Is it possible for an epidemic to be invisible?
Since 1991 the annual number of newly documented cases of thyroid cancer in the United States has skyrocketed from 12,400 to 62,450. It’s now the seventh most common type of cancer.
Relatively little attention is paid to the butterfly-shaped thyroid gland that wraps around the throat. Many don’t even know what the gland does. But this small organ (and the hormone it produces) is crucial to physical and mental development, especially early in life.
Cancer of the thyroid also gets little attention, perhaps because it is treatable, with long-term survival rates more than 90 percent. Still, the obvious question is what is causing this epidemic, and what can be done to address it?
Recently, there has been a debate in medical journals, with several authors claiming that the increase in thyroid cancer is the result of doctors doing a better job of detecting the disease at an earlier stage. A team of Italian researchers who published a paper last January split the difference, citing increased rates and better diagnosis. But as rates of all stages of thyroid cancer are soaring, better detection is probably a small factor.
So, what are the causes?
The Mayo Clinic describes a higher frequency of occurrence of thyroid cancer in women (not a telling clue, unless more is known about what predisposes women to the condition). It mentions inherited genetic syndromes that increase risk, although the true cause of these syndromes aren’t known. And Mayo links thyroid cancer to exposure to radiation. The latter is perhaps the only “cause” for which there is a public policy solution.
In the atomic age, radioactive iodine (chiefly Iodine-131) has proliferated, from atom bomb explosions and now from nuclear power reactors.
The thyroid gland requires iodine, a naturally occurring chemical. But it doesn’t distinguish between radioactive Iodine 131 and naturally occurring iodine. Iodine 131 enters the human body via the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe, damaging and killing cells, a process that can lead to cancer and other diseases.
The current debate in medical journals, or lack of one, ignores the obvious. Although the specific process that causes thyroid cancer isn’t known, many scholarly studies have already linked exposure to radioactive iodine to increased risk. Studies of Japanese survivors of the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki found the cancer with the greatest increase was thyroid cancer.
* A U.S. government survey of cancer rates among residents of the Marshall Islands, who were exposed to U.S. bomb testing in the 1950s, found thyroid cancer outpaced all others.
* A 1999 federal study estimated that exposure to I-131 from bomb testing in Nevada caused as many as 212,000 Americans to develop thyroid cancer.
* A 2009 book on the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster found soaring levels of local thyroid cancer rates after the meltdown, especially among children, and workers called “liquidators,” who cleaned up the burning plant.
* More recently, studies have documented thyroid cancer rates in children near Fukushima, Japan, site of the 2011 meltdown, to be 20 to 50 times above the expected rate.
Today, one of the main sources of human exposure to radioactive iodine is nuclear power reactors. Not only from accidents like the ones at Chernobyl and Fukushima, but from the routine operation of reactors. To create electricity, these plants use the same process to split uranium atoms that is used in atomic bombs. In that process, waste products, including I-131, are produced in large amounts and must be contained to prevent exposure to workers and local residents. Some of this waste inevitably leaks from reactors and finds its way into plants and the bodies of humans and other animals.
The highest rates of thyroid cancer in the United States, according to federal statistics, are found in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York, states with the densest concentration of reactors in the nation. In a study conducted in 2009, one of this article’s authors (Janette Sherman) found the highest rates of thyroid cancer occurring within 90-mile radiuses of the 16 nuclear power plants (13 still operating) in those states.
Declaring “we don’t know why” and continuing to diagnose and treat the growing number of Americans suffering from thyroid disease is not sufficient. Causes must be identified, preventive strategies must be implemented, and ultimately policy makers will have to take a serious look at closing the 99 nuclear reactors currently operating in the United States.
Joseph Mangano, MPH MBA, is the author of Mad Science (pub. 2012) as well and many articles on the effects of nuclear power. He is an epidemiologist, and Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project and can be reached at: (www.radiation.org). Janette D. Sherman, M. D. is the author of Life’s Delicate Balance: Causes and Prevention of Breast Cancer and Chemical Exposure and Disease, and is a specialist in internal medicine and toxicology. She edited the book Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and Nature, written by A. V. Yablokov, V. B., Nesterenko and A. V. Nesterenko, published by the New York Academy of Sciences in 2009. Her primary interest is the prevention of illness through public education. She can be reached at: email@example.com www.janettesherman.com
The class action lawsuit—begun 20 years old—that charges Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) with contaminating neighborhoods adjacent to it will be moving ahead again in New York State Supreme Court this month.
Court action is scheduled for the last week in February. Since it was first brought in 1996, the lawsuit has gone back and forth between the State Supreme Court and the Appellate Division several times, as BNL has fought it.
In July the Appellate Division—the judicial panel over the Supreme Court in New York State —ruled the case can move towards trial. It declared that “the causes of action of the proposed intervenors are all based upon common theories of liability.” In other words, it stated that the plaintiffs could sue for damages.
But, outrageously, the radioactive contamination caused by BNL—documented in the 2008 book “Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town” and focused upon by the award-winning 2012 documentary “The Atomic States of America”—can no longer be part of the case.
The argument of lawyers for BNL lawyers was accepted by the Appellate Division which, as it put it in its July decision, ruled that “the nuclear radiation emitted by BNL did not exceed guidelines promulgated by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”
Further, the BNL radioactive pollution will not be allowed to be considered despite the federal government in recent years paying out millions of dollars to BNL employees in compensation for their getting cancer after exposure to radioactivity at BNL. In addition, families of those BNL workers who died from cancer after exposure to radioactivity have been paid.
The pay-outs to former workers and their families for cancer from BNL radioactive exposure—what neighbors of the lab are now being barred from litigating about—come under the federal government’s “Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.”
Instead, the non-employee victims are now being limited in the class action lawsuit to suing for other BNL pollution, largely chemical.
The “Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program” covers not only BNL but the string of U.S. national nuclear laboratories including Los Alamos, Livermore, Oak Ridge labs, as well as federal nuclear facilities including its Savannah River Plant and Hanford.
According to a Power Point presentation given at BNL in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Labor, some $8.2 billion has been set aside under the program for pay-outs, with $111.7 million of that for exposure to radioactivity and consequent cancer at BNL
Joseph B. Frowiss, Sr., based in Rancho Santa Fe, California has been handling many of the cases involving former workers at BNL—and other government nuclear facilities—and their families. As he says on his website—“in the past seven years 1,800 of my clients have received over $300 million and hundreds more are in the pipeline…A diagnosis of one of 23 ‘specified’ cancers and typically 250 work days in a specified timeframe are the basic requirements.”
An “independent claims advocate,” Mr. Frowiss has run full-page advertisements in Long Island newspapers: “Brookhaven National Lab Employees With Cancer,” they are headed. They note that “BNL employees… are likely now eligible for lump sum tax free base awards of $150,000, possibly to $400,000, plus medical benefits.”
The case against BNL by non-employees who are now not being allowed the compensation of BNL employees and their families for exposure from BNL radioactivity originally specified damages caused by BNL radioactivity.
The suit is titled Ozarczuk v. Associated Universities, Inc.
Associated Universities is the entity that managed BNL, at first for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) which set BNL up in 1947 at Camp Upton, a former Army base on Long Island, to do atomic research and develop civilian uses of nuclear technology.
