Contributed by Christina Macpherson, a retired science teacher in Australia who tackles thorny nuclear and other issues on her blog, Nuclear-News.
For the nuclear industry, the real hurdle to developing nuclear power further isn’t cancer, birth defects, genetic instability, risks of nuclear accidents…. It’s simply overcoming the fear of radiation.
The essential message is conveyed in this headline from World Nuclear News (which is affiliated with the World Nuclear Association): “Fear and Stress Outweigh Fukushima Radiation Risk.” WNN goes on to say: “The most extensive international report to date has concluded that the only observable health effects from the Fukushima accident stem from the stresses of evacuation and unwarranted fear of radiation.”
Other media outlets have reported the findings as well (here and here). But how can the World Nuclear Association be so confident that the fear is “unwarranted?” And that the main task now is to overturn that fear?
They are relying largely on phone interviews with some members of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), notably its chair, Wolfgang Weiss. On May 31, UNSCEAR released a brief preliminary report on Fukushima radiation and health – the full report will be presented at the United Nations in October this year. And the world press has been quoting this statement from the unofficial press release:
It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public and the vast majority of workers.
But the World Health Organization’s comprehensive report, dated February 2013, concluded that an increased rate of breast cancer is to be expected in future years among women who were children when exposed to low level Fukushima radiation. It also predicted increased leukemia among Fukushima clean-up workers.
If you dissect the UNSCEAR statement, you see how very carefully it is worded, so that in actuality, it does not contradict the WTO.
The word “attribute”: It would be virtually impossible to select individuals – to attribute whose cancer was caused by Fukushima radiation. Among the exposed population, at least 30% would be expected to get cancer in the normal course of events, without the Fukushima accident. Of every 30 or so people who later developed cancer, only one would be expected to have come from the Fukushima radiation, but which one?
The words “the general public”: That widens the scope to all of Japan’s 128 million people. But the WHO was talking only about the few thousands who were exposed to low level radiation in the affected area.
The words “the vast majority of workers”: But the WHO predicted leukemia to develop in only a minority of the affected workers.
So, not any real difference from the Who report. Just a different emphasis. And, if you go to read that UNSCEAR press release, it is a lot more reticent about Fukushima radiation being harmless; and it does warn that children are more susceptible. No Immediate Health Risks from Fukushima Nuclear Accident Says UN Expert Science Panel Long Term Monitoring is the Key.
The UNSCEAR report also finds that effects on plants and animals are “transient,” but it gives some exceptions, notably water plants. The report is talking about radiation releases from Fukushima – “external radiation.” It does not go into the question of more long-lived effects from “internal radiation” – radioactive isotopes that enter the body through food or water and remain lodged in the body. This is an omission in the WHO report, also.
So, both the WTO and the UNSCEAR press release, though conservative, are far from confident in the harmlessness of the Fukushima radiation. The UNSCEAR release is headed “not an official document.” We will have to wait until October for the official one.
We should also bear in mind the relationship between both the WTO and UNSCEAR to the International Atomic Energy Agency:
The WTO is bound by an agreement with the IAEA. A clause of this agreement says the WHO effectively grants the right of prior approval over any research it might undertake or report on to the IAEA
UNSCEAR is also subservient to the IAEA. All its reports must be approved by the IAEA. Its membership is largely from the nuclear industry. Its chairman, Wolfgang Weiss is a boss on Euratom which, according to Wikipedia is “an international organisation founded in 1958 with the purpose of creating a specialist market for nuclear power in Europe, developing nuclear energy and distributing it to its member states while selling the surplus to non-member states.”
The IAEA itself has as its founding brief: “The agency shall seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity through the world.”
A careful study of both publications shows that while they take a very conservative attitude to the health risks from Fukushima radiation (in keeping with their obligations to the IAEA), they certainly do not conclude that there is nothing to worry about.
However, the mental health effects of fear are considerable, and it’s very important for these people to get all possible help, including correct information, rather than panic-stricken warnings. But their fear is not unreasonable. On an individual basis, cancer and other health risks from low level radiation are small. On a collective population basis, the risks are significant.
The nuclear lobby worries (correctly) that public fear of ionizing radiation is indeed a handicap to public acceptance of the nuclear industry.
The latest pitch of the nuclear lobby is that Fukushima radiation is OK, that their industry will go ahead, as the public loses its fear of radiation. And the nuclear lobby is now on a campaign to convince the public to abandon that fear. It sounds plausible, but even the WHO and UNSCEAR, under the thumb of the IAEA, have their doubts. There are many other reputable scientific agencies that agree with Dr Margaret Chan, Director General of the WHO, that there is no safe level of ionizing radiation. Contributed by Christina Macpherson.
Wolf here: Catastrophic nuclear accidents, like Chernobyl or Fukushima, are very rare, we’re told incessantly. But when they occur, they’re costly. So costly that the French government, when it came up with estimates, kept them secret. But the report was leaked: an accident at a single reactor in a thinly populated part of France could cost over three times France’s GDP. Read…. Potential Cost Of A Nuclear Accident? So High It’s A Secret!