just lead to regrettable incidents causing releases of radioactive xenon and iodine that will have to be funneled out the stack to drift over the ocean, or Tokyo, depending on how the wind blows. These will be setbacks, but they’ll go back to work.
When the fears about Unit 4 first appeared, there were occasional comments on blogs by nuclear engineers who tried to assure people that the fuel rods would be sufficiently cooled down within a couple years, and the doomsday scenario would not come to pass. These messages fell silent for a long time, but finally reappeared this week in an article in Bloomberg: Three Mile Island Veteran Optimistic on Fukushima Fuel Removal. It was curious that someone working on the operation was now made accessible to the media. The news story was long overdue after the media had been reporting on it for months from the viewpoint of outside critics who were deeply worried about the situation. Now, finally, there is some limited comment on the situation from the people officially in charge. I suspect TEPCO would have preferred to say nothing, but the international attention from alternative media and NGOs forced them to admit they have to say something to try to take control of the narrative (Here is their video production explaining the operation).
The Three Mile Island veteran working as an adviser for TEPCO said, “There’s no indication based on sampling of the water that the fuel has been damaged in any significant way… There’s a high confidence that the defueling of the pool can go in a normal way.”* The article mentions that two rods were removed as a test, and these were found to be unbroken. Based on this, and water sampling, it is assumed that all the remaining rods, over a thousand of them, are intact! It seems like another case of TEPCO failing to ask, “OK, but what if…” I guess we just have to take their word for it because who else, besides these nuclear industry cheerleaders, could do this job?
The notable reveal in the report was in comments by another voice for TEPCO, spokeswoman Mayumi Yoshida:

It hasn’t been decided where the fuel will eventually be taken for storage, Yoshida said. She said she couldn’t provide additional details about when the removal would begin, citing treaties aimed at reducing the risk of terrorist attacks.

So it seems like under those Tyvek suits officials have all been wearing diapers too, prepared to shit themselves at any time. Unit 4 has been sitting open to the sky for 30 months now, a very vulnerable target, with scarcely any mention of the terror risk having appeared in the mass media. It is reasonable to assume that the “international community” has been aware of the vulnerability and doing a lot behind the scenes, all the while ignoring the critics, petitions and campaigns to take action. The less said the better.
Security is the big obstacle to public information on this issue, and the best reason to be anti-nuclear. As it is in personal relations, if you’re doing something that provokes a high level of secrecy and fear, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it. 
The public deserves to know all the details of what exactly happened to Unit 4, and what the plan is to get the fuel out of it. The risks have been well explained by outside critics like Arnie Gundersen (listen to Libbe Halevy’s interview with him), Hiroaki Koide and Harvey Wasserman, and many others, so now TEPCO should address all the concerns that have been raised and make a full, convincing explanation of how they can remove those 1,500 fuel rods without a single mishap. The public deserves more than the pathetic press release that was spoon-fed to Bloomberg News this week. The assertion that the rods are intact is not credible, considering the number of experts who have noted that the rods were damaged, not to mention partially exposed and burning in March 2011. Or was it essential to cover up the fact that these things happened in the reactor?
If TEPCO can’t assure the public that this operation will go off without a hitch, wouldn’t it be better to reinforce the structure and let it cool off for a few more years? If not, why not? But we are not going to get squat in the way of a public discussion of this plan. Security trumps all.
The only reason to have a shred of hope is to think that maybe TEPCO has been sidelined or put under adult supervision for this important job. Perhaps the water show has been a convenient, though unintended, distraction while the really important job got done. The nuclear industry certainly should be motivated to get it done right, for the same reason we trust pilots to land safely: self-preservation. If they don’t, it will be the death blow for the industry (one would think — for a while I thought the 2011 accident would accomplish this). But then again, despite the rational motive, we have to remember there is nothing rational about nuclear power. If the industry really worked so cautiously, the accident never would have happened in the first place. Who knows the limit to human recklessness?

