File spoon-archives/marxism-international.archive/marxism-international_1997/marxism-international.9710, message 512

Date: Sun, 26 Oct 1997 06:41:25 -0500 (EST)
Subject: M-I: Living Marxism: A little radiation never killed anybody


"[William] Schull presents a convincing case in his Effects of Atomic
Radiation: A Half Century of Studies from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He
points out that radiation due to nuclear power in all its forms adds less
than one per cent to the total exposure experienced by the average person.
The radiation created by naturally occurring sources such as radon gas,
cosmic rays and terrestrial gamma rays far outweighs the contribution made
by nuclear power. Accordingly, the increased risk of cancer and other
ailments through exposure to radiation caused by nuclear power is very
small. Indeed, it has been estimated that the additional risk is
equivalent to that caused by smoking 150 cigarettes in a lifetime."

(William Schull is a life-long consultant for the nuclear power industry)



The federal government is proposing to allow large quantities of "low
level" radioactive wastes to be declared non-radioactive ("below
regulatory concern," or BRC, is their phrase for it; see RHWN #183). These
radioactive wastes would then be handled like ordinary household trash;
they would be transported, landfilled, incinerated, reused (for example,
radioactive tools) or recycled (for example, radioactive metals) along
with everything else we discard each day. Such a change would expose
Americans randomly to more ionizing radiation than they are exposed to
today. Government and industry both argue that this is acceptable.
Industry uses one justification, government uses another. Many people in
the nuclear industry argue that small increases in ionizing radiation
aren't dangerous at all. They argue that there is a threshold dose of
radiation, below which no effects occur, and above which people may be
harmed (see RHWN #184). They say the BRC program will not expose anyone to
a dose of radiation greater than the threshold dose, and therefore the BRC
program will cause no harm.

Government approaches the matter differently. The U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) argues that any amount of radiation causes some
damage to a large population of exposed individuals; they subscribe to the
"linear theory" of radiation damage (see RHWN #184). They have set limits
for radiation exposure based on the moral premise that it is acceptable to
kill one citizen out of every 100,000 citizens by exposing them to
radiation. Since the BRC program will not cause exposures that would kill
more than one in every 100,000 citizens (and the linear theory tells them
that, in reality, the program will kill many fewer people than one in
every 100,000), the government argues that the BRC program is acceptable
because it will save billions of dollars for the nuclear power industry
(which must soon dismantle its aging nuclear reactors and put them "away"
somewhere) and for the government itself (which must eventually clean up
millions of pounds of radioactive contamination lying around near weapons

Unfortunately, there is now very substantial evidence, from studies of
human beings exposed to radiation, that both industry and the government
have misunderstood (intentionally or not) the dangers of low levels of
ionizing radiation. (By "low levels" we mean within the range 0 to 5 rem

The most compelling evidence comes from studies of 91,231 people who
survived the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945.
Contrary to popular belief, most of these survivors received only very low
exposures to ionizing radiation. Their health has been continuously
monitored by international scientific organizations, so they represent the
best available information on the effects of low levels of ionizing
radiation on humans. The bomb survivor data now shows without doubt that
there is no safe dose of radiation and, furthermore, that the lowest doses
have caused the greatest cancer increases per unit of radiation. (In other
words, the shape of the dose-response curve is supra-linear; see RHWN
#184.) This means that both the industry assumption (threshold theory) and
the EPA's assumption (linear theory) seriously underestimate the dangers
from exposure to low levels of ionizing radiation. Furthermore, the
Japanese data reveal another important fact about low-level radiation:
young humans (children and infants) are more sensitive to the effects of
low levels of ionizing radiation than are older humans. We will discuss
the Japanese data in detail at another time.