The AEC was eliminated in 1974 by Congress for having a conflict of interest with its mission of both regulating and at the same time promoting nuclear technology in the United States. Its regulatory function was given to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and promotional activities to a Department of Energy which took over operating BNL and the other federal nuclear labs and the other nuclear facilities.
The defendants in the action—Associated Universities—managed BNL from its start until 1998 when it was fired by the DOE because of widespread contamination at BNL and DOE’s determination that it was a bad overseer of BNL operations. The two nuclear reactors at BNL were found to have, for many years, been leaking radioactive tritium into the underground water table on which Long Island depends for its potable water supply.
Associated Universities—which continues with other activities for the federal government—includes Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell and Johns Hopkins Universities, University of Pennsylvania and University of Rochester and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. DOE replaced Associated Universities in running BNL with a partnership of Stony Brook University on Long Island and Battelle Memorial Institute of Ohio.
The lawsuit is named for Barbara Osarczuk who lived just outside the BNL boundary in North Shirley and developed breast and thyroid cancer that she attributes to BNL pollution.
The lawsuit charges that “actions of the defendant were grossly, recklessly and wantonly negligent and done with an utter disregard for the health, safety, well-being and rights of the plaintiffs.” It further accuses BNL of “failure to observe accepted industry standards in the use, storage and disposal of hazardous and toxic substances” and BNL itself of being “improperly located on top of an underground aquifer which supplies drinking water to [a] large number of persons.”
Initially brought by 21 families, the lawsuit now has 180 families as plaintiffs.
The attorneys representing them are led by two prominent lawyers, A. Craig Purcell of Stony Brook, Long Island, a former president of the Suffolk County Bar Association, and Richard J. Lippes of Buffalo who represented Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal Homeowners Association in landmark litigation. That lawsuit took on the massive contamination in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls caused by the Hooker Chemical Company which resulted in widespread health impacts to residents of the area. It led in 1980 to the creation of the federal Superfund program to try clean up high-pollution sites in the United States.
Mr. Purcell said that after the many years of back-and-forth court rulings, the plaintiffs have the judicial go-ahead to sue for “loss of enjoyment of life, diminution of property values and the cost of hooking up to public water.”
Mr. Lippes said that “the lab was supposed to monitor anything escaping from it—and didn’t do it.” The attitude of BNL, he said, was that “every dollar spent for safety or on environmental issues was taking away from research.” The lawsuit “should have been resolved years ago, but there has been intransigence of lab administrators not wanting to be held responsible.”
BNL was designated a high-pollution Superfund site in 1989. The large amounts of radioactive tritium—H30 or radioactive water—were found to have been leaking from BNL’s High Flux Beam Reactor in 1997. That nuclear reactor was closed by the DOE and then a smaller reactor was found to be leaking tritium too and was shut down.
There are now no operating nuclear reactors at BNL.
Still, BNL remains closely connected to nuclear technology. In 2010, BNL set up a new Department of Nuclear Science and Technology with a multi-million dollar yearly budget.
BNL’s announcement at the time quoted Gerald Stokes, its associate director for Global and Regional Solutions, as saying: “BNL’s long involvement and considerable experience in nuclear energy make it a natural place to create such an organization.” On BNL’s website currently is a page headed, “Exploring Nuclear Technologies for Our Energy Future” which discusses the department.
Long Island environmental educator and activist Peter Maniscalco says: “The Brookhaven scientific culture still doesn’t understand the interrelationship between humans and the natural world and the lethal consequences their work in nuclear technology imposes on the population and environment of the world. They still don’t understand that nuclear power is a polluting, deadly technology.”
The book “Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town” by Kelly McMasters links widespread cancer in neighboring Shirley to radioactive releases from BNL. She taught in the Columbia University writing program and Graduate School of Journalism and is an assistant professor and director of publishing studies at Hofstra University on Long Island.
Her book tells of how the government sought a nuclear facility “built far from any heavily populated areas.” She writes that the AEC “and the scientists themselves could have taken a look around and realized the…homes and neighborhoods sprouting up around their compound were too close to chance the radioactive nature of the work they were conducting…But none of this happened.”
The book was short-listed by Oprah Winfrey. Her magazine, O, said of it: “A loving, affecting memoir of an American Eden turned toxic.”
“The Atomic States of America,” based on the book, received among its honors a special showing at the Sundance Film Festival. It got good reviews.
The review in Variety noted that Shirley “was in unhappy proximity” to BNL “around which skyrocketing cancer rates were written off as coincidence or an aberrant gene pool.” It noted the appearance in “The Atomic States of America” of Alec Baldwin, “a lifelong Long Islander,” who in the documentary calls BNL scientists “liars and worse.” The review said that “in following McMasters’ work, the film builds a convincing case about cancer and nukes,”
In the first book I wrote about nuclear technology, “Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power,” published in 1980, I reprinted pages from BNL’s safety manual as an example of dangers of radioactivity not being taken seriously at BNL.
The manual advised that people “can live with radiation.”
“Is Radiation Dangerous To You?” it starts. It tells BNL employees: “It can be; but need not be.” It states: “If you wear protective clothing, wash with soap and check your hands and feet with instruments, you are perfectly safe.”
Attorney Purcell said that a “conference date” for Ozarczuk v. Associated Universities, Inc. is scheduled for February 22 in New York State Supreme Court in Riverhead, Long Island and a “court date” for February 25.
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College of New York, is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.
Opposition to the proposed nuclear waste facility by Lake Huron continues to grow. By the end of 2015, at least 182 communities (representing more than 22 million people) on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border have adopted resolutions opposing the plan by Ontario Power Generation to build a deep geological repository (DGR) for storage of low- and intermediate-level radioactive nuclear waste.
A Canadian federal panel approved the nuclear waste dump in May 2015, accepting testimony that Lake Huron would be large enough to dilute any radioactive pollution that might leak from the DGR.
The immediate outcry on both sides of the border prompted the Conservative government of Stephen Harper to postpone any decision until Dec. 1, 2015, after the Oct. 19 federal election – in which they were booted out of office. The new government of Liberal Justin Trudeau then pushed that decision to March 1, 2016, after a dozen members of Michigan’s congressional delegation urged the new prime minister to deny the construction permits necessary for the storage facility to be built.
Meanwhile, American efforts to engage the International Joint Commision (IJC), which oversees boundary waters’ issues, have come to naught. As the IJC’s Public Information Officer Frank Bevacqua told me by email, both the Canadian and U.S. federal governments would have to ask the IJC to intervene on the issue. “The IJC does not review proposals for site-specific projects [like the DGR] unless asked to do so by both governments,” he said.
That means a final decision on the DGR may reside with a small First Nations community.
First Nation Decision
The proposed DGR would be located on the territory of the Saugeen First Nation, which is in the process of evaluating the proposal. The Saugeen First Nation has a promise from Ontario Power Generation to not proceed without their support. As Saugeen Chief Vernon Roote told Indian Country Today Media Network (ICTMN) in December, “Ontario Power Generation had given us their commitment that they will not proceed unless they have community support. That’s a letter that we have on file.” 
Saugeen First Nation negotiator (and former Chief) Randall Kahgee told ICTMN that “we are starting to build some momentum on the community engagement process.” The Saugeen leaders are determining how to gauge the community voice, whether by polling or by vote at public gatherings, and have already held some engagement sessions on the issue. 
Randall Kahgee told ICTMN, “For the communities, this is not just about the deep geological repository but also about the nuclear waste problem within our territory. We have always insisted that while this problem is not of our own design, we must be part of shaping the solution. Gone are the days when our people, communities and Nation are left on the outside looking in within our own territory. These are complex issues that will force us to really ask ourselves what does it mean to be stewards of the land. The opportunity to be able to shape the discourse on these matters is both exciting and frightening at the same time.” 
The Saugeen First Nation is especially concerned about simply moving the proposed facility into somebody else’s backyard. “We might not be the best of friends when we push nuclear waste on our brothers’ and sisters’ territory,” he told ICTMN.
The proposal by provincial Crown corporation Ontario Power Generation (OPG) is for at least 7 million cubic feet of nuclear wastes from Ontario nuclear power plants to be buried in chambers drilled into limestone 2,231 feet below the surface and under the Bruce nuclear site at Kincardine, Ontario. The waste to be entombed in the DGR would come from the Bruce, Pickering and Darlington nuclear sites in Ontario – currently home to 18 Candu reactors.
The eight nuclear reactors at the Bruce site (the world’s largest nuclear station) are leased from OPG by a private company called Bruce Power, whose major shareholders/partners include TransCanada Corp. – better known for its tarsands pipeline projects. (TransCanada earns more than one-third of its profits from power-generation.) Bruce Power pays OPG for storage of nuclear wastes, which are currently stored and monitored above-ground on site. 
In December, Bruce Power announced that it will invest $13 billion to refurbish the Bruce site, overhauling six of the eight reactors on Lake Huron beginning in 2020.  Just weeks later, OPG announced a $12.8 billion refurbishment of four nuclear reactors at Darlington, while extending the life of its ageing Pickering nuclear power plant on Lake Ontario.  The Pickering move requires public hearings and approval from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, but Ontario’s Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli has voiced his approval and touted the nuclear industry as “emissions-free,” while ignoring the issue of nuclear wastes.
OPG, Bruce Power, and the Ontario government are obviously onside with the Canadian Nuclear Association lobby, whose president and CEO John Barrett is using the COP21 Paris Climate Agreement to push for nuclear expansion. In an op-ed for The Globe and Mail, Barrett declared that “it is time to recognize the contribution – current and potential – of nuclear power in curbing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide,” and he stated that Canada, with its uranium mining and nuclear reactor technology, is “ready to play an international leadership role on climate change.” 
Barrett, in turn, is onside with the billionaires now pushing nuclear energy expansion worldwide: Richard Branson (Virgin Group), Peter Thiel (PayPal co-founder), Bill Gates and Paul Allen (Microsoft co-founders), and Jeff Bezos (Amazon) have all endorsed nuclear energy as the solution to climate change.  As well, scientists James Hansen, Kerry Emmanuel, Ken Caldeira and Tom Wigley have recently called for building 115 new reactors per year as “the only viable path forward”.  They dismiss nuclear waste as “trivial” and claim that there “are technical means to dispose of this small amount of waste safely.”
In that case, the resulting nuclear waste should be stored in their basements and under the billionaires’ mansions, rather than near bodies of water like the Great Lakes, which provide 40 million people with their drinking water.
 Konnie Lemay, “Saugeen Nation May Be Final Word in Nuclear Waste Storage Next to Lake Huron,” Indian Country Today Media Network, December 11, 2015.
 Joyce Nelson, “Nuclear Dump Controversy,” Watershed Sentinel, Sept.-Oct., 2015.
 Robert Benzie, “Bruce Power to invest $13 billion to refurbish nuclear station on Lake Huron,” Toronto Star, December 3, 2015.
 Rob Ferguson, “Ontario Power Generation to spend $12.8 billion refurbishing four Darlington nuclear reactors,” Toronto Star, January 11, 2016.
 John Barrett, “Nuclear power is key to decarbonization, and Canada can lead the way,” The Globe and Mail, December 16, 2015.
 Emily Schwartz Greco, “A Big Fat Radioactive Lie,” Other words.org, December 4, 2015.
Joyce Nelson is an award-winning Canadian freelance writer/researcher working on her sixth book.
Besides the terrible effects of the burst of light that causes eye damage, the heat that sets everything flammable on fire, the electromagnetic pulse that knocks out all electronic devices, and the blast that produces winds with ten times the force of a hurricane, demolishing everything, the detonation of nuclear weapons also leads to the emission of large amounts of ionizing radiation, which has serious deleterious effects on humans and many other species. Ionizing radiation is, in fact, a lurking danger as we cannot see it, we cannot smell it, we cannot hear it, and we cannot feel it immediately. But we certainly get harmed from it.
To reduce exposure to ionizing radiation and the risk of deleterious effects, we doctors usually warn our patients against having frequent examinations or procedures that involve x-rays. That is because x-rays are ionizing radiation that can harm your body in the same ways as radiation emitted by nuclear detonations. The main difference is that, for medical purposes, the radiation is applied in a controlled way.
The international standard unit for the dose of ionizing radiation is the Sievert. National guidelines in many countries warn against people having a cumulative dose of ionizing radiation exceeding 0.001 Sievert/year. The dose from a full body CT scan is 0.01 – 0.03 Sievert.
The ionizing radiation to which everybody in the vicinity of a nuclear detonation is exposed is so high and immediate that measuring in Sievert does not have much meaning. Such exposures are measured in Gray, where five Gray is reckoned to be lethal to 50% of those exposed (LD50). Even though these types of exposures are not directly comparable, for the common types of ionizing radiation, 1 Gray equals approximately 1.3 Sievert.
The intensity of the radiation at the epicenter of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki was estimated to be 320 Gray; one kilometer away it was 7.83 Gray; two kilometers away it was 0.13 Gray. The first two exposures are lethal; the third is about 130 times above the recommended yearly dose for humans. In an attempt to transform the radiation from a nuclear explosion into a standardized dose estimate, the highest reading of ionizing radiation from the fallout from the Trinity bomb, 32 km away from the detonation, and 3 hours later, was 0.190 Sievert/hour which equals 1.700 Sievert/year. There is evidence that a single dose of about five Sievert may be lethal. Cancer risk in general is reckoned to increase by approximately 5.5% for every Sievert/year.
Ionizing radiation and, in particular, gamma radiation, can penetrate tissue and cause harm throughout the body. Cells that have rapid life cycles are the most susceptible to acute damage. If the dose is high enough, the irradiated cells are simply killed by the radiation. That knowledge is used in all kinds of radiotherapy. The most susceptible cells are those of the central nervous system, blood cells, gamete cells, and barrier cells in the gastrointestinal tract. Therefore, symptoms of acute radiation illness are drowsiness and convulsions, anemia and bleeding, and loss of body fluid by bleeding and through the gut. Patients are seen more or less unconscious with skin hemorrhages and bleeding out of every opening of the body. No treatment is available apart for attempts for symptomatic relieve.
Long term effects of too much ionizing radiation include congenital malformations from genetic damage to gamete cells, and an increased risk of different types of cancer as seen in the cohorts of survivors from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the past 70 years.
Detonation of a nuclear bomb generates both direct ionizing radiation from the explosion and also huge amounts of radioactive contamination that can spread with the wind into the atmosphere and precipitate as “fallout” onto land or water. The same can happen as a consequence of nuclear reactor disasters, such as Chernobyl and Fukushima. Such radioactive fallout is immediately deleterious to both humans and animals and can make large areas of land uninhabitable, unpastoral, and uncultivable for decades.
Ionizing radiation is normally present in nature from many sources in the Earth’s crust. Humans and animals have evolved to endure small amounts of ionizing radiation, with an assumed (but nevertheless controversial) “safe” dose of less than 0.001 Sievert/year. That is a fine and tender balance that should not be disturbed by the emission of unnecessary and dangerous ionizing radiation anywhere into the environment, whether by nuclear weapons or other human activities.
… We have become so concerned about humanity’s slow response to this challenge that we have decided we must clearly set out what we see as the only viable path forward. As scientists we do not take advocacy positions lightly, but we believe the magnitude of climate change now presents an unprecedented moral challenge that compels us to speak out.
… The voluntary measures put on the table at Paris by over 100 nations are a welcome step, but unless there are strong measures to reduce emissions beyond 2030, global emissions would remain at a high level, practically guaranteeing that young people inherit a climate running out of their control. A new and intensified approach is clearly needed.
Everyone agrees that the most urgent component of decarbonisation is a move towards clean energy, and clean electricity in particular. We need affordable, abundant clean energy, but there is no particular reason why we should favour renewable energy over other forms of abundant energy. Indeed, cutting down forests for bioenergy and damming rivers for hydropower – both commonly counted as renewable energy sources – can have terrible environmental consequences.
Nuclear power, particularly next-generation nuclear power with a closed fuel cycle (where spent fuel is reprocessed), is uniquely scalable, and environmentally advantageous. Over the past 50 years, nuclear power stations – by offsetting fossil fuel combustion – have avoided the emission of an estimated 60bn tonnes of carbon dioxide. Nuclear energy can power whole civilisations, and produce waste streams that are trivial compared to the waste produced by fossil fuel combustion. There are technical means to dispose of this small amount of waste safely. However, nuclear does pose unique safety and proliferation concerns that must be addressed with strong and binding international standards and safeguards. Most importantly for climate, nuclear produces no CO2 during power generation.
To solve the climate problem, policy must be based on facts and not on prejudice. The climate system cares about greenhouse gas emissions – not about whether energy comes from renewable power or abundant nuclear power. Some have argued that it is feasible to meet all of our energy needs with renewables. The 100% renewable scenarios downplay or ignore the intermittency issue by making unrealistic technical assumptions, and can contain high levels of biomass and hydroelectric power at the expense of true sustainability. Large amounts of nuclear power would make it much easier for solar and wind to close the energy gap.
The climate issue is too important for us to delude ourselves with wishful thinking. Throwing tools such as nuclear out of the box constrains humanity’s options and makes climate mitigation more likely to fail. We urge an all-of-the-above approach that includes increased investment in renewables combined with an accelerated deployment of new nuclear reactors.
For example, a build rate of 61 new reactors per year could entirely replace current fossil fuel electricity generation by 2050. Accounting for increased global electricity demand driven by population growth and development in poorer countries, which would add another 54 reactors per year, this makes a total requirement of 115 reactors per year to 2050 to entirely decarbonise the global electricity system in this illustrative scenario. … Full article
The “Switchers” and assorted prominent pro-nuclear climate activists:
George Monbiot – columnist with The Guardian newspaper in the UK, and author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning. “Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.”
Tom Wigley – of Climate-Gate infamy, he’s a senior scientist in the Climate and Global Dynamics Division of the University Corporation of Atmospheric Research. “We need nuclear power to solve this problem … people don’t realise just how bad climate change is.”
James Hansen – author of Storms of My Grandchildren.
Barry W Brook – is the Director of Climate Science at Adelaide University, and Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change, is on the board of the Science Council for Global Initiatives and the International Awards Committee of the Global Energy Prize.
Gwyneth Cravens – novelist and journalist, author of Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy.
Ted Nordhaus – Chairman of the Breakthrough Institute, political strategist and author of Break Through, Why We Can’t Leave Saving The Planet To Environmentalists.
Mark Lynas – author of The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans, also a frequent speaker around the world on climate change science and policy. “Let me be very clear. Without nuclear, the battle against global warming is as good as lost.”
Tom Blees – author of Prescription for the Planet (the seemingly “intractable” problem of nuclear waste is “nothing of the kind”) has “probably done more than anybody to move people to the cause of nuclear power.” Tom also heads the Science Council for Global Initiatives.
Professor Gerry Thomas – of the Imperial College, London, “I am very pro-nuclear as I realise that we have an unwarranted fear of radiation.”
James Lovelock – celebrated father of the Gaia principle.
Fred Pearce – an environment writer with The Guardian newspaper in the UK, and author of The Last Generation: How nature will take her revenge for climate change.
Stewart Brand – a prominent pro-nuclear “environmentalist” and author of Whole Earth Discipline: Why dense cities, nuclear power, transgenic crops, restored wildlands and geoengineering are necessary.
Ken Caldiera – with the Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution, recently co-authored an open letter to the environmental movement urging them to bring their support behind the development of new nuclear power.
Kerry Emmanuel – with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is known for his work on attribution of climate change to hurricane events.
Rachel Pritzker – is the founder and president of the Pritzker Innovation Fund. Rachel currently chairs the advisory board of the Breakthrough Institute.
Suzanne Hobbs-Baker – the brain behind Pop Atomic Studios, an organisation which uses the power of visual and liberal arts to “enrich” the public discussion on atomic energy.
Ed Davey – UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, “When I have listened to the arguments of pro-nuclear Liberal Democrats in recent years, the one argument I found increasingly difficult to answer is the climate-change argument, because climate change poses a real and massive danger to our planet. Not keeping a genuinely low-carbon source of electricity as an option looks reckless when we don’t know the future.”
Nuclear’s greatest hope may be the ‘Clean Power Plan’
Another month, another premature nuclear plant retirement.
About two weeks ago, Entergy finally threw in the towel on the James A. FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant in Scriba, N.Y., a move that came as a surprise to exactly no one who has been paying attention to the merchant nuclear business in the U.S. the past few years. FitzPatrick joined the long-troubled Pilgrim plant in Plymouth, Mass., which Entergy gave up on in October, and Vermont Yankee, which it shut down in late 2014.
Since the end of 2012, the U.S. has lost an astonishing eight nuclear reactors to premature retirements: Kewaunee, San Onofre (2), Crystal River, and Vermont Yankee (all now shut down); FitzPatrick (retiring in late 2016); and Pilgrim and Oyster Creek (both retiring in 2019, well ahead of their planned lifetimes).
Several other reactors are on life support. Exelon’s R. E. Ginna plant in Ontario, N.Y., has been fighting to secure a rate support agreement that would keep it running a few more years, while the company’s Quad Cities and Byron plants got a reprieve after they unexpectedly cleared PJM auctions this fall. Industry observers see anywhere from five to 10 other plants as being at risk of premature retirement.
What’s remarkable about this trend is how it’s come about not from government pressure or mandates as in Germany or Japan—where nuclear is also in retreat—but from pure market pressures. In mid-2013, I wrote a post asking, “Is Cheap Gas Killing Nuclear Power?” Two years later, I’m prepared to answer that question in the affirmative.