* A TEPCO spokesperson contradicted this rosy assessment a few days later in this report filed by The South China Morning Post:

“A spokesman for Tepco said… however, that it was not clear whether any of the rods were damaged or if debris in the pool would complicate the recovery effort. ”


What's On the Beach? Another danger from Fukushima that will be acknowledged too late

Chernobyl and Fukushima taught the world what
should have been on the back cover of this story
What’s On the Beach? The title refers to the famous 1957 novel (and later film adaptations) about the encroaching nuclear winter that comes to Australia after global nuclear war in the Northern Hemisphere. Fifty years ago, everyone thought that this was the existential risk we faced, but the Cold War subsided and World War III was avoided. What caught everyone by surprise was Chernobyl and Fukushima, the risks of even greater accidents, and the lingering dangers involved in nuclear waste disposal, which really hasn’t even begun seventy years after the dawn of the nuclear age. Nuclear accidents have shown us that the threat all along was just as much in the slow motion nuclear war (a phrase coined by Robert Jacobs in this article) that accompanied the “peaceful” use of the atom.
This article asks not only “What’s On the Beach?” but also “What’s on the beach?” Now that the Japanese authorities have admitted the serious problems with leaking radioactive water from Fukushima Daiichi, and now that the world has grasped the risk posed by the site’s spent fuel pools, we may be ready to ask about the future implications of all this pollution spreading along Japan’s northeastern coast.
Much of the concern outside of Japan has been about the spread of radiation into fish stocks and across the Pacific Ocean. There have already been low levels of radionuclides measured in fish in California. While some scientist say the damage could be horrific, even some anti-nuclear critics are refraining from saying there will be an impact on health. Besides, the oceans have other problems such as acidification, over-fishing, nitrogen runoff from fertilizer, and the great Pacific garbage patch.
Chris Busby, well-known as a long-time critic of the nuclear industry, has said that people in California can relax. The ocean will dilute what Fukushima is dishing out. It would be better to consider how people are going to be impacted along the coast of Japan. In an interview with Russia Today, he described the problem:

The contamination of the sea results in adsorption of the radionuclides by the sand and silt on the coast and river estuaries. The east coast of Japan, the sediment and sand on the shores, will now be horribly radioactive. This material is re-suspended into the air through a process called sea-to-land transfer. The coastal air they inhale is laden with radioactive particles… We looked at small area data leaked to us by the Welsh Cancer Registry covering the period of 1974-1989, when Sellafield was releasing significant amounts of radio-cesium, radio-strontium, and plutonium. Results showed a remarkable and sharp 30 per cent increase in cancer rates in those living within 1km of the coast. The effect was very local and dropped away sharply at 2km… Make no mistake, this is a deadly effect. By 2003, we had found 20-fold excess risk of leukemia and brain tumors in the population of children on the north Wales coast… the sea-to-land effect is real. And anyone living within 1km of the coast to at least 200km north or south of Fukushima should get out. They should evacuate inland. It is not eating the fish and shellfish that gets you - it’s breathing.

So that’s something to think about for the Japanese government that wants to rebuild the communities that were destroyed by the tsunami. We might have to say now that the waves destroyed the towns, and the meltdowns made sure they would never come back. Or we have to say rather should never come back. The Japanese government is likely to ignore this hazard and encourage people to resettle the coast.
The problems with radioactive sand and silt are well-known near the old nuclear bomb and fuel factory in Sellafield, UK. The issue was covered by The Guardian last year. The article reports on the beach pollution that Dr. Busby discussed. It quotes a Health Protection Agency official as saying, "No special precautionary actions are required at this time to limit access to, or use of, beaches." A Sellafield spokesman concurred, saying, "… the overall health risk to beach users is very low and significantly lower than other risks people accept when using beaches. It should be noted that people visiting beaches in places on the south coast, such as Devon or Cornwall, will receive a far higher dose of radiation, from naturally occurring background radiation, than those visiting beaches close to Sellafield."
In these two brief quotes we see a rather stunning display of the moral confusion that is typical in the official dismissals of the concerns that the public has about man-made radiation. It consists of three features:

The conflation of natural, unavoidable risks with those imposed by human agency upon non-consenting populations.

