There have been several explosions in several nuclear reactors in Japan. There may be more. There may a meltdown or two. I don’t know. I am not even sure I understand what a meltdown is. I am definitely not seeing the world through rose-colored lenses. I am not saying there will not be meltdowns. I am ready to consider the worst-case scenario in this respect.
In the meantime, a real nuclear disaster has already happened. The beginning of a slow rehabilitation of nuclear power in Americans’ minds that was taking shape, even with some positive words from Pres. Obama, will grind to a halt. Perhaps, it has already ground to a halt. People like me who favor nuclear power will never again be able to say: “The Japanese have been producing nuclear energy in vast quantities for fifty years with not a single incident.” I fear that, because of phantom fears, we will continue to burn coal that is demonstrably noxious to human health. We, as a nation, will also continue to show an unhealthy interest in bad neighborhoods of the world that produce both fossil fuels and tyranny. We will continue to do this because we are afraid of what may hardly exist.
I am convinced the opposition to nuclear energy production is deeply rooted in exaggerated information and in downright false information. (How often have you heard me or seen me use the words: “I am convinced”?) In particular, many people believe that radiation from nuclear plants has already killed thousands, or even millions of people. The belief is so widespread that I hear public figures who are in favor of nuclear power refer mechanically to such deaths. So, I am doing my bit here because facts matter.
First a vigorous disclaimer: I am not a nuclear expert. In fact, I am pretty sure I flunked high-school physics (not bragging, confessing). Over the years, however, I have become a kind of expert about the dogs that did not bark, about things that you would expect to find if certain views were correct and that just aren’t there, or not with the requisite force. Radiation illness from minor exposure is one of those things. I am also a pretty qualified epidemiologist. That may sound strange but the statistical techniques of those who study disease in the large numbers are the same I used when I was a social scientist. So, I put this modest expertise to work with my natural skepticism to assess the dangers presented to us, here in America, by a possible Japanese meltdown, or two, or three. Note again that I am not saying there won’t be meltdowns. I just don’t know, so I am evoking below the worst-case scenario.
First, I do the obvious, the obvious that media commentators don’t seem to have done: I go to Google, including Wikipedia. It’s not much but it’s enormously better than doing nothing or worse, nothing, plus intuition, plus anecdotes, plus half-remembered rumors. I go to the most severe nuclear accident in my life (so far). I look for concrete, numerical statements about radiation illnesses (plural). It’s the 1986 Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine, of course. Below is what Wikipedia has to say.
Technical notes: I don’t ordinarily swear by Wikipedia but you can be completely sure that Wikipedia on radiation sickness is being updated feverishly right now. I lift directly from the sources named. I don’t alter anything unless duly noted in bold.
The issue of long-term effects of the Chernobyl disaster on civilians is very controversial. The number of people whose lives were affected by the disaster is enormous. Over 300,000 people were resettled because of the disaster; millions lived and continue to live in the contaminated area. On the other hand, most of those affected received relatively low doses of radiation; there is little evidence of increased mortality, cancers or birth defects among them; and when such evidence is present, existence of a causal link to radioactive contamination is uncertain.
There is no doubt that workers who capped the defective plant at Chernobyl all, or almost all, died. The above statement concerns populations in the immediate area who were exposed to accidental radiation leaks before they were evacuated and to those who remained.
Then, I move to the single nuclear plant accident in the US, an accident that did more to stop nuclear development in this country than anything else, I think. I refer to the 1978 Three Mile Island event, of course. Here is the statement from Wikipedia on the health effects of that accident:
Based on these low emission figures, early scientific publications on the health effects of the fallout estimated one or two additional cancer deaths in the 10 mi (16 km) area around TMI.[unreliable source?] Disease rates in areas further than 10 miles from the plant were never examined. Local activism in the 1980s, based on anecdotal reports of negative health effects, led to scientific studies being commissioned. A variety of studies have been unable to conclude that the accident had substantial health effects.
The Radiation and Public Health Project cited calculations by Joseph Mangano, who has authored 19 medical journal articles and a book on Low Level Radiation and Immune Disease, that reported a spike in infant mortality in the downwind communities two years after the accident.
The only evidence of ill-effects to neighbors of the plant by someone who was not obviously and crudely prejudiced came from Joseph Mangano. I looked at the report of reference. It presents some disturbing evidence especially regarding an increase in thyroid cancer in four counties close to the plan in a period of several years following the accident. (The report is available on-line. Follow the Wikipedia reference.) Mangano is obviously an anti-nuclear activist. This does not condemn his report, in my book. He appears as the sole author. That’s not bad but it’s unusual. Research scholars like to have back-up. He does not have the normal doctorate that provides obvious qualification as a researcher. This fact does not make his report erroneous either. It’s just unusual. Nevertheless, the Mangano study seems well-designed.
I read it as I would read any scholarly article in which I was interested and I did not find any flaws in it. However the study I saw on-line does not seem to have ever been published in a scholarly journal. That’s a problem because it means that this piece of research was not subjected to normal scientific scrutiny. That’s more important than performing the research itself as far as credibility is concerned. I wonder why it was not published. I am sure there is no conspiracy involved here. If there were one, it would favor publication because academics are wusses and mostly liberals. It’s inconceivable that the piece was submitted to several journals and rejected by all because of pro-nuclear bias. I suspect Mangano never submitted it for publication, If he had, and his study had been rejected for the wrong reasons he would have got a lot of mileage just telling the story of this suppression. It would have given him and his cause huge publicity.
