#522: Exorcising the ghosts of Chernobyl
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This commentary is in response to the below BBC article about the BBC Horizon documentary that downplays the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (Message #519). Michael Repacholi, retiring from being the head of the WHO’s International EMF Project now is the expert spokesperson for the “Chernobyl Forum”, organized by the nuclear power regulator and promoter, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Besides the IAEA, other UN organizations involved in the Forum include the Food and Agriculture Organization, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UN Development Programme, UN Environment Programme, UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, the World Health Organization and the World Bank. Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine are also represented.
It is understandable that Repacholi should now speak for the UN agencies as he has an impressive track record in successfully manipulating international organizations into supporting vested industrial interests. See: http://www.emfacts.com/papers/who_conflict.pdf
Repacholi comes to the aid of the international nuclear industry somewhat like The Exorcist, hired to rid the industry of the ghosts of Chernobyl. Correct or not, fears of further Chernobyl scale accidents obviously stands in the way of the widespread public acceptance of nuclear power. This is a major public relations problem for an industry now actively trying to promote their technology as the obvious clean solution for the world’s looming energy and Greenhouse gas crisis. Just as Repacholi worked his magic to convince governments and national radiation health agencies that EMFs are harmless, other than at extremely high levels, he now has to work his magic with hard radiation.
However before the nuclear industry can achieve an environmentally clean image necessary for widespread acceptance there a few Specters that Repacholi and his band of merry men will have to slay first.
Getting rid of LNTM
It has been a long accepted scientific understanding that there is no safe level of ionizing radiation, below which no biological hazards (cancer) occur. Known as the “Linear No Threshold Model” (LNTM), it assumes that the biological response to ionizing radiation is linear to vanishingly small doses so that there is no threshold of exposure below which the response ceases to be linear. So, if a particular dose of radiation is found to produce one extra case of a type of cancer in every thousand people exposed, the LNTM predicts that one thousandth of this dose will produce one extra case in every million people so exposed, and that one millionth of this dose will produce one extra case in every billion people exposed. With LNTM any nuclear leak from a nuclear power plant is a potential health hazard. With LNTM, the radiation spread over Europe and Russia from Chernobyl was a major public health hazard issue. So too is has been the widespread use of depleted uranium by US, British and NATO forces.
The theory created to slay LNTM is the theory of “Radiation Hormesis” that argues that low doses of ionizing radiation are not that bad and are actually beneficial. This theory proposes that upon exposure to low level ionizing radiation, genes that repair damage due to radiation are activated and reduce damage from other causes, which would otherwise be imperfectly repaired. Proponents of Radiation Hormesis, such as the nuclear industry and scientists who receive funding from this sector, use limited and selected evidence to claim for instance that there is evidence that radiation levels of 100 mSev/year may actually be positive or at least neutral to health. So no need to worry about a few nuclear leaks even if to the extent of a Chernobyl.
(Also see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiation_hormesis )
LLRW and a bizarre possibility
A major problem for the nuclear power industry has long been the storage of both high level radioactive waste and low level radioactive waste (lets call it LLRW). If the Radiation Hormesis theory is successful in replacing the LNTM theory, high level radioactive waste storage would remain unchanged but will be the status of LLRW storage change? If exposure to low level radiation is considered beneficial perhaps LLRW could be re-classified from a hazardous waste to something less dangerous, maybe even a consumable item? This may seem absolutely bizarre but consider that this was exactly what was done in the US with the left over highly toxic wastes from sewage treatment plants. This is the effluent sludge left over at the bottom of the tanks after the sewage treatment process was completed, – literally concentrated poo. This stuff contains a veritable inventory of industrial chemicals, bacteria, viruses, fungi, heavy metals, and radioactive wastes, etc. It cannot be dumped at sea because it tends to kill everything on the ocean floor, or used in landfill because it tends to poison ground water. But then what to do with the 10 million tons being generated per year in the US? Where to put it? The ingenious solution was simply to re-classify sewage sludge from a hazardous waste to a beneficial farm fertilizer called “Biosolids”, a “nutrient rich organic byproduct of the nation’s wasterwater process.” In 1992 the EPA modified its “Part 503” technical standards which regulate sludge application on farmlands. The new regulations used the term “biosolids” for the first time, and sewage sludge which was previously designated as hazardous waste was reclassified as “Class A” fertilizer. This change was accompanied with an extensive public advertising campaign extolling the many benefits of this wondrous product.
(Reference “Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Stauber & Rampton, pages 105-122, 1995.)
Is a comparison to Biosolids and Low Level radioactive wastes really that outrageous considering that the nuclear industry already sanctions the spreading of depleted uranium over heavily populated areas of the the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan?
As for the Balkans war Repacholi said at the time that “You would die of suffocation before you could inhale enough of the dust to cause cancer, and even then there’s a low probability of cancer,” (Reference: http://www.stopnato.org.uk/du-watch/tosic/cover-up.htm)
Among other things, if Radiation Hormesis replaces the Linear No Threshold Model, expect some innovative changes to the way low level radioactive wastes are disposed of. Why not consider the following innovations:
* Adding Low level radioactive waste to the water supply, similarly to what is done with floride, as a cancer preventative.
*An additive in livestock feed to give healthier cows.
*Combine radioactive wastes with “Biosolids” as an improved fertilizer to be spread on farmland, perhaps with a nifty name change to “BioRad Plus”.