If I walk into a cancer ward and light up a cigarette, I can’t object to being told to step outside with it. I can’t say that the cigarette is insignificant compared to the overall health risks that cancer patients accept when submitting to chemotherapy and staying in germ-filled hospitals. Yet somehow this way of thinking is allowable in the official rationalizations of man-made pollution. Imposed, unnecessary risks are considered equal to unavoidable risks.

Minimizing the effect of added man-made radiation by pointing to natural background radiation.

This is subset of point 1. It excuses a willful act of contamination by likening it to that which is not caused by human agency. The point is always made in a condescending way, as if the non-expert is too dim to understand the risks of the world he lives in. But it is actually the experts who have a diminished capacity here. A normal person can see that it is the same difference as between death by a lightning strike and homicide. We accept natural misfortunes but reserve our moral outrage for humans who commit deliberate harm.

Willful neglect of internal emitters of radiation, namely beta and alpha emitters, and neglect of the chemical effects of pollution from nuclear facilities.

The Sellafield spokesman referred to background radiation, which is normally a measure of gamma radiation that can be picked up by any cheap dosimeter. Any amateur who has learned a little about radiation will agree that the gamma dose on these British beaches is not the thing to be concerned about. The official health studies of atomic bombings, in Japan and in nuclear testing throughout the world, persistently ignored the damage done by internal contamination, and this comment by the Sellafield spokesman shows that the tradition is still alive. We can be sure that it will continue as people begin to ask troubling questions about what is blowing in the sea breeze on Japanese shores.

The article in The Guardian pointed out that the Health Protection Agency (not the Sellafield spokesman) did concede that there are uncertainties in the beach monitoring. The article pointed out that the HPA added:

… the latest equipment might miss tiny specks that could be inhaled, as well as buried alpha radioactivity that  could give rise to a significant risk to health if ingested. Documents released under freedom of information law show that in 2010 the Environment Agency agreed that monitoring for contamination on the beaches should avoid peak periods such as during bank holidays. This followed a complaint from St. Bees parish council expressing "strong concern that this would have an adverse impact on tourism.

Ah, yes. Save the economy. During the Vietnam war, US officers claimed with knowing irony that they had to “destroy the village in order to save it.” In peacetime, the phrase becomes “destroy the people in order to save their jobs.”

Further reading on the novel and the 1961 film On the Beach
Mick Broderick, "Fallout On the Beach," Screening the Past, 37, June, 2013.

Finally, a somewhat gratuitous reference to Neil Young’s On the Beach. I don’t think Neil was thinking of nuclear meltdowns, but some of the lines evoke my present unease about being on the beach.

On the Beach (1974)
Neil Young

On the Beach, track 6, 19:00~

The world is turnin', I hope it don't turn away,
The world is turnin', I hope it don't turn away.
All my pictures are fallin' from the wall where I placed them yesterday…
Though my problems are meaningless, that don't make them go away…
Now I'm livin' out here on the beach, but those seagulls are still out of reach…
Get out of town, think I'll get out of town.
I head for the sticks with my bus and friends,
I follow the road, though I don't know where it ends.
Get out of town, get out of town, think I'll get out of town.
'Cause the world is turnin', I don't want to see it turn away.


Studies indicate thyroid cancer latency much less than four years

Some of the Chernobyl research indicates that the latent period of thyroid cancer was much shorter than what has been recently stated by experts. The implications about the present cases of thyroid cancer in Fukushima are obvious.