In the case of Pilgrim, FitzPatrick, and Vermont Yankee, Entergy specifically named wholesale power prices driven to record low levels by cheap shale gas as one factor in its decisions. As my colleague Kennedy Maize has noted, observers now strongly suspect that Entergy is planning to exit the merchant nuclear business altogether—because it’s clearly become a big money-loser.
If you look at the list of retired and most at-risk plants, one common element jumps out immediately. Most of them exist in deregulated markets where power prices are largely set by the price of natural gas: ISO-New England (Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim), New York ISO (FitzPatrick and Ginna), and PJM (Oyster Creek, Byron, and Quad Cities). The other two plants, San Onofre and Crystal River, operated in more regulated markets, and while both were retired because of mechanical defects that were too expensive to repair, competition from gas-fired generation factored into both decisions to some degree.
Since 2012, when the problems for merchant nuclear really began, natural gas spot prices have stayed below $4/MMBtu except for a brief period last year, when a bitterly cold winter led to low stocks that pushed things up for a few months.
Since then, prices have fallen consistently, flirting with sub-$2 levels this fall. With gas in storage hitting a record high at the end of this year’s injection season, a repeat of 2014 seems unlikely. Meanwhile, gas production hit another record high in August at 81.3 Bcf/day. None of this, according to Energy Information Administration projections, seems likely to change in the short term, as production stubbornly continues climbing ahead of demand growth.
Where is nuclear still viable? That’s best answered by looking at the three states where a total of five nuclear plants are under construction: Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The common denominator there is clear. All three projects are being built in tightly regulated markets where the utility building them enjoys a government-sanctioned monopoly and the ability to recover costs in advance of operation.
The problem for nuclear is that momentum in the electricity markets over the past couple of decades has been toward flexibility and competition and away from monopolies and subsidies.
At the state level, attempts by Exelon and others to secure changes in the law to provide greater support for nuclear have been given the cold shoulder, while solar advocates are prying open previously closed markets like the Carolinas and Florida. Despite the challenges for merchant nuclear plants, no states are even considering an exit from problematic wholesale power markets, and independent system operators like PJM have shown no interest in rigging the game for nuclear either.
At the federal level, the Production Tax Credit and Investment Tax Credit, which provided enormous support for renewable generation, appear on their way out one way or another. The odds that the current Congress might pass some sort of nuclear production credit (an idea I mentioned in my 2013 post) would seem to be close to zero.
Nuclear’s greatest hope may be the Clean Power Plan (CPP)—which was revised in its final form to give more credit to nuclear generation—but that is far from a done deal. Even if the Democrats retain control of the White House in 2016, control of Congress is another matter, and the Supreme Court could still throw out or handicap the CPP on a variety of grounds.
Cheap gas is not going away. Greater state-level regulatory support seems highly unlikely. Even if the CPP survives in its current form, it won’t substantially change the economics of merchant nuclear.
The impending loss of nuclear generation presents a problem for a variety of reasons. Loss of generation diversity is never a good thing, and the loss of low-carbon electricity will complicate efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But the solution remains elusive.
—Thomas W. Overton, JD is a POWER associate editor (@thomas_overton, @POWERmagazine).
Early on Sunday Oct. 25, an underground fire caused an explosion in a low-level nuclear waste site in the desert 10 miles from Beatty, Nevada, and 115 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The explosion and fire followed flash flooding that shut down Beatty’s escape routes: US 95 and State Highway 373. The 80-acre dumping ground, closed since 1992, is run by — get this — “US Ecology.” The private dump consists of 22 trenches up to 800 feet long and 50 feet deep, and its older trenches have radioactive waste within three feet of the surface, the Las Vegas Sun reported.
Certain types of radioactive material are known to catch fire when in contact with water, so the flooding that struck prior to the explosion may have been its cause. Unfortunately authorities don’t know what sorts of radioactive isotopes are buried in the trenches there. Nor does anyone know either how the fire started or how much radioactive waste burned.
Rusty Harris-Bishop, spokesman for the US EPA’s Region 9 office in San Francisco said in a prepared statement, “No gamma radiation has been detected at this time.” This nuanced remark does not indicate that gamma radiation wasn’t detected. It also artfully dodges questions about alpha and beta radiation.
With the EPA, the Nevada National Guard, Nye County officials and Energy Department all involved, highly nuanced public safety assurances are guaranteed. “Radiation wasn’t immediately detected during fly-overs of a burned trench … state and federal officials said Monday,” Oct. 26. But radiation monitoring was initiated well after the plume of smoke and debris from the blast and fire had dispersed. Then, “The Nevada Department of Public Safety said tests of the area around the fire site near Beatty returned negative readings for radiation,” KVVU TV reported. Well, sure. But were any positive readings returned?
See video footage here.
Buried Waste Theoretically and Literally Explosive
In February 2014, at a deep underground dump in New Mexico where the Pentagon is burying plutonium-contaminated wastes, at least one barrel “burst after it arrived at the dump, releasing radioactive uranium, plutonium and americium throughout the underground facility,” according to NPR. NPR’s March 26, 2015 update concerned the Energy Department’s 277-page report about the explosion. The report said in part, “Experiments showed that various combinations of nitrate salt, Swheat Scoop® [cat litter], nitric acid, and oxalate self-heat at temperatures below 100°C.” The DOE’s term-of-art for this “self-heat” explosion was “thermal runaway.” This runaway explosion contaminated 22 workers internally, and it has shut down the operation, possibly forever.
In May 1996, a welding spark caused a waste cask explosion at Wisconsin’s Point Beach reactor on Lake Michigan. The blast of hydrogen gas was “powerful enough to up-end the three-ton lid while it was atop a storage cask filled with high-level waste.” The reactor’s owner called that accident merely a “gaseous ignition event,” but was later fined $325,000.
Only 20 miles away from the Beatty Nevada explosion is the now-cancelled Yucca Mountain high-level dump project, where such waste explosions were forecast by expert investigators 20 years ago.
In 1995, government physicists Charles Bowman and Francesco Venneri at Los Alamos National Laboratory predicted that wastes might erupt in a nuclear explosion and scatter radioactivity to the winds or into groundwater, or both. (Washington Post, Dec. 15, 1998; New York Times, Mar. 5, 1995.) Bowman and Venneri found that the explosion dangers will arise thousands of years from now — after steel waste containers dissolve and plutonium begins to disperse into surrounding rock. Former Energy Dept. geologist Jerry Szymanski said, “You’re talking about an unimaginable catastrophe. Chernobyl would be small potatoes.” (Joby Warrick, “At Nevada Nuclear Waste Site: The Issue is One of Liquidity,” Washington Post, Dec. 15, 1998)
In expert hearings held in southern Ontario in Sept. 2014, Dr. Frank Greening made identical warnings about the potential explosiveness of Canadian radioactive waste if they were to be buried next to Lake Huron under plans made by Ontario Power Generation.
October’s waste explosion and fire shows we don’t have to wait thousands of years for disaster to strike. Nevada’s “self-heating” radioactive “thermal runaway” is just the latest warning not to bury radioactive waste. Putting the deadly stuff out-of-sight and out-of-mind won’t keep us (or the water) safe. For radioactive waste, only above-ground, monitored, hardened, retrievable storage can come close to that goal. Ceasing nuclear waste production is the only path to potential sustainable solutions.