Other sources proposed by Google have this one thing in common: No one seems to be eager to offer quantitative estimates of sickness cause by radiation to people casually exposed. Obviously, I do not claim to have made an exhaustive search. I will present here any serious sources that does this. The serious sources have to include numbers or they must lead directly to numbers. Statements such as “Many more cases…” are useless. On a personal level, I am ready to turn on a dime on the issue of the health hazards of casual radiation exposure.
Conscientious about probing further the inconclusiveness of the material I have found on the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents, I turn to the most massive exposure to nuclear radiation that the world has ever seen, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That exposure was not accidental. It was deliberate, of course, calculated to inflict as many casualties as possible. I reason that the Japanese health authorities had a vital interest in following through and monitoring residents of the two towns who had no died of the blast or shortly after the blast. If there were widespread ill-effects of radiation to survivors for years after exposure, as most people seem to believe, such ill-effects would be obvious in Japan.
First, I turn to a statement by the World Nuclear Association. This may seem like a strange choice of a source. The association obviously has a dog in this fight. It represents organizations and professions who have a vested interest in showing nuclear-anything as safe. Yet and at the same time, the association possesses to the highest degree possible the expertise to form an informed viewpoint. And the self-same reasons that make it desirous of putting a good face on the nuclear industry should make it reluctant to lie and risk getting caught (forever, I think). Its positions are especially vulnerable to disastrous contradictions when they are couched in numbers that may be verified anytime. Here is the WNA’ startling statement:
In Hiroshima, of a resident civilian population of 250 000 it was estimated that 45 000 died on the first day and a further 19 000 during the subsequent four months. In Nagasaki, out of a population of 174 000, 22 000 died on the first day and another 17 000 within four months. Unrecorded deaths of military personnel and foreign workers may have added considerably to these figures. About 15 square kilometres (over 50%) of the two cities was destroyed.
It is impossible to estimate the proportion of these 103 000 deaths, or of the further deaths in military personnel, which were due to radiation exposure rather than to the very high temperatures and blast pressures caused by the explosions – 15 kilotons at Hiroshima and 25 kilotons at Nagasaki. From the estimated radiation levels, however, it is apparent that radiation alone would not have been enough cause death in most of those exposed beyond a kilometre of the ground zero below the bombs. Most deaths appear to have been from the explosion rather than the radiation. Beyond 1.5 km the risk would have been much reduced (and 24 Australian prisoners of war about 1.5 km from the Nagasaki ground zero survived and many lived to a healthy old age).
To the 103 000 deaths from the blast or acute radiation exposure at Hiroshima and Nagasaki have since been added those due to radiation induced cancers and leukaemia, which amounted to some 400 within 30 years, and which may ultimately reach about 550. (Some 93 000 exposed survivors are still being monitored.) Bolding mine, not in original report.
I looked on the web for contradictions of the latter figure of 400 additional deaths within thirty years. I found none. I does not mean they don’t exist. I keep an open mind here also.
Finally, and in the absence of concrete figure supporting the idea of harmful health effect due to casual exposure to radiation, I reproduce below a story from Atomic Archive.com. I don’t know what group or organization maintains this site. It’s housed at the University of Chicago. It may well be a federal government site. I don’t know and I will spread any credible information about it as soon as I receive it.
“The second approach to this question was to determine if any persons not in the city at the time of the explosion, but coming in immediately afterwards exhibited any symptoms or findings which might have been due to persistence induced radioactivity. By the time of the arrival of the Manhattan Engineer District group, several Japanese studies had been done on such persons. None of the persons examined in any of these studies showed any symptoms which could be attributed to radiation, and their actual blood cell counts were consistently within the normal range. Throughout the period of the Manhattan Engineer District investigation, Japanese doctors and patients were repeatedly requested to bring to them any patients who they thought might be examples of persons harmed from persistent radioactivity. No such subjects were found.
It was concluded therefore as a result of these findings and lack of findings, that although a measurable quantity of induced radioactivity was found, it had not been sufficient to cause any harm to persons living in the two cities after the bombings.”
I believe that these startling assertions, so much in contradiction to received wisdom, have not themselves been contradicted in any clear or forceful manner.
In conclusion: It seems that almost everyone fears nuclear radiation. It’s clear much of the opposition to nuclear energy is a function of such a fear. Yet, I found it impossible to locate the kind of good evidence on the subject that rational people would expect to substantiate their fear. If harmful effects from casual and light exposure were so well established, the evidence would show up easily on Google, I think. Opponents of nuclear energy have been adamant for years. If they were rational people and comfortable with facts, they would make it their business to supply data to help people like me make up their minds, or to change their minds. Instead, I found another dog that did not bark. If you have something on the topic that escaped my attention, please send it to me. Again, don’t bother if you have no figures to display.
In spite of all, I will be very much in favor of solar and wind energy (and tidal energy too) as soon as they are available without artificial support. The fact is that they are not and they are not even in sight. There is a solar panel on the roof of my house. It’s supposed to boost my hot-water heater. When its pump went down last year, the technician I called to replace it told me it did not make economic sense to do it. All the same, my libertarian heart still hopes I will get to go off the grid before I check out.
Update 11/13/11: Still no figures from anyone about death or sickness caused by radiation beyond those attributed to clean-up workers right on the site of the accident. If you know otherwise, please let me know. I will check the source and post right away.
Update 4/2/12. There was a “meltdown,” I hear. Still not a single (1) radiation casualty reported! How long should I reasonably wait for anti-nuclear organizations and for their hysterical media followers to say, “Sorry,” or even simply, “Ooops!” ??? How long?