Here we will discuss more recent human data provided by accidents that
released large amounts of ionizing radiation at Chernobyl (Soviet Union,
1986), Three-Mile Island (Pennsylvania, U.S.A., 1979), and Savannah River
(Georgia, U.S.A., 1970). These accidents are the subject of a shocking new
book: Jay Gould and Ben Goldman, DEADLY DECEIT, cited in our last
paragraph. Page numbers inside parentheses in our text refer to this book.
Like the Japanese bomb survivor data, these three accidents indicate that
the lowest doses of ionizing radiation cause the greatest human damage per
unit of radiation. This provides confirmation that the government's
estimate of the hazards of low-level radiation is low; that is to say,
today's allowable limits for human exposure to ionizing radiation will
allow more deaths than our government officially admits. How many more is
the question. Bomb survivor data indicate 30 times more, but even this may
be low, according to Gould and Goldman.

The three accidental releases of large quantities of radiation also
confirm what the bomb survivor data are showing: that infants and children
are the most sensitive to damage from low levels of ionizing radiation.
Consider these facts:

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant blew up on April 26, 1986; nine days
later, radioactivity monitoring stations in Washington state (9,000 miles
from Chernobyl) detected radioactivity in rainfall. By May 16th, 50 EPA
monitoring stations detected radioactive iodine-131 in cow's milk all
across the U.S. Our government said "no problem." Now government data,
analyzed by Gould and Goldman, show that in May, 1986, there was a 5.3%
increase in the U.S. death rate, compared to the previous year; the
chances are less than one in a thousand that this increase occurred by
chance. During June, 1986, the infant mortality rate in the U.S. was 12.3%
higher than it had been in June, 1985, and in some parts of the country it
was much higher; for example, in the south Atlantic states, the infant
mortality rate in June, 1986, was 28% higher than it had been the previous
year. Based on this, and on much additional evidence that we haven't space
to review, Gould and Goldman suggest that current EPA limits on exposures
to low level radiation may need to be tightened by as much as a factor of
1000 (pg. 21).

In November and again in December, 1970, two nuclear rod meltdowns
occurred at the Savannah River nuclear weapons plant in Georgia. The plant
was operated for the government by DuPont, who never told the public
anything about these accidents until Senator John Glenn grilled Dupont
officials in public hearings in late 1988. To this day, DuPont claims that
no radiation escaped outside the plant, but official government
measurements of radioactivity in rain throughout the southeastern U.S.
reveal highly suspicious increases immediately after the accidents. In
South Carolina in December, 1970, rain carried six times as much
radioactivity as it had carried in December, 1969. Radioactivity was also
measurable in local fish; fish in the Savannah river contained radiation
levels 100,000 times higher than fish sold in New York City in 1971. A
child who ate 1/4 pound of catfish from the Savannah River in 1971 would
have received a radiation dose equivalent to 20 chest xrays. Infant
mortality in South Carolina in January, 1971, was 24% higher than it had
been a year earlier; in contrast, infant mortality declined that month
over the entire U.S. and over the southeastern states taken as a whole.
During the following summer (May through September) infant mortality in
South Carolina was 15% higher than it had been the previous year. Again,
we are omitting a wealth of detail.

March 28, 1979, a meltdown at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power
plant spewed more than 10 million Curies of radioactivity into the
environment, most of it into the air. Because the radiation dispersed
quickly, most people received only low levels of exposure. Government and
industry spokespeople have repeatedly assured the public than no one was
harmed. However, the government's own health data tell quite a different
story. Comparing the period three months prior to the accident against the
period four months after the accident, Pennsylvania's infant mortality
rate increased 16% and the state of Maryland's increased 41%. All
together, Gould and Goldman calculate that perhaps as many as 50,000
deaths occurred during 1980-1982 as a result of the TMI accident (pg. 63).