Finland has a 15-year-old problem called Olkiluoto 3. This nuclear plant was once the bright star of Finland’s energy future and Europe’s nuclear renaissance.
It was seen as a key component in Finland’s plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 and end reliance on foreign imports of electricity, even during its long, dark Arctic winters. It is supposed to provide Finland with a low-carbon source of electricity for at least 60 years.
A 2006 article in the Telegraph spoke of the rebirth of Finnish love for nuclear power, describing the Olkiluoto site in phrases that could have been lifted from a pastoral poem: a “Baltic island of foraging swans”, “pine-scented” air and “unusually large salmon.”
But this source of hope has turned sour. Olkiluoto 3 — almost unpronounceable to non-Finns — is now nine years behind schedule and three times over budget.
It has been subject to lawsuits, technology failure, construction errors and miscommunication. A rift between the companies behind the plant has been described as “one of the biggest conflicts in the history of the construction sector”.
At best, it has been a turbulent lift-off to the lauded rebirth of nuclear power in western Europe. For the UK, which hopes to be a part of this renaissance, the story of Olkiluoto 3 offers a cautionary tale.
The story of Olkiluoto 3 began in 2000, when Finnish utilities company TVO first applied to build a new nuclear power unit, in an attempt to wean the country off foreign imports of electricity and supply a new source of low-carbon energy.
In 2002, Finland’s parliament granted its permission, voting 107-92 in favour of the new unit. And in December 2003, Finland became the first country in Western Europe to order a new nuclear reactor in 15 years.
This was welcome news to nuclear supporters. Nuclear power stagnated in the 1990s, with accidents in Three Mile Island and Chernobyl in the ’70s and ’80s creating jitters about the risks of the industry, while the economic costs of building plants created nervousness among investors in newly liberalised energy markets. Olkiluoto 3 was seen as the sign that European nuclear was set for a revival.
With its new-and-improved Generation III+ technology, Olkiluoto 3 was meant to be safer and more efficient, as well as cheaper and faster to build than its predecessors — an ageing European fleet of Generation II plants built in the 1970s and 80s.
The 2014 World Nuclear Industry Status report points out that the former enthusiasm surrounding Generation III reactors has “dissolved”. Some proponents of nuclear power have argued that even these supposedly new-and-improved plants ought to be put aside for an even more modern round of Generation IV plants — technology that is still being developed, with China currently planning the world’s first in the province of Jiangxi.
It was decided that Olkiluoto Island in western Finland would host the new plant, where the Gulf of Bothnia could cool the steam used to turn the turbines and generate electricity. It would sit alongside two of Finland’s four existing nuclear plants (intuitively called Olkiluoto 1 and 2).
Olkiluoto 3 would use a new type of technology called a European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), which France has also since adopted for a new nuclear plant. China is building two EPRs, as well.
The plan was that Olkiluoto 3 should have a capacity of 1,600 megawatts. It would cost €3bn and come online in 2009.
Animation illustrating the operating principles of nuclear power plant units. Source: TVO.
It is now 2015, and Finland still does not have its new nuclear plant.
The companies behind the project are at loggerheads. TVO is seeking compensation from Areva in court, the company responsible for supplying the reactor and turbine, and Areva is pursuing a counterclaim.
Herkko Plit, the deputy director of Finland’s energy department, tells Carbon Brief:
“I don’t think there’s anybody who can say they are pleased with the project.”
Construction started in August 2005. The problems started early, with the incorrect laying of the concrete base slab — a structure that is supposed to be able to withstand the weight of the entire power plant collapsing on it.
This was accompanied by errors in the manufacture of the steel liner — the part of the unit that is responsible for preventing the release of radioactive materials into the environment, and is supposed to be able to withstand forces such as an aeroplane crash.
In 2006, the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) conducted an investigation into the construction of the plant, following concerns about its safety culture.
The resulting report gives a variety of reasons for the problems encountered. Top of that hefty list comes problems with subcontractors responsible for carrying out much of the manufacturing work.
Many of the organisations chosen to work on the different parts of the plant did not have any experience in nuclear, and little understanding of the safety requirements.
One of the people interviewed for that report said that, “as safety culture is a concept usually associated with plants that are in operation, it has been difficult for them to understand what it could mean at the construction stage”.
While such issues had not compromised the safety of the plant, the report concluded that they were responsible for some of the first delays to the plant.
“The nervous system”
Later came problems with the instrumentation and control system, which is for monitoring and control. The International Atomic Energy Agency describes it as “the nervous system” of the plant.
This was finally approved in 2014, after four years of “exchanges” with TVO, as Areva put it. In August 2015, these cabinets were finally delivered to the site. Pasi Tuohimaa, TVO’s head of communications, tells Carbon Brief :
“Now we can see the trail towards the end. This autumn, we will have all this automation installed, and next year we apply to have it opened, and then we start testing it and loading the fuel.”
The good news precipitated a rare moment of harmony in the bitter feud between Areva and TVO. The rivals held their first joint press conference to mark the occasion. “It’s such a big milestone for both of us,” TVO’s Tuohimaa adds.
Who will suffer?
TVO signed a contract with Areva for the plant — a one-off payment of €3.2bn, covering the EPR and other costs. Such contracts are rare in nuclear power plants, due to the construction risks associated with the technology.
At the time, it was seen as an expression of confidence in the industry. For Areva, the opportunity to build an EPR in Finland offered a chance to show that nuclear could survive and become competitive in the liberalised Scandinavian energy market — a boost for the company, which has not managed to sell a reactor since 2007.
The turnkey contract meant spiralling costs of the Olkiluoto 3 plant have fallen at Areva’s door. This has been the subject of a bitter dispute between TVO and Areva.
Areva maintains that TVO’s “inappropriate behaviour” has been responsible for the delays, and that the utility company should, therefore, be liable for the multi-billion euro cost overruns. Meanwhile, TVO says Areva is responsible for failing to build the plant according to schedule. It has called the delays “hard to accept.”
The compensation claims, as well as the costs of the plant itself, keep spiralling upwards. In August 2015, TVO raised its claim against Areva to €2.6bn from its previous €2.3bn, and €1.8bn before that. In October 2014, Areva raised its own claim against TVO to €3.5bn from €2.6bn. The case is being dealt with in the International Chamber of Commerce‘s arbitration court.
Nonetheless, Areva has been forced to accept losses. The company, which hasn’t turned a profit since 2010, recorded net losses of €4.8bn in 2014, largely due to Olkiluoto. It has agreed to sell a majority stake in its nuclear reactor business to EDF.
If the lawsuit turns against TVO, it could be Finland’s industry that feels the pain. The utilities company is owned by shareholders that buy the right to use the electricity produced by the power station.
Its majority shareholder, for instance, is Pohjolan Voima Oy — a Finnish energy company that provides power to its shareholders, including two pulp and paper manufacturers, which pay for the production cost of the electricity.
Such industries could buckle under the inflated costs of electricity, which could end up more expensive than the electricity bought from the joint Nordic “pool”, says Stephen Thomas, professor of energy policy at the University of Greenwich. He tells Carbon Brief :
“It’s a big problem, because if you put up the price for householders, they will squeal and complain, but they’ll probably pay. If you’re an aluminium smelter and 60% of your costs is buying electricity, if that electricity is 50% too expensive, you’re out of business.”
Future of Finnish nuclear
Despite the trials and tribulations of Olkiluoto 3, Finland does not seem to have been swerved from its nuclear path.
