Well-reported plumes of radiation have spread to California and beyond from the wrecked six-reactor complex at Fukushima, Japan. What’s worse in terms of citizen awareness, clouds of disinformation are circling even faster.
The consequences of Japan’s disaster cubed — earthquakes, a tsunami and spewing radiation — can hardly be exaggerated, with over 22,000 people reportedly killed or missing, widespread contamination by long-lasting isotopes like cesium, and an early estimate of $250 billion in damages.
Yet within the blizzard of radiation being dispersed uncontrollably, day after day, from Japan’s wrecked reactors and their dry pools of burning-hot waste fuel, it’s important to note the storm of reassuring but erroneous lullabies about “safe,” “harmless” and “less than dangerous” exposures.
There is no level of radiation exposure, no matter how small, that is harmless. Every federal agency that regulates radioactive pollution agrees.
Any exposure raises cancer risk
The National Council on Radiation Protection says, “… every increment of radiation exposure produces an incremental increase in the risk of cancer.” The Environmental Protection Agency says, “… any exposure to radiation poses some risk, i.e. there is no level below which we can say an exposure poses no risk.” The Department of Energy says about “low levels of radiation” that “… the major effect is a very slight increase in cancer risk.” The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says, “any amount of radiation may pose some risk for causing cancer … any increase in dose, no matter how small, results in an incremental increase in risk.” The National Academy of Sciences, in its “Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation VII,” says, “… it is unlikely that a threshold exists for the induction of cancers ….”
Long story short, “One can no longer speak of a ‘safe’ dose level,” as Dr. Ian Fairlie and Dr. Marvin Resnikoff said in their report “No dose too low,” in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
But when representatives from government agencies, universities or industry say “the amount of radiation did not reach a dangerous level,” the listener is led to believe in error that there’s some level that is risk-free.
The hiding or obscuring of radiation’s dispersal came from government and company officials early on who reported “venting of hydrogen gas,” and claimed there was “no threat to health.” Even when hydrogen gas explosions destroyed parts of four reactors, the promise of safety was repeated.
“In fact,” writes environmental anthropologist Barbara Rose Johnston in the March 18 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “the hydrogen released is tritium water vapor, a low-level [radiation] emitter that can be absorbed in a human body through simply breathing, or by drinking contaminated water.”
Principle Japanese government spokesperson, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, has been one of the worst violators. On March 21, Edano asked the public not to overreact to reports of radioactively contaminated food, saying, “Even if you eat contaminated vegetables several times, it will not harm your health at all,” the BBC reported.
Spinach with radioactive iodine 27 times the government-established limit had been found in the city of Hitachi, more than 50 miles south of the failed reactors.
Outright lying, appalling laziness
On March 17, when radiation levels were reportedly 300 times normal just south of Fukushima, Associated Press writer Eric Talmadge reported without qualification that officials said, “It would take three years of constant exposure to these higher levels to raise a person’s risk of cancer.” This is outright lying by “officials” of course, but it also shows the appalling laziness of the AP, since information on low dose exposures is easily available from the websites of the agencies quoted above.
Dr. Chris Busby, a founder of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, and chief scientist at the Low-Level Radiation Campaign declared March 16, “Reassurances about radiation exposures issued by the Japanese government cannot be believed. They are based on an invalid risk model which the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) itself has admittedcannot be applied in accident situations.”
This ICRP radiation risk model is the basis of and dominates all present radiation exposure legislation. Yet Dr. Busby reports, “The basic concept of radiation dose is generally recognized to be invalid for many types of internal exposure relevant to the present emergency.”
Industry watchdogs are working to correct the errors. Mary Olson, of Nuclear Information and Resource Service writes, “Radiation carries a risk, not a certainty, of DNA damage at every level of exposure. An emission from a radionuclide that chanced to ride on your sandwich into your tummy — an exposure so tiny that it would never be measured — has the capacity to start what might become fatal cancer.”
Governments have set up “permissible,” “allowable” and “legal” radiation exposure limits because reactors can’t operate without venting or dumping contaminated gases and liquids. Exposure to this radiation, during routine operations or from partial meltdowns — say in milk, tap water, or vegetables — is never safe. It is merely permitted under law.
- John LaForge is on the staff of Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog group in Wisconsin, and edits its Quarterly newsletter.