(revised on 2014/03/10)

Last month there was an important finding about thyroid cancer research in the blog written by Paul Langley. He points out a serious contradiction in the claims that prominent “health physicists” have been making about the cases of thyroid cancer that have appeared in Fukushima since the nuclear accident. At the time he wrote this, I expected the news to go viral, but I’ve seen scant mention of it on social networks, and of course, the mass media did not notice it.
The reason for this oversight may be that Paul Langley’s blog posts are superb, but long and heavy on detail. Casual readers may have passed over important information without recognizing its significance. So I will try to summarize the main points and post the most interesting citations.
After the second anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe, a sharp increase in childhood thyroid cancer was recorded in Fukushima Prefecture. Health officials hesitated to attribute the cause to the nuclear accident because they said that it was simply too early to be finding cases of thyroid cancer. The Chernobyl studies all indicated, they said, that the mean latency period was at least four years. Experts in health physics outside Japan also repeated this claim. They seemed to wish that no one would remember their middle school math lessons and point out that a mean indicates that in the sample many values were higher and lower than the mean. Thus it is not surprising that thyroid cancer cases would appear much earlier than four years after the accident. A high number of early cases should be cause for alarm because it would indicate many more are yet to come by the mean time of onset.
Paul Langley found several studies that stated the latency period was much shorter than four years. According to these studies, an increase in the rate of thyroid cancer incidence is exactly what one would expect to find two years after a nuclear accident. One of the authors was none other than Shinichi Yamashita himself, the former head of the Fukushima Prefectural Health Management Survey Review Committee.
Paul Langley, quoting an article in The Japan Times, noted that this committee has stated that Chernobyl data shows that the latency period for thyroid cancer is 4–5 years, and that the progression of disease was slow in the case of the Chernobyl children.
Paul then found this quote from a 1998 research paper of which Dr. Yamashita was one of the authors:

“The high incidence of childhood thyroid cancer in Belarus is suspected to be due to radiation exposure after the Chernobyl reactor accident…  All of the preceding thyroid carcinomas developed after longer latency periods, whereas tumors arising in the Chernobyl population began developing with surprising rapidity and short latency.” (Shirahige et. al.)

Other research papers say:

“… absence of marked latency period is another feature of radiation-induced thyroid cancers caused in Belarus as a result of this accident.” (Malko)

“[the latent period for thyroid cancer is] 2.5 years, based on low estimates used for lifetime risk modeling of low-level ionizing radiation studies.” (Howard)

So about that latency period, which is it? 1 year, 2. 5 years, 4 years or 5 years, and does it really matter anyway? The denial of a causal relationship is the worst sort of deflection and quibbling by people who are highly motivated to avoid the truth. Japanese authorities claim that the high number of cancer cases found in Fukushima is a result of having used very sensitive equipment, with very close attention paid to a particular group. They imply that the same rate of thyroid cancer would be found in any other group subjected to the same intense analysis, but they refuse to carry out such a comparison in a region far away from Fukushima. This is typical of official studies of radiological disasters. Hundreds of studies are done, except the ones which seem most likely to produce results unfavorable to institutions which would be legally responsible for damages to health and property.


Howard, John. “Minimum Latency & Types or Categories of Cancer” Administrator World Trade Center Health Program, 9.11 Monitoring and Treatment, Revision: May 1, 2013.

Kyodo. “Thyroid cancer found in 12 minors in Fukushima.” The Japan Times, June 6, 2013.

Malko, Mikhail V. “Chernobyl Radiation-induced Thyroid Cancers in Belarus.”
Joint Institute of Power and Nuclear Research, National Academy of Sciences of Belarus. 2002.

Shirahige Y, Ito M, Ashizawa K, Motomura T, Yokoyama N, Namba H, Fukata S, Yokozawa T, Ishikawa N, Mimura T, Yamashita S, Sekine I, Kuma K, Ito K, Nagataki S.Childhood thyroid cancer: comparison of Japan and Belarus. Endocrine Journal, 1998 Apr;45(2):203-9.