Another nuclear power plant is planned for the north of Finland. Hanhikivi 1 will be the first nuclear power plant from another power consortium Fennovoima, and is due to come online in 2024.
The project is already facing controversy. Its reliance on Russian investment at a time when other countries have sought to isolate Moscow due to its invasion of Ukraine has raised eyebrows, while a Croatian investor was rejected by the government in Helsinki following suspicions that it was also being controlled from within Russia.
Construction work has also begun on a megaproject to store nuclear waste. Onkalo, which translates as “cavity”, is an underground tunnel built 520m into the Finnish bedrock. A project of Posiva, a company jointly owned by TVO and Fortum, it is located at the site of Olkiluoto.
Onkalo is designed to protect nuclear waste for 100,000 years. The timespan, almost impossible to conceptualise, caught the imagination of Danish director Michael Madsen, who made a documentary about the project, and the difficulty of communicating danger millennia down the line.
The possibility of a fourth reactor at the Olkiluoto site proved to be one too many, however. For now, TVO has given up on plans on Olkiluoto 4.
Plit, from Finland’s energy department, remains cheerful in the face of 15 years of difficulties and delays. He tells Carbon Brief:
“One has to remember that Olkiluoto 3 was the first western unit to be constructed in the nuclear sector for 20 years. Unfortunately, this know-how that used to exist in the 80s was no longer there, and you had to create everything from scratch, more or less. That has taken time.”
Prof Thomas at University of Greenwich is not so sure that the loss of knowledge since the last burst of nuclear construction can be entirely blamed. He points out that none of the four EPRs under construction have gone to plan so far, so to say that Olkiluoto is suffering only because of its novelty is oversimplistic. He tells Carbon Brief:
“Areva was so confident that they gave a fixed price, so they weren’t expecting first-of-a-kind problems.”
A cautionary tale
Some are already seeing Finland’s troubled relationship with new nuclear as a cautionary tale for the current UK government, which hopes to oversee its own nuclear renaissance.
The energy company EDF plans to build two new reactors at Hinkley Point. These will be the same design as Olkiluoto 3 — Areva’s EPR. The project will cost £24.5bn, and has already been subject to numerous delays.
The government has shown itself to be a devoted fan of the project, most recently offering a £2bn guarantee to smooth along the path to construction.
Despite this, it has been difficult to secure investors, who continue to be spooked by the ghosts of Flamanville in France and Olkiluoto, admitted the chief executive of EDF recently. Jean-Bernard Levy told French Financial daily Les Echos that, for those who have witnessed the spiralling costs and delays to date, it is “difficult to commit”.
The UK government hopes to confirm Chinese funding during a state visit by President Xi Jinping this week, which would prove instrumental in making the project happen.
EDF has insisted that it has learnt from the past, but Prof Thomas at the University of Greenwich is not so sure. The EPR is a “lousy design” that has not only tripped up the Finns, but also the French and Chinese. He tells Carbon Brief:
“If you look at the problems of Olkiluoto and Flamanville, they have been basic site work quality issues… It’s not as if there was a simple fault you could identify and make sure you didn’t do the same again. It’s not like they made a mess with this particular operation and this caused all the problems. There have been hundreds of different issues.
“That’s what’s most striking at the experience of Olkiluoto — just how many different things have gone wrong.”
In 2013, I discussed several epidemiological studies providing good evidence of radiogenic risks at very low exposure levels.
A powerful new study has been published in Lancet Haematology  which adds to this evidence. However the study’s findings are more important than the previous studies, for several reasons.
First, it provides “strong evidence”, as stated by the authors, of a “dose-response relationship between cumulative, external, chronic, low-dose, exposures to radiation and leukaemia”.
Second, it finds radiogenic risks of leukemia among nuclear workers to be more than double the risk found in a previous similar study in 2005. The excess relative risk of leukaemia mortality (excluding workers exposed to neutrons) was 4.19 per Gy.
In 2005, a similar study  among nuclear workers (also excluding those exposed to neutrons) in 15 countries by several of the same authors found an ERR of 1·93 per Sv. In other words, the new study’s risk estimates are 117% higher than the older study. The clincher is that the new study’s estimated risks are much more precise than before.
Third, it confirms risks even at very low doses (mean = 1·1 mGy per year). Unlike the Japanese bomb survivors’ study, it observes risks at low dose rates rather than extrapolating them from high levels.
Fourth, it finds risks do not depend on dose rate thus contradicting the ICRP’s use of a Dose Rate Effectiveness Factor (DREF) which acts to reduce (by half) the ICRP’s published radiation risks.
Fifth, it finds radiogenic leukemia risks decline linearly with dose, contradicting earlier studies suggesting a lower, linear-quadratic relationship for leukemia. It strengthens the Linear No Threshold (LNT) model of radiogenic risks, as it now applies to leukemias as well as solid cancers.
Sixth, the study finds no evidence of a threshold below which no effects are seen (apart from zero dose).
Seventh, the study uses 90% confidence intervals and one-sided p-values. In the past, 95% intervals and two-sided p-values were often incorrectly used which had made it harder to establish statistical significance.
Explanation for change
In an earlier version of this blog posted on 29th June 2015, I’d written that the increase between the 2005 study and the present study was 50%, ie up from 1.93 to 2.96 per Gy. This was because the study’s ‘Discussion’ section specifically compared these two studies and their risks, stating the older study’s leukemia risk was smaller and less precise.
However a detailed examination of the report reveals the following sentence in the para immediately before the Discussion section:
“We assessed the effect of excluding people who had recorded neutron exposures; we showed a positive association for leukaemia … (ERR per Gy 4·19, 90% CI 1·42-7·80, 453 deaths)…”.
To make sure readers get the point, the risk is greater when neutron exposed workers are excluded. This is important because the 2005 study excluded workers exposed to neutrons. Therefore the correct comparison is between the risks for non-neutron workers, that is between 4.19 and 1.93 per Gy – an increase of 117%, rather than 50%.
I’ve written to the report’s authors about this but have not received any replies yet. I shall keep readers up-to-date on any progress.
The study’s credentials are pretty impeccable. It’s a huge study of over 300,000 nuclear workers adding up to over 8 million person years, thus ensuring its findings are statistically significant, ie with very low probability of occurring by chance.
Also, it’s an international study by 13 respected scientists from national health institutes in the US, UK, and France, as follows.
*Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US
*National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, US
*Department of Health and Human Services, US
*University of North Carolina, US
*Drexel University School of Public Health, US
*Public Health England, UK
*Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire, France
*Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology, Spain
*UN International Agency for Research on Cancer, France
Funding was provided by many institutions, including US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, US Department of Energy, US Department of Health and Human Services, Japanese Ministry of Health Labour and Welfare, French Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire, and the UK’s Public Health England.
This study powerfully contradicts the views of ill-informed and inexperienced journalists (including the UK writer George Monbiot)  and self-styled scientists who argue that radiation risks are over-estimated and even that radiation is somehow good for you.
Hormetic effects are neither found nor discussed in this study: such irrelevant effects are regarded by real scientists as beneath their consideration.
The impressive list of contributing scientists and their national institutions here should serve to make radiation risk deniers reconsider their views. This is particularly the case for US risk deniers, in view of the many US agencies and US scientists backing the study.
