Last July, we published a piece on recent groundbreaking work from the U.K.’s Dr. Ian Fairlie and the connection between radiation releases from nuclear reactors and childhood leukemia.
We quoted Dr. Fairlie:
“The core issue is that, world-wide, over 60 epidemiological studies have examined cancer incidences in children near nuclear power plants (NPPs): most (>70%) indicate leukemia increases. I can think of no other area of toxicology (eg asbestos, lead, smoking) with so many studies, and with such clear associations as those between NPPs and child leukemias. Yet many nuclear governments and the nuclear industry refute these findings and continue to resist their implications. It’s similar to the situations with cigarette smoking in the 1960s and with man-made global warming nowadays.”
Today, Ian (full disclosure: an old friend and valued colleague) stopped by NIRS’ office to go over a presentation he made Monday to officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The presentation is available in both Powerpoint and pdf format on NIRS’ website.
The presentation went over much the same ground as our earlier piece, but it’s often the background behind such a presentation that is the most interesting and revealing. And that’s the case here too.
Dr. Fairlie’s thesis is that childhood leukemia is caused by radiation exposure. Period. The data from several fairly recent European governmental studies show elevated childhood leukemia rates within five kilometers (three miles) of nuclear reactors. Past five kilometers, the elevated rates drop off to normal rates.
This, by the way, may be an indication that most U.S. studies of health effects of reactors have taken place over too large of an area–thus diluting the actual effects that could be expected to be found based on the European studies–at least for childhood leukemia. And, typically U.S. studies have been essentially on a circle around a reactor, rather than confined to areas subject to prevailing wind patterns where the largest exposures would occur as was the case with the European studies.
Dr. Fairlie believes, and shows, that the refueling of nuclear reactors results in large spikes in radiation releases–spikes that when averaged out over a year, as radiation release reporting typically is done, bury the truth.
And that makes sense. When a reactor is refueled, the top of the reactor pressure vessel is lifted off so that operators can take out old fuel rods and put in new ones. When that top comes off, the radiation comes out. Especially tritium, which is released with the steam that rises from the vessel. It’s also released into water–and the tritium and the water become inseparable. Ingest that water, and you’re also ingesting tritium.
Cows eat vegetation upon which airborne tritium has deposited. They may drink tritium-laced water too. The chart to the right (click to expand) shows expected tritium levels in cow’s milk caused by releases from refueling at Romania’s Cernavoda reactors. Children then drink the cow’s milk, which itself has become radioactive. Fairlie believes that childhood leukemia begins in utero, by exposure during a woman’s pregnancy, and is triggered by additional exposure after birth.
A key point Dr. Fairlie made to us is that this work was only possible because of release of data previously withheld by the nuclear industry and its regulators worldwide. And, in fact, for every reactor in the world save one, that data continues to be withheld.
The exception, which is captured by the chart at the top of the page, is the Gundremmingen reactors in Bavaria, Germany. That chart shows an actual radiation spike during refueling of one of those reactors.
That data was obtained only because a few years back, the German Green Party and Social Democrats together won an election and governed Bavaria. As Fairlie tells it, an official from that government–the head of the department that regulates nuclear power in the region–brought in an official from the nuclear power plant and demanded the operator provide information on daily radiation releases from the site.
The reactor official refused. The government official demanded it. The reactor official refused, saying it wouldn’t be understood. The government official demanded it. The reactor official said it would take months to compile. The government official told the reactor guy to submit his undated letter of resignation, which he did. The official then told the reactor guy that if the information wasn’t provided within three days, the letter would be dated and made public.
The information arrived in three days–but could only be read by a proprietary computer program held by the utility. But some young Green Party computer geeks succeeded in moving the data through three separate programs and eventually were able to put it into Excel format. And the truth came out.
That’s the kind of data that is certainly worth demanding everywhere. It takes political pressure to get it–the nuclear industry will never release it of its own volition. Because, like the radioactive materials released by nuclear reactors, especially during refueling, it is toxic. Toxic to the lie that radiation emissions from nuclear reactors are harmless, and toxic to the lie that tritium is a low-energy isotope that is not particularly hazardous.
In his presentation, Fairlie lists a number of studies on tritium’s toxicity. On NIRS’ website, we have provided links to 16 scientific abstracts on the issue. On our main tritium page, there is also more information about tritium and its properties, and links to various other studies and reports about tritium releases–which have occurred to groundwater at a majority of U.S. reactor sites.
Fairlie provides three very simple, no-cost steps the nuclear industry could take to reduce the risks of refueling: “advise NPPs to refuel at night-time, or during windy weather, or when wind is blowing away from high populations.” They won’t do that of course, because even taking those steps would be an admission of the dangers the reactors pose.
A better step would be to require a zero-population zone three miles around every reactor. A still-better step–and the one we work for everyday–is to close them all entirely. Because nuclear power kills. And the evidence grows stronger every day.
Dr. Fairlie’s presentation ended with one of my favorite quotes as well, from then-Senator John F. Kennedy:
It is true that the amount of radiation created by bomb tests so far offers no serious threat to the well-being or existence of mankind as a whole. But it is also true that there is no amount of radiation so small that it has no ill effects at all on anybody. There is actually no such thing as a minimum permissible dose. Perhaps we are talking about only a very small number of individual tragedies–the number of atomic age children with cancer, the new victims of leukemia, the damage to skin tissues here and reproductive systems there–perhaps these are too small to measure with statistics. But they nevertheless loom very large indeed in human and moral terms.
Radiation, in its simplest terms–figuratively, literally and chemically–is poison.
There weren’t many reactors operating in 1960; Kennedy was referring to above-ground nuclear weapons tests. But the effects of radiation are no longer limited to those, they are also caused by the 99 reactors licensed now in the U.S. and the 400+ operating globally. In many realms, we’ve come a long way since Sen. Kennedy spoke those words in 1960, not long before he became President. But in our collective understanding of the dangers of radiation, and thus the dangers not only of Fukushima-style meltdowns but the regular, routine, ongoing operations of atomic reactors, it doesn’t seem like we’ve come very far at all. The nuclear power industry has been expert and relentless at obfuscating the truth; it’s the all-too-few dedicated researchers like Dr. Fairlie who are striving, against tall odds, to expose the reality. It’s up to the rest of us to disseminate the information as widely as possible.
April 29, 2015
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