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Fukushima Backlash: Radiation Lobby Sees Upside to Reactor Disasters

Since Fukushima’s triple meltdown and radiation disaster began in Japan in March, a sophisticated backlash against nuclear power critics has begun. Public discussion of heavy, widespread contamination of Japan’s food, water, soil and incinerator ash clogs the newspapers, TV, radio talk shows and the blogosphere there. Questions about the increased risks of death, disease and birth abnormalities stemming from internal contamination are on everyone’s lips. In reaction, the nuclear lobby has trotted out good old balderdash to help distract, confuse, save money and dodge responsibility.

“Best Case” scenario predicts fewer deaths from U.S. meltdown

Here in the U.S., the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) declared in a July report that a reactor meltdown in this country would result in far fewer deaths than it earlier estimated. Using new computer studies and engineering analyses updated projection is based on the supposition that a core meltdown would disperse only 1 or 2 percent of its ferociously radioactive cesium-137 and -134. Earlier projections estimated that a meltdown here would spew up to 60 percent of the core’s cesium.

The NRC now estimates that one person in every 4,348 living within 10 miles would be expected to develop a “latent cancer” as a result of radiation exposure following a meltdown, compared with one in 167 in previous estimates.

The New York Times interviewed Edwin Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, who complained that the NRC has “consistently painted an overly rosy picture and that its latest study does as well.” Jennifer Uhle, deputy director of the commission’s office of nuclear regulatory research, admitted as much. Uhle confessed the report presented the “best estimate” and not the worst case. (“NRC Lowers Estimate of How Many Would Die in Meltdown,” July 29)

Lyman noted that the report assumes a quick and successful evacuation of 99.5 percent of the people within 10 miles of the reactor. Of course in many places, for example New York City, which is just 25 miles from the rickety Indian Point reactor, such success in impossible. The report conveniently ignored the 50-mile evacuation zone that U.S. imposed for its citizens living near the destroyed reactor complex at Fukushima.

Radiation Lobby Wants Public to Eat and Breath More Contamination

Across the Atlantic, several scientists are lobbying to increase allowable radiation exposure limits. Increasing legalized doses to the public would save the owners of nuclear operations enormous costs associated with disaster liability, compensation and cleanup. In Japan these expenses will run over $350 billion.


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Dose standards already in place are being attacked by pro-nuclear agencies like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. Interviewed in October by Nucleonics Week, a few scientists argued that current dose limits set by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) might be “too conservative.”

The ICRP revised its dose recommendations in 2007. It did not change the basic limits for normal situations of 1 milliSievert (mSv) per year to members of the public and 100 mSv over five years for radiation workers. French industry has long fought for higher dose limits, claiming that some exposures are harmless. The ICRP and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences have soundly rejected the French position.

At the IAEA’s General Conference in Vienna in September, Srikumar Banerjee, chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission and head of the government Department of Atomic Energy, asserted that it’s time to increase allowable dose limits following radiation disasters. For example, the ICRP says evacuation is recommended at doses above 100 milliSievert a year, which Banerjee believes is too strict.

Japan is limiting its evacuation around Fukushima’s smashed reactor complex to a 12-mile radius, even though cesium-137 was found 25 miles away in amounts over twice the evacuation standard used at Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 radiation disaster. Japanese surveyors found up to 3.7 million becquerels of cesium per square meter 25 miles out. The evacuation standard used at Chernobyl was 1.48 million becquerels. Still, Banerjee sees no problem because, “… health impacts of the world’s worst nuclear accidents suggest that much larger doses can be tolerated.”

Banerjee did not suggest a number but cited work by Wade Allison, an Emeritus Professor of Physics at Oxford University. Allison wrote recently in Oxford Today that radiation standards are “anachronistic” and that limits on dose “levels should be relaxed as a priority.”

Allison, Banerjee and the radiation lobby dismiss the best estimates of fatalities caused by Chernobyl. They like the IAEA’s 2006 figure of 9,000 eventual deaths, while a more comprehensive estimate, published in 2009 by the New York Academy of Sciences, predicts 985,000 fatalities.

As Upton Sinclair famously said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

John LaForge

John LaForge, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and is co-editor with Arianne Peterson of Nuclear Heartland, Revised: A Guide to the 450 Land-Based Missiles of the United States.

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