The study pointedly comments that:
“At present, radiation protection systems are based on a model derived from acute exposures, and assumes that the risk of leukaemia per unit dose progressively diminishes at lower doses and dose rates.”
The study shows this assumption is incorrect. The authors therefore join with WHO and UNSCEAR scientists in their views that DREFs should not be used. The question remains whether the ICRP will accept this powerful evidence and scrap their adherence to using DREFs. I advise readers not to hold their breaths.
As regards the implications of their study, the authors interestingly choose to comment – not on exposures from the nuclear industry – but from medical exposures. They state:
“Occupational and environmental sources of radiation exposure are important; however, the largest contributor to this trend is medical radiation exposure. In 1982, the average yearly dose of ionising radiation from medical exposures was about 0·5 mGy per person in the USA; by 2006, it had increased to 3·0 mGy.
“A similar pattern exists in other high-income countries: use of diagnostic procedures involving radiation in the UK more than doubled over that period and more than tripled in Australia. Because ionising radiation is a carcinogen, its use in medical practice must be balanced against the risks associated with patient exposure.
This is all correct and worrying, especially the revelation that medical radiation doses increased 6-fold in the US and doubled in the UK between 1982 and 2006. The authors add:
“This finding shows the importance of adherence to the basic principles of radiation protection – to optimise protection to reduce exposures as much as reasonably achievable and – in the case of patient exposure – to justify that the exposure does more good than harm.”
The same, of course, applies to exposures from the nuclear industry – the actual subject of their research.
Dr Ian Fairlie is an independent consultant on radioactivity in the environment. He has a degree in radiation biology from Bart’s Hospital in London and his doctoral studies at Imperial College in London and Princeton University in the US concerned the radiological hazards of nuclear fuel reprocessing. Ian was formerly a DEFRA civil servant on radiation risks from nuclear power stations. From 2000 to 2004, he was head of the Secretariat to the UK Government’s CERRIE Committee on internal radiation risks. Since retiring from Government service, he has acted as consultant to the European Parliament, local and regional governments, environmental NGOs, and private individuals.
“[W]e should be carefully monitoring the oceans after what is certainly the largest accidental release of radioactive contaminants to the oceans in history,” marine chemist Ken Buesseler said last spring.
Instead, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency halted its emergency radiation monitoring of Fukushima’s radioactive plume in May 2011, three months after the disaster began. Japan isn’t even monitoring seawater near Fukushima, according to a Sept. 28 story in The Ecologist.
The amount of cesium in seawater that Buesseler’s researchers found off Vancouver Island is nearly six times the concentration recorded since cesium was first introduced into the oceans by nuclear bomb tests (halted in 1963). This stunning increase in Pacific cesium shows an ongoing increase. The International Business Times (IBT) reported last Nov. 12 that Dr. Buesseler found the amount of cesium-134 in the same waters was then about twice the concentration left in long-standing bomb test remains.
Dr. Buesseler, at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, announced his assessment after his team found that cesium drift from Fukushima’s three reactor meltdowns had reached North America. Attempting to reassure the public, Buesseler said, “[E]ven if they were twice as high and I was to swim there every day for an entire year, the dose I would be exposed to is a thousand times less than a single dental X-ray.”
This comparison conflates the important difference between external radiation exposure (from X-rays or swimming in radioactively contaminated seawater), and internal contamination from ingesting radioactive isotopes, say with seafood.
Dr. Chris Busby of the Low Level Radiation Campaign in the UK explains the distinction this way: Think of the difference between merely sitting before a warm wood fire on one hand, and popping a burning hot coal into your mouth on the other. Internal contamination can be 1,000 times more likely to cause cancer than the same exposure if it were external, especially for women and children. And, because cesium-137 stays in the ecosphere for 300 years, long-term bio-accumulation and bio-concentration of cesium isotopes in the food chain – in this case the ocean food chain – is the perpetually worsening consequence of what has spilled and is still pouring from Fukushima.
The nuclear weapons production complex is the only other industry that has a record of deliberate whole-Earth poisoning. Hundreds of tons of radioactive fallout were aerosolized and spread to the world’s watery commons and landmasses by nuclear bomb testing. The same people then brought us commercial nuclear power reactors. Dirty war spawns dirty business, where lying comes easy. Just as the weapons makers lied about bomb test fallout dangers, nuclear power proponents claimed the cesium spewed from Fukushima would be diluted to infinity after the plume dispersed across 4,000 miles of Pacific Ocean.
Today, globalized radioactive contamination of the commons by private corporations has become the financial, political and health care cost of operating nuclear power reactors. The Nov. 2014 IBT article noted that “The planet’s oceans already contain vast amounts of radiation, as the world’s 435 nuclear power plants routinely pump radioactive water into Earth’s oceans, albeit less dangerous isotopes than cesium.”
Fifty million Becquerels of cesium per-cubic-meter were measured off Fukushima soon after the March 2011 start of the three meltdowns. Cesium-contaminated Albacore and Bluefin tuna were caught off the West Coast a mere four months later; 300 tons of cesium-laced effluent has been pouring into the Pacific every day for the 4 1/2 years since; the Japanese government on Sept. 14 openly dumped 850 tons of partially-filtered but tritium-contaminated water into the Pacific. This latest dumping portends what it will try to do with thousands of tons more now held in shabby storage tanks at the devastated reactor complex.
Officials from Fukushima’s owners, the Tokyo Electric Power Co., have said leaks from Fukushima disaster with “at least” two trillion Becquerels of radioactivity entered the Pacific between August 2013 and May 2014 — and this 9-month period isn’t even the half of it.
The fact that Fukushima has contaminated the entirety of the Pacific Ocean must be viewed as cataclysmic. The ongoing introduction of Fukushima’s radioactive runoff may be slow-paced, and the inevitable damage to sea life and human health may take decades to register, but the “canary in the mineshaft,” is the Pacific tuna population, which should now also be perpetually monitored for cesium.
Last November Buesseler warned, “Radioactive cesium from the Fukushima disaster is likely to keep arriving at the North American coast.” Fish eaters may want to stick with the Atlantic catch for 12 generations or so.
Fukushima police have finally reacted to a criminal complaint filed against TEPCO and 32 of its top officials two years ago over the contamination caused by the 2011 nuclear disaster. They have referred the case to prosecutors.
The Fukushima District Prosecutors’ Office will now determine whether to pursue criminal charges against the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and its top management over the leaks of highly radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea.
The criminal complaint alleges that the company and its executives failed to manage storage tanks of contaminated water or build underground walls to block the flow of radioactive material into the sea at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Notable people on the list include TEPCO’s President Naomi Hirose, former Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and former President Masataka Shimizu.
Police have reviewed claims filed by local residents after 300 tons of highly radioactive water had leaked from TEPCO tanks.
Investigators say that since the complaint was launched in 2013, they have conducted interviews with TEPCO officials and analyzed other relevant information on suspicion of environmental pollution offense law violations. The police will document their observations and present the case to the Prosecutors’ Office.
TEPCO has not made any public comments on the matter, but has said that company officials were in contact with investigators, according to NHK.
The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster is considered to be the world’s worst environmental catastrophe since Chernobyl. As of March, about 600,000 tons of contaminated water are still contained within TEPCO tanks. According to preliminary estimates, site cleanup may take up to 40 years.