The WHO, Japan and alpha emitters

Last Wednesday the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a report that said post-Fukushima radiation levels in Japan were low (see here). I’m not going to argue about the figures in this WHO report, or the fact that WHO uses data supplied entirely by the Japanese government, from samples taken in Japan between March and September 2011. What I would like to point out, when it comes to all things nuclear, is that the biggest danger to human health is not radiation that’s given off by the soil or air; no, the biggest danger is if you get this stuff inside your body. The infamous plutonium is a good example of this: a particle of plutonium does not give off enough radiation to penetrate the skin, yet if that particle gets into your body it’s goodnight Vienna (legend has it that when Queen Elizabeth was visiting a UK nuclear plant in the 1950s she was handed a lump of plutonium in a plastic bag, so that she could feel how warm it was).

The WHO report (which you can find here) did look at ingested radiation. They used studies done by the Japanese and others in 2011. The Japanese tested foodstuffs and tap water for Iodine 131, Cesium 134 and Cesium 137 (page 31, Section 2.6.1. of the WHO report). The French and Germans did slightly wider testing. However, none of these tests looked for plutonium.

Plutonium is an alpha emitter and as such can not be detected by a bog standard geiger counter (which can only detect beta emitters and gamma rays from isotopes such as Iodine 131, Cesium 134 and Cesium 137). However, there is a bit of kit that you can add to a geiger counter that will allow it to detect alpha emitters. So why didn’t these tests which the WHO report uses look for plutonium, and why am I banging on about it..? It’s because Fukushima Daiichi reactor No.3 used MOX fuel, which usually contains anywhere between 3% and 5% plutonium. There were 88 tons of spent fuel in the reactor 3 pool (see here). Let’s go on a 4% plutonium figure, which means that there were roughly 3.5 tons of plutonium in that pool when it was destroyed by a massive explosion on 14th March 2011 (something you can clearly see on satellite photos). Much of that plutonium was chucked up into the atmosphere.

(Editing in: according to Arnie Gunderson of Fairewinds Associates, No.3 is not a a complete MOX reactor and has only 30 rods that contain MOX fuel. It’s a difficult one to estimate, but I’d say that instead of 3.5 tons of plutonium in the spent fuel pool there was probably about half a ton)

Even pro-nuclear lobbyists will tell you that if a micro amount of plutonium gets into the lungs it’s lethal. The pro-nuclear brigade usually say that plutonium ingested into the gut will pass harmlessly through the body via defecation. I can’t find any scientific evidence of this and am reminded of the case of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian defector who was poisened by polonium slipped into his drink (you can find my post about the case here). Polonium is also an alpha emitter, hence it took them a long time to figure out what killed Litvinenko. Polonium is formed in a fission reactor, along with other deadly alpha emitters such as strontium and americium. However, these isotopes are found only in small quantities. It’s plutonium that’s found in relatively large quantities – even a reactor that uses standard uranium fuel will have about 1% of plutonium in its spent fuel rods.

This is another jolly post by me, I know, but I feel it should be said that they’re not testing for these alpha emitters; or at least, not in reports put into the public domain (and it was the same after Chernobyl). The Tokyo Electric Company (TEPCO) did admit that traces of plutonium had been found in the grounds of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, but they could hardly do otherwise shortly after a MOX fuel pool had been destroyed by a massive explosion! Use the ‘Find’ feature to search the WHO report. You won’t find the word ‘plutonium’ mentioned even once, which seems a bit strange for an organisation that says it’s concerned with world health (WHO’s radiation programme aims to assure that the benefits of radiation technology far exceeds any known risks – see here).

Einstein came up with some good quotes. My favourite, if I remember correctly, goes something like: “everything changed when we split the atom, except man’s stupidity”, which inevitably brings me on to cancer. It seems a funny coincidence that the present cancer epidemic has coincided with man’s use of atomic energy. It seems that before the 20th century, cancer was a rare disease. Here’s one study…

How our ancestors avoided cancer

Of course there is no authoritative and unbiased study that links cancer worldwide to 70 years of nuclear energy (there are now authoritative reports that link the Chernobyl disaster with cancer rates, likewise with the Three Mile Island accident). The following report is about a study done by the European Committee of Radiation Risk (ECRR)…

Cancer epidemic blamed on nuclear power

Commonsense would suggest that there is a link between nuclear energy and the cancer epidemic, so let’s get paranoid for a moment: why would ‘they’ cover it up? Well, it’s estimated that 25% of the human race are sociopaths, and there’s a huge amount of goverment power (weapons of mass destruction) and corporate money wrapped up in nuclear energy. Recently a report was published under the auspices of the New York Academy of Sciences called Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment. This report claims that huge numbers of people have been and will be killed by the Chernobyl disaster. It’s interesting to look at the report’s page on Amazon (here). At the time of writing the report has had eight customer reviews. Three of them give 5 stars and glowing reviews, five of them give 1 star and absolutely rubbish the report. Note the language in these bad reviews: the paranoid will tell you that these are astroturfers (see my post here about astroturfing). Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment is an academic report that runs to almost 400 pages, hence the hefty price tag of 79 bucks. However, the authors of the report feel that the information it contains is so important they’ve made it available as a free PDF download, which you can find here. The report says that between 1987 and 2004, worldwide 842,000 people died as a direct result of the Chernobyl disaster, and of course people will continue to die for a long time to come. One of the report’s conclusions is as follows:

1. An important lesson from the Chernobyl experience is that experts and organizations tied to the nuclear industry have dismissed and ignored the consequences of the catastrophe.
2. Within only 8 or 9 years after the catastrophe a universal increase in cataracts was admitted by medical officials. The same occurred with thyroid cancer, leukemia, and organic central nervous system disorders. Foot-dragging in recognizing obvious problems and the resultant delays in preventing exposure and mitigating the effects lies at the door of nuclear power advocates more interested in preserving the status quo than in helping millions of innocent people who are suffering through no fault of their own. It need to change official agreement between WHO and IAEA (WHO, 1959) providing hiding from public of any information which can be unwanted of nuclear industry.

Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment has been translated from Russian into English, and the translator was obviously having a bad day with regard to the last sentence of the above quote. What’s being referred to in that sentence is the agreement between the WHO and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), made in May 1959 at the 12th World Health Assembly. Here’s part of that written agreement…

whenever either organization proposes to initiate a programme or activity on a subject in which the other organization has or may have a substantial interest, the first party shall consult the other with a view to adjusting the matter by mutual agreement.

Let me remain paranoid: Cancer was rare before the 20th century. In the mid 20th century there was a 1 in 4 chance of getting cancer because of atmospheric bomb tests. In the late 20th/early 21st century there’s a 1 in 3 chance of getting cancer courtesy of Chernobyl. You can lay even money that by the mid 21st century there will be a 1 in 2 chance of getting cancer courtesy of Fukushima.

How long does this madness have to go on for before there’s no one left to provide statistics?

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