This is an important book. Any individual fact in the book may be
disputed, but the cumulative weight of the evidence is persuasive. And
though we generally do not give much credence to conspiracy theories, if
you read this book from cover to cover, you will have difficulty believing
that your government is telling the full truth about the effects of
low-level radiation. We suggest that you act prudently to protect yourself
and your family: do whatever it takes to keep BRC wastes out of your

Get: Jay M. Gould and Benjamin A. Goldman, DEADLY DECEIT; LOW-LEVEL
RADIATION, HIGH-LEVEL COVER-UP (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows Press
[P.O. Box 548, Village Station, New York, NY 10014], 1990). $19.95

And: Keep in touch with Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS), 1616
P Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; (202) 328-0002, and the Radioactive
Waste Campaign, 625 Broadway, 2nd floor, New York, NY 10012; (212)


A study published earlier this year in the JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL
ASSOCIATION reveals that the occurrence of leukemia (cancer of the
blood-forming cells) is 63% higher among white male atomic workers at the
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) than among all U.S. white males.[1]
ORNL, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, has been a federal research and development
laboratory for U.S. nuclear weapons development since 1943.

If its findings are confirmed by additional research, this study will
affect the future of every part of the nuclear industry, including
electric power reactors, weapons factories and medical uses.

The study compared radiation exposures and deaths among 8318 workers hired
by ORNL between 1943 and 1972; the workers' health status was followed
through 1984. Previous studies of these individuals--the latest being
1977--had not shown any unusual cancer problems. It was during the period
1977-1984 that the excessive cancers began to appear. At end of the study
period (1984), 1524 of the 8318 workers had died. Study of these workers
in the future will be provide important additional information.

The research team reporting these results--several of whom are employed by
ORNL--was clearly distressed by its own findings because very few workers
at ORNL received radiation doses greater than those permissible for
radiation workers today. Of nearly 88,000 individual records of an annual
dose received by a worker at ORNL, only 135 exceeded the yearly dose limit
permissible today, which is 5 rem per year. Most of the workers in the
study received total radiation doses well below what is permissible today.
Nearly 75% of the ORNL workers had cumulative radiation doses of less than
one rem total exposure throughout their employment. This study therefore
casts doubt on the safety of today's radiation standards for atomic

Even more importantly, the study provides reason to doubt the safety of
the allowable limits for radiation to which the general public can legally
be exposed today. If the risks revealed by this study are confirmed, it
could force a lowering of permissible radiation exposures to workers and
to the public, thus affecting the design and operation of nuclear power
plants, the shipment of nuclear materials by truck and by train, the
packaging and burial of nuclear wastes in the ground, exposures allowed
during medical procedures, and on and on. Today the general public can
legally be exposed to 1/10th of a rem per year. An individual exposed to
this legal limit for 10 years would achieve a total exposure larger than
that received by 75% of the workers at ORNL.

This study was very carefully done and was not rushed into print hastily.
The last year of the study period was 1984 and the study appeared in print
in 1991. Clearly, a great deal of thought and analysis went into this
study before it was finally published. An unusual aspect of the study is
that the authors have made available a 19 page supplement that discusses
the statistical techniques they employed. [Order National Auxiliary
Publication Service document 04849 for $7.75 from NAPS c/o Microfiche
Publications, P.O. Box 3513, Grand Central Station, NYC, NY 10163-3513.]

The study not only reveals an elevated risk of cancer among workers
exposed for long periods to low doses of radiation; it also shows that the
risk of cancer increased as the exposure to radiation increased. In other
words, there was an observable relationship between dose (amount of
radiation) and response (cancer). This observable dose-response
relationship is important in convincing scientists that the relationship
between small doses of radiation and leukemia is most likely one of cause
and effect and not pure chance.

Furthermore this new study makes an important contribution to a debate
that has been going on for two decades between groups that might be called
"high dose danger advocates" vs. "low dose danger advocates." The reason
for the debate is that most data on harm from radiation are derived from
events in which humans received high doses of radiation in short periods.
The best-known such event was the bombing of two Japanese cities in 1945.
Yet most radiation exposures to humans are not high doses delivered
quickly but are low doses delivered over decades. The core of the debate
is how to judge what the effects of low doses will be on humans, given
that most of the available data are derived not from low-dose studies but
from high-dose studies. (The various arguments were presented in some
detail in RHWN #184 and #185.)

The study of ORNL workers indicates that low doses of radiation delivered
slowly (over decades) are about 10 times more efficient at producing
cancer in humans than are high doses of radiation delivered quickly. (One
possible explanation for such a phenomenon would be that high radiation
doses kill cells outright whereas low doses merely damage cells which can
then go on to cause cancer.)

The ORNL study shows that chronic exposure to low doses of radiation is
about 10 times more efficient at producing cancer than one would expect,
based on studies of bomb survivors in Japan.

This is not the first study of atomic workers that reached such a
conclusion. An investigation of British atomic workers published in 1988
reported very similar results,[1] so the ORNL study confirms the earlier
British work. This is definitely not good news for people who are
enthusiastic about expanding nuclear technologies because many nuclear
technologies would be difficult and very expensive to redesign to reduce
human exposures to radiation. In the case of nuclear power plants to
generate electricity, and nuclear weapons, a philosophy of prevention
would very likely provide the least-cost solution to the problem.

As if to confirm that this study is really bad news for every part of the
an editorial to accompany the study.[2]  It says, "If correct, the
conclusions of Wing et al [and others] are highly significant" meaning
that they deal a severe blow to people who have argued for decades that
low doses of radiation are inconsequential. The editorial then goes on to
stake out an interesting position for a medical journal; it is called
"There's no free lunch" and it basically says, "Hey--you want the benefits
of nuclear weapons and nuclear-generated electricity and nuclear medicine?
Then you've got to expect that some people will be killed as a result."
The editorial does not even discuss the possibility of redesigning nuclear
facilities to provide lower doses; inherent in such an omission is the
unstated conclusion that redesign would be prohibitively expensive. 

Get: Steve Wing, Carl M. Shy, Joy L. Wood, Susanne Wolf, Donna L. Craig,
and E.L. Frome, "Mortality Among Workers at Oak Ridge National
(March 20, 1991), pgs. 1397-1402.  Request a free reprint from Dr. Wing at
Department of Epidemiology, CB 7400, University of North Carolina, Chapel
Hill, NC 27599-7400.

--Peter Montague


[1]  V. Beral, P. Fraser, L. Carpenter, M. Booth, A. Brown, and G. Rose,
"Mortality of Employees of the Atomic Weapons Establishment, 1951-1982."
BRITISH MEDICAL JOURNAL, Vol. 97 (1988), pgs. 757-770.

[2]  William R. Hendee, "There's No Free Lunch; The Benefits and Risks of
11 (March 20, 1991), pgs. 1437-1438. Additional reading we recommend:
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). $13.95. [See RHWN #200,
Nuclear Responsibility [C.N.R. Book Division, P.O. Box 11207, San
Francisco, CA 94101], 1990. $29.95. [See RHWN #184.]

Additional reading we recommend:

(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). $13.95. [See RHWN #200,
#201, #202.]

INDEPENDENT ANALYSIS (San Francisco, CA: Committee for Nuclear
Responsibility [C.N.R. Book Division, P.O. Box 11207, San Francisco, CA
94101], 1990. $29.95. [See RHWN #184.]

 Descriptor terms: radiation; american medical association; studies;
cancer; leukemia; oak ridge, tn; tn; nuclear weapons; electricity; energy;
workers; exposure; occupational safety and health; nuclear power;
standards; japan; hiroshima; nagasaki; uk;

NOTICE Environmental Research Foundation provides this electronic version
of RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY free of charge even though it
costs our organization considerable time and money to produce it. We would
like to continue to provide this service free. You could help by making a
tax-deductible contribution (anything you can afford, whether $5.00 or
$500.00). Please send your tax-deductible contribution to: Environmental
Research Foundation, P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403-7036. Please do
not send credit card information via E-mail. For further information about
making tax-deductible contributions to E.R.F. by credit card please phone
us toll free at 1-888-2RACHEL.
--Peter Montague, Editor

Louis Proyect

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