Another View on Nuclear Power

We were aghast, and surely we weren’t the only ones, to see such a frighteningly pro-nuclear article as "A Friend’s Path to Nuclear Power" by Karen Street in the October 2008 issue of Friends Journal.

We are aghast because the article ignored the deaths from so-called "low" levels of radiation. There is no threshold for ionizing radiation’s impact on health. Every radiation exposure has the potential to adversely affect the health of people and/or their descendants sooner or later. Low-level radiation deaths may be hard to quantify from a reliable epidemiological basis. However, they are very real, and scientists have published reports about their findings, and they show the dangers of living near an operating nuclear power plant—one that hasn’t melted down. Published in peer-reviewed scientific journals are data showing increases in cancer and prenatal mortality in those living in proximity to nuclear power plants, but more importantly, according to a study by the Radiation and Public Health Project, in which Janette Sherman participated, there was an improvement in both parameters when some 15 nuclear power plants were shut down.

We are aghast because Street’s article accepted the International Atomic Energy Agency’s claim of "50 to 60 deaths already" from Chernobyl, when numerous scientific studies that we consider less biased have found far, far more deaths—up to a million dead already worldwide, with millions more to succumb.

Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and Nature was published last year in Russia. An expanded and updated version in English is in preparation, with Janette Sherman as translator and editor. The book covers some 5,000 articles published in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus by scientists who witnessed the catastrophe firsthand. With its publication, information about many of the effects from Chernobyl will reach the English-speaking world for the first time.

Emissions from this one reactor accident exceeded a hundredfold the radioactive contamination of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and 20 years later, no fewer than 8 million inhabitants of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia have suffered adversely from the Chernobyl catastrophe.

According to monitoring stations around the world, Chernobyl fallout contaminated about 8 percent of Asia, 6 percent of Africa and 0.6 percent of Northern America. Thus it appears that outside Europe, the number of people living in areas contaminated by Chernobyl’s fallout could reach nearly 200 million. The U.S. Department of Energy estimated that some 930,000 people have been impacted to some degree by the Chernobyl radiation.

The radioactive fallout from Chernobyl covered the entire Northern Hemisphere but affected Belarus, northern Ukraine, and European Russia most severely. According to reports from eastern Europe being published in the new volume cited above, before the catastrophe 90 percent of children in Belarus were considered healthy; now fewer than 20 percent are well, and in the most contaminated areas, fewer than 10 percent. The health of adults, according to these reports, also has declined.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission came into being in 1974 when it was separated from the Atomic Energy Commission. According to the NRC Strategic Plan, the NRC is charged with promotion and regulation of nuclear facilities (emphasis ours). If one chooses to only get the version of the truth from such organizations, one may end up believing the hype: that the nuclear waste problem will be solved; that there are no clean alternatives; and that nuclear power plants are not weapons of war, a view that no Friend can support.

Perhaps that was the most distressing aspect of Karen Street’s article. Does she really believe that a combined use of wind power, solar power, smart hydro, and other renewable energy solutions won’t work? The Almighty pours an incredibly large amount of energy down on us from the heavens—from the sun. Why on Earth don’t we harness it first, before turning to dirty solutions?

The first answer is greed. Coal, especially "dirty" coal, is far cheaper than oil or just about anything else, and it makes money
for those who control it. And there is money to be made for those who control nuclear power, especially with all the federal direct
and indirect subsidies it gets (many, many times what all the renewable energy options get, and that’s not counting that nuclear power operates, for all intents and purposes, without insurance).
Karen Street claims that China cannot use solar power because its skies are too dirty. You do not need full sunlight to make solar work; you need light. And power can be stored in batteries, in elevated water storage systems, and many other ways.

By latitude, China lies north of 20 degrees and south of about 45 degrees , corresponding with an area between central Mexico and
the middle of Canada. China is a huge country with areas of deserts and mountains, ideal for wind and solar arrays. China has many small villages, ideal for small-scale solar arrays, where you can eliminate the need for long and expensive transmission lines. And China is a major producer and exporter of solar technology.

Another reason why we don’t turn away from nuclear power is plutonium. Operating nuclear power plants all produce plutonium, enough for at least 50 nuclear bombs per year per power plant. Current nuclear stockpiles require enormous amounts of plutonium for weapons. Where does it come from? Nuclear power plants, making those plants allies in maintaining the weapons of war.

Operating nuclear power plants are the most dangerous, the most vulnerable, and the most destructive terrorist targets on the planet. They are also vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis, and other violent forces of nature. Accidents happen because of poor maintenance, as nearly happened at the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio in 2002, or because of design flaws, poor workmanship, or incompetent or tired operators. As the plants age, they become brittle and structurally weak. Every one of them needs to be shut down forever, and the sooner the better.

No friend of life can support nuclear power. To do so is the ultimate blasphemy against a benevolent being that demands (or even merely requests) prudence, because nuclear radioactive decay is an unstoppable, undirected, unpredictable, violent, destructive process. It is, in a word, uncontrollable, and very unfriendly.

All biological molecular bonds—in fact, all molecular bonds of any sort—can be broken by even the weakest ionizing radiation, damaging our DNA. The DNA of our children may be harmed from our exposures, as well as from their own exposures. Even when radiation doesn’t cause a fatal cancer, it can cause chronic illness, cardiac disease, increased incidence of diabetes, and mental decline from radiation-induced brain damage. Lesser known is an increase in cataracts and deterioration characteristic of aging, now seen in young people. Increased birth defects and prematurity contribute to the social and economic decline of those living in heavily contaminated areas.

When studying radiation’s effects, if the researcher is being paid by the nuclear establishment, such as the IAEA or the Department of Energy, or some university’s government-funded radiation lab, it is not unusual for the researcher to ignore every health effect except one—usually cancer, such as thyroid cancer in children, which indeed is rampant in areas that have received radioactive iodine fallout.
If the resultant data starts to look bad for the researcher’s funders, the research may simply be stopped. This has happened time and time again in radiation research (and in tobacco research, and in many other areas).

Data demonstrate that thyroid cancer rates are highest in the eastern part of Pennsylvania. Could it be because the area is downwind from Three Mile Island, Peach Bottom, and Limerick power plants? Scientists are eager to research the situation, but there are few to no funds available for independent researchers to do the needed research.

The nuclear industry, unfortunately, is famous for deception. "A little radiation is good for you." (Wrong!) "The energy will be too cheap to meter." (Wrong!) "These are ‘peaceful’ nuclear power plants." (Wrong again!)

Unfortunately, Karen Street has accepted a lot of these deceptions.

Ace Hoffman

Ace Hoffman, an educational software developer who writes frequently about nuclear issues, lives in Carlsbad, Calif. He is the author of DNA and Ionizing Radiation: A Dangerous Mix, available for free download from his website Janette D. Sherman, who attends Alexandria (Va.) Meeting., is an internist and toxicologist, and the author of Life's Delicate Balance: Causes and Prevention of Breast Cancer and Chemical Exposure and Disease. See