* I particularly like the proposal once made by the West Australian Mining magnate, Lang Hancock,who proposed making garbage bins out of radioactive wastes because the radiation would keep the flies down!
* Since increased mutation rates are now seen in Chernobyl wildlife, a fact Radiation Hormesis proponents tend to avoid, why not promote the widespread aerial dumping of LLRW over wilderness areas as a method of improving genetic diversity. (See: GENETIC DIVERSITY OF CLETHRIONOMYS GLAREOLUS POPULATIONS FROM HIGHLY CONTAMINATED SITES IN THE CHORNOBYL REGION, UKRAINE, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, Volume: 19 Issue: 8 Pages: 2130-2135)
The Horizon production refers to “Chernobyl”™s nuclear nightmares” but that is nothing compared to the nuclear nightmare if the delusion of Radiation Hormesis and the lies of Repacholi takes hold.
Chernobyl’s ‘nuclear nightmares’
By Nick Davidson
On 26 April 1986, reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant blew up. Forty-eight hours later the entire area was evacuated. Over the following months there were stories of mass graves and dire warnings of thousands of deaths from radiation exposure.
Yet in a BBC Horizon report to be screened on Thursday, a number of scientists argue that 20 years after the accident there is no credible scientific evidence that any of these predications are coming true.
The anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear accident in April saw the publication of a number of reports that examined the potential death toll resulting from exposure to radiation from Chernobyl.
Environmental group Greenpeace said the figure would be near 100,000. Another, Torch (The Other Report on Chernobyl), predicted an extra 30,000-60,000 cancer deaths across Europe.
But according to figures from the Chernobyl Forum, an international organisation of scientific bodies including a number of UN agencies, deaths directly attributable to radiation from Chernobyl currently stand at 56 – less than the weekly death toll on Britain’s roads.
“When people hear of radiation they think of the atomic bomb and they think of thousands of deaths, and they think the Chernobyl reactor accident was equivalent to the atomic bombing in Japan which is absolutely untrue,” says Dr Mike Repacholi, a radiation scientist working at the World Health Organization (WHO).
Scientists involved in the Forum expect the death toll to rise but not far.
“We’re not going to get an epidemic of leukaemia,” Dr Repacholi tells Horizon, “and we don’t expect an epidemic of solid cancers either.”
So why have the predictions varied so wildly?
Scientific as well as public attitudes to radiation are still dominated by the devastating effects of the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US more than half-a-century ago.
At least 200,000 people died almost immediately from the blast, and thousands more were exposed to higher levels of radiation than anybody had ever been exposed to before.
The survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki became the most intensely studied people in the world.
“The detonation of the A-bomb,” explains Professor Antone L Brooks of Washington State University, US, “was the first time that scientists had an opportunity really to look and to see the health effects of radiation; how much radiation was required to produce how much cancer.”
In 1958, using data largely drawn from these bomb studies, scientists came up with an answer. It was called the Linear No Threshold (LNT) model and suggested all radiation, no matter how small, was dangerous.
It became the internationally recognised basis for assessing radiation risk.
Yet there has always been a problem with it. The data from Hiroshima and Nagasaki were for very high levels of radiation exposure, often in the range of thousands of millisieverts. There were no significant data for lower exposures, particularly below 200 millisieverts.
“The model was based on high doses and we just didn’t know what was going on at lower doses of between one and 200 millisieverts,” says Dr Repacholi.
Scientists simply guessed that if high-level radiation was dangerous then lower levels would also be hazardous. They made “an assumption”, observes Dr Repacholi.
Chernobyl, where most people received radiation doses below 200 millisieverts, has been the first large-scale opportunity to test whether this assumption is true. The evidence from the Chernobyl Forum suggests it is not.
“Low doses of radiation are a [very] poor carcinogen,” says Professor Brooks, who has spent 30 years studying the link between radiation and cancer.
“If you talk to anybody and you say the word radiation, immediately you get a fear response. That fear response has caused people to do things that are scientifically unfounded.”
Other studies have come to even more startling conclusions.
Professor Ron Chesser, of Texas Tech University, US, has spent 10 years studying animals living within the 30km exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl.
He has found that, far from the effects of low-level radiation being carcinogenic, it appears to boost those genes that protect us against cancer.
“One of the thoughts that comes out of this is that prior exposure to low levels of radiation actually may have a beneficial effect,” Professor Chesser says.
Today, although most radiation scientists are reluctant to sign up to radiation hormesis, as this phenomenon is known, there is a growing body of opinion that it is time to rethink the LNT model and with it our attitude to radiation exposure below about 200 millisieverts.
However, a number of radiological protection scientists still advocate the use of the LNT model.
In April, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) published a report that used the latest LNT-based radiation risk projection models to update the estimated cancer deaths from Chernobyl.
It concluded that about 16,000 people across Europe could die as a result of the accident.
Dr Peter Boyle, director of the IARC, put the row over the figures into perspective: “Tobacco smoking will cause several thousand times more cancers in the same population.”
Chernobyl was about as bad as a power station accident gets – a complete melt down of the reactor core – yet the lessons of the accident suggest that among the myriad of issues surrounding nuclear power, the threat to human health posed by radiation has been overstated.
Viewers in the UK can watch the Horizon report Nuclear Nightmares at 2100 BST, BBC Two, on Thursday, 13 July 2006Leave a reply →