One Nuclear Reactor Can Pollute Half the Globe

October 29, 2010

This week's Update about the impacts of the Chernobyl accident was written by Cathie Sullivan. Cathie visited the ruined Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 2004 and spent several days speaking with local families displaced and suffering health damage from the accident. Since 1980 she has been interested in and studied the work of independent researchers in the field of health and radiation, especially the work of Dr. John Gofman. Cathie's second installment will be released next week.

Most people understand that radiation from nuclear weapons production or civilian nuclear power plant accidents carry large potential health threats. Since the 1986 catastrophic Chernobyl nuclear accident in the former Soviet Union, a conservatively estimated 9,000 people have contracted or died from radiation-caused cancers.** And an area of the Earth that is home to three billion people was contaminated by Chernobyl fallout which is found in every country in the Northern Hemisphere. Twenty-five years after the accident, sheep from parts of Wales cannot be sold because their pastures are still contaminated with radioactive Cesium-137.

In the five years following the accident a staggering 750,000 Soviet citizens worked at the impossible task of cleaning up Chernobyl. It is this nearly one million clean-up workers, plus several million more living near or downwind of the destroyed reactor, that have suffered the worst health effects, including more cancer, heart disease, cataract of the eye, birth and health damage in children, psychological problems and damaged immune systems. In the case of the latter, a damaged immune system can open the body to non-radiation related diseases, chronic infections, colds and flu.

Because of the health risks of nuclear technology, commercial and government interests as well as international agencies who set nuclear policy have tried to control the public's understanding of the health effects of radiation. The Department of Energy (DOE) conducts the US nuclear weapons program, but also funds research on radiation's health effects. Many non-government health scientists view DOE-funded radiation studies as skeptically as they view studies funded by tobacco companies on lung cancer and smoking. The world's nuclear powers have always given nuclear weapons and nuclear power priority over the public health impact of nuclear technology. For instance, is it good public health policy to legally allow nuclear power plants to routinely release radioactive gases even though we now have proof that no dose, however small, is free of added cancer risk?

The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose mission statement includes global promotion of nuclear power, also puts weapons and power generation before health concerns. In fact, the IAEA and the UN World Health Organization have a written agreement that keeps radiation-health studies by the health agency from public release until the atomic agency gives its permission.

Since Chernobyl, Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian regional researchers have conducted thousands of health studies on the survivors. Western scientific committees have dismissed these studies because they are written mainly in Russian or fall short of the arguably arbitrary standard for statistical significance. In December 2009, however, leading Russian scientists published an English summary covering more than 5,000 studies of the health impacts of Chernobyl. In next week's Update, we will review their conclusions.

** For a long period after the accident, the estimate was 31 people who had contracted or died from radiation-caused cancers.

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