We're now entering a more disturbing chapter of the nuclear disaster in Japan. Radiation is being detected in the atmosphere, rain water and food chain in North America. The official refrain, boldly repeated, is, "Not to worry, perfectly harmless, no health threat," even though the six Fukushima reactors contain thousands of times more radioactivity than the bomb dropped over Hiroshima. Some of our best scientists of the previous century would be rolling over in their graves.
In the 1940s, many of the world's premier nuclear scientists saw mounting evidence that there was no safe level of exposure to nuclear radiation. This led Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, to oppose development of the hydrogen bomb. In the 1950s, Linus Pauling, the only two-time winner of the Nobel Prize, began warning the public about exposure to all radiation. His opinion, ultimately shared by thousands of scientists worldwide, led President Kennedy to sign the nuclear test-ban treaty.
In the 1960s, Drs. John Gofman, Arthur Tamplin, Alice Stewart, Thomas Mancuso and Karl Morgan, all researchers for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) or the Department of Energy (DOE), independently came to the conclusion that exposure to nuclear radiation was not safe at any level. The government terminated their services for coming up with what Gofman has called the "wrong answer" - that is, the opposite of what the AEC wanted to hear. The top Russian nuclear physicist in the 1960s, Andrei Sakharov, also a Nobel Prize winner, and Vladimir Chernousenko, whom the Soviet Union placed in charge of the Chernobyl cleanup, are among other international experts who drew similar conclusions.
To put lipstick on the pig of radioactive fallout, we hear from nuclear cheerleaders that common activities like watching TV and airline travel also expose us to radiation. True enough, although they never mention that airline pilots and flight attendants do have higher rates of breast and skin cancer. But equating those very different types of radiation is like equating the damage of being hit with ping pong balls (photons) with being hit by bullets (beta particles). Your TV doesn't shoot bullets at you. Even if your TV was only shooting a few bullets per show, you probably wouldn't watch much TV. Furthermore, the damage done by these radioactive "bullets" can vary tