Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2014
By John LaForge
There is broad disagreement over both the amounts and the effects of radiation exposures that began with the triple reactor meltdowns at Fukushima, Japan, in March 2011, and which continue today due to large leaks to the air and seawater from the destroyed reactors, poisoned groundwater and faulty wastewater containers. International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) joined the controversy June 5, 2014, with a scathing 27-page analysis of a report on Fukushima produced by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR).1
IPPNW is the Nobel Peace Prize winning global federation of doctors based in Somerville, Massachusetts. The group has adopted a highly critical view of nuclear power because, as it says, “A world without nuclear weapons will only be possible if we also phase out nuclear energy.”
The physicians explain the impetus for their critique of the UN report, warning in their introduction that industry and law makers will be misinformed and unjustly put at ease by its unfounded findings. The doctors note that,“…systematic underestimations and questionable interpretations in the [UN] report will be used by the nuclear industry to downplay the expected health effects of the nuclear catastrophe…”
The IPPNW cautions that, “[T]he UNSCEAR report, which will most likely be considered by most public authorities as a reliable, scientifically sound basis for their policies, is over-optimistic and misleading….” The medics sound their alarm because, “[T]he unsubstantiated and unreliable conclusions of the UNSCEAR report could have negative long-term impacts” on radiation exposure rules and emergency response laws — resulting in “higher exposure to future generations.”
UNSCEAR published its deeply flawed report April 2, 2014.2 Its accompanying press release summed up its findings this way: “No discernable changes in future cancer rates and hereditary diseases are expected due to exposure to radiation as a result of the Fukushima nuclear accident.” The word “discernable” is the crucial disclaimer.
According to the National Cancer Institute, the vast majority of all cancers, and the inevitable increase in cancer cases in Japan and around the world, are caused by toxic pollution, including radiation exposure.3 But distinguishing a particular cancer case as having been caused by Fukushima fallout rather than by other toxins, or combination of them, may be impossible — leading to UNSCEAR’s deceptive summation. As the IPPNW report says, “A cancer does not carry a label of origin.”
UNSCEAR’s use of the phrase “are expected” is also heavily nuanced. The large increase in childhood leukemia cases near Germany’s operating reactors, compared to elsewhere, was not “expected,” but was proved in 2007.4 Germany’s findings, along with Chernobyl’s lingering consequences, led to the country’s federally mandated reactor phase-out. The plummeting of official childhood mortality rates around five US nuclear reactors after they were shut down was also “unexpected,” but verified by Joe Mangano and the Project on Radiation and Human Health.
The international physicians’ recent analysis is severely critical of UNSCEAR’s current report which echoes its 2013 Fukushima review and press release that said then, “It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public and the vast majority of workers.”
“No justification for optimistic presumptions”
The IPPNW’s report says flatly, “Publications and current research give no justification for such apparently optimistic presumptions.” UNSCEAR, the physicians complain, “draws mainly on data from the nuclear industry’s publications rather than from independent sources and omits or misinterprets crucial aspects of radiation exposure,” and “does not reveal the true extent of the consequences” of the disaster. As a result, the doctors say the UN report is “over-optimistic and misleading.” The UN’s underestimations and dubious interpretations, the physicians warn, will likely but mistakenly be considered by public authorities as reliable and scientifically sound. Dozens of independent experts report that radiation-attributable health effects are highly likely.
Points of agreement: Fukushima is worse than reported and worsening still
Before detailing multiple inaccuracies in the UNSCEAR report, the doctors list four major points of agreement. First, UNSCEAR improved on the World Health Organization’s health assessment of the disaster’s on-going radioactive contamination. UNSCEAR also professionally “rejects the use of a threshold for radiation effects of 100 mSv [millisieverts], used by the International Atomic Energy Agency in the past.” Like most health physicists, both groups agree that there is no radiation dose so small that it can’t cause cancer and disease. Certain exposures are permitted by government regulations, but none of them are safe.
Second, the UN and the physicians agree that areas of Japan that were not evacuated were seriously contaminated with iodine-132, iodine-131 and tellurium-132, the worst reported instance being Iwaki City, 30 miles south of Fukushima, where infants’ thyroid glands received large doses. UNSCEAR also admitted that “people all over Japan” were affected by radioactive fallout (not just in Fukushima Prefecture) through contact with airborne or ingested radioactive materials. And while the UNSCEAR acknowledges that “contaminated rice, beef, seafood, milk, milk powder, green tea, vegetables, fruits and tap water were found all over mainland Japan,” it neglected “estimating doses for Tokyo … which also received significant fallout both on March 15 and 21, 2011.”
Third, UNSCEAR agrees that the nuclear industry’s and the government’s estimates of the total radioactive contamination of the Pacific Ocean are “far too low.” Still, the IPPNW reports shows, UNSCEAR’s use of totally unreliable assumptions results in a grossly understated final estimate. For example, the UN report ignores all radioactive discharges to the ocean after April 30, 2011, even though roughly 300 tons of highly contaminated water has been pouring into the Pacific every day for 3.5 years, about 346,500 tons in the first 38 months.
Fourth, the Fukushima catastrophe is understood by both groups as an ongoing disaster, not the singular event portrayed by industry and commercial media. UNSCEAR even warns that ongoing radioactive pollution of the Pacific “may warrant further follow-up of exposures in the coming years,” and “further releases could not be excluded in the future,” from forests and fields during rainy and typhoon seasons — when winds spread long-lived radioactive particles — and from waste management plans that now include incineration.
As the independent physicians say in their grudging agreement with UNSCEAR, “In the long run, this may lead to an increase in internal exposure in the general population through radioactive isotopes from ground water supplies and the food chain.”
Ten grave errors in the UNSCEAR report
The majority of the IPPNW’s report details 10 major errors, flaws or discrepancies in the UNSCEAR paper and explains the study’s omissions, underestimates, inept comparisons, misinterpretations and unwarranted conclusions. In brief, its principle criticisms are:
Dubious validity of radiation release estimates
The total amount of radioactivity released by the disaster was underestimated by UNSCEAR and was based on disreputable sources of information. UNSCEAR ignored 3.5 years of nonstop emissions of radioactive materials “that continue unabated,” and only dealt with releases during the first weeks of the disaster. UNSCEAR relied on a study by the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) which, IPPNW points out, “was severely criticized by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission … for its collusion with the nuclear industry.”
The estimate of cesium-137 released made by the independent Norwegian Institute for Air Research’s and available to UNSCEAR, was four times higher than the JAEA/UNSCEAR figure — 37 petabecquerel (PBq) instead of 9 PBq. Even Tokyo Electric Power Co. itself estimated that iodine-131 releases were over four times higher than what JAEA/UNSCEAR reported (500 PBq vs. 120 PBq). The UNSCEAR inexplicably chose to ignore large releases of strontium isotopes and 24 other radionuclides when estimating radiation doses to the public.
A petabecquerel is a quadrillion or 1015 Becquerels. Put another way, a PBq equals 27,000 curies, and one curie makes 37 billion atomic disintegrations per second.
Major concerns regarding calculations of internal radiation doses
Internal radiation taken up with food and drink “significantly influences the total radiation dose an individual is exposed to,” the doctors note, and their critique warns pointedly, “UNSCEAR uses as its one and only source, the still unpublished database of the International Atomic Energy Association and the Food and Agriculture Organization. The IAEA was founded … to ‘accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world.’ It therefore has a profound conflict of interest.”
Food sample data from the IAEA should not be relied on, “as it discredits the assessment of internal radiation doses and makes the findings vulnerable to claims of manipulation.” Like its earlier radiation release estimates, IAEA/UNSCEAR has ignored the presence of strontium in food and water. Internal radiation dose estimates made by the Japanese Ministry for Science and Technology were 20, 40 and even 60 times higher than the highest numbers used in the IAEA/UNSCEAR reports.
Unreliable radiation dose estimates for workers
To gauge radiation doses endured by over 24,000 workers on site at Fukushima, UNSCEAR relied solely on figures from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the severely compromised owners of the destroyed reactors. The IPPNW report dismisses all the conclusions drawn from Tepco, saying, “There is no meaningful control or oversight of the nuclear industry in Japan and data from Tepco has in the past frequently been found to be tampered with and falsified.”
Ignoring effects of fallout on non-human biota
The UNSCEAR report disregards current scientific fieldwork on actual radiation effects on plant and animal populations. Peer reviewed ecological and genetic studies from Chernobyl and Fukushima find evidence that low dose radiation exposures cause, the doctors point out, “genetic damage such as increased mutation rates, as well as developmental abnormalities, cataracts, tumors, smaller brain sizes in birds and mammals and further injuries to populations, biological communities and ecosystems.” Ignoring these studies, IPPNW says “gives [UNSCEAR] the appearance of bias or lack of rigor.”
Denying special vulnerability of the embryo
The special vulnerability of the embryo and fetus to radiation was completely discounted by the UNSCEAR, the physicians note. UNSCEAR shockingly said that doses to the fetus or breast-fed infants “would have been similar to those of other age groups,” a claim that, the IPPNW says, “goes against basic principles of neonatal physiology and radiobiology.” By dismissing the differences between an unborn and an infant, the UNSCEAR “underestimates the health risks of this particularly vulnerable population.” The doctors quote a 2010 report from American Family Physician that, “in utero exposure can be teratogenic, carcinogenic or mutagenic.”
Non-cancer diseases and hereditary effects ignored by UNSCEAR
Non-cancerous diseases associated with radiation doses — such as cardiovascular diseases, endocrinological and gastrointestinal disorders, infertility, genetic mutations in offspring and miscarriages — have been documented in medical journals, but are totally dismissed by the UNSCEAR. The physicians remind us that large epidemiological studies have shown undeniable associations of low dose ionizing radiation to non-cancer health effects and “have not been scientifically challenged.”
Comparisons of nuclear fallout with background radiation are misleading
The UNSCEAR report downplays the health impact of low-doses of radiation by misleadingly comparing radioactive fallout to “annual background exposure.” The IPPNW scolds the UNSCEAR saying it is, “not scientific to argue that natural background radiation is safe or that excess radiation from nuclear fallout that stays within the dose range of natural background radiation is harmless.” In particular, ingested or inhaled radioactive materials, “deliver their radioactive dose directly and continuously to the surrounding tissue” — in the thyroid, bone or muscles, etc. — “and therefore pose a much larger danger to internal organs than external background radiation.”
Dubious interpretations of findings
Although UNSCEAR’s April 2 Press Release and Executive Summary give the direct and mistaken impression that there will be no radiation health effects from Fukushima, the report itself states that the Committee “does not rule out the possibility of future excess cases or disregard the suffering associated…” Indeed, UNSCEAR admits to “incomplete knowledge about the release rates of radionuclides over time and the weather conditions during the releases.” UNSCEAR concedes that “there were insufficient measurements of gamma dose rate…” and that, “relatively few measurements of foodstuff were made in the first months.” IPPNW warns that these glaring uncertainties completely negate the level of certainty implied in UNSCEAR’s Executive Summary.
Japan’s protective measures are misrepresented
UNSCEAR often praises the protective measures taken by Japanese authorities, but the IPPNW finds it “odd that a scientific body like UNSCEAR would turn a blind eye to the many grave mistakes of the Japanese disaster management…” The central government was slow to inform local governments and “failed to convey the severity of the accident,” according to the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission. “Crisis management ‘did not function correctly’,” the Commission said, and its failure to distribute iodine tablets, “caused thousands of children to become irradiated with iodine-131,” IPPNW reports.
Conclusions from collective radiation dose estimations ignored
The UNSCEAR report lists “collective” radiation doses “but does not explain the expected cancer cases that would result from these doses.” This long chapter of IPPNW’s report can’t be summarized easily. The doctors offer conservative estimates, “keeping in mind that these most probably represent underestimations for the reasons listed above.” The IPPNW estimates that there will be 4,300 to 16,800 excess cases of cancer due to the Fukushima catastrophe in Japan in the coming decades. Cancer deaths will range between 2,400 and 9,100. UNSCEAR may call these numbers insignificant, the doctors archly point out, but individual cancers are debilitating and terrifying and they “represent preventable and man-made diseases” and fatalities.
IPPNW concludes that Fukushima’s radiation disaster is “far from over.” The destroyed reactors are still unstable; radioactive liquids and gases continuously leak from the deadly wreckage; melted fuel and used fuel in quake-damaged cooling pools hold enormous quantities of radioactivity “and are highly vulnerable to further earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons and human error.” Catastrophic releases of radioactivity “could occur at any time and eliminating this risk will take many decades.”
Summing up the misleading and manipulative nature of the UN report the doctors say: UNSCEAR: “does not adhere to scientific standards of neutrality,” “represents a systematic underestimation,” “conjures up an illusion of scientific certainty that obscures the true impact of the nuclear catastrophe on health and the environment,” and is phrased “in such a way that would most likely be misunderstood by most people…”
— A version of this article appeared July 18 at Counterpunch.org
1 IPPNW, Critical Analysis of the UNSCEAR Report “Levels and effects of radiation exposures due to the nuclear accident after the 2011 Great East-Japan Earthquake and tsunami,” <www.psr.org/assets/pdfs/critique-of-unscear-fukushima.pdf>
2 UNSCEAR, <www.unscear.org/docs/reports/2013/13- 85418_Report_ 2013_Annex_A.pdf>
3 Nancy Wilson, “The Majority of Cancers Are Linked to the Environment,” National Cancer Institute, NCI Benchmarks, Vol. 4, No. 3, June 17, 2004.
4 Kaatsch, et al, “Leukaemia in young children living in the vicinity of German nuclear power plants.” See note 4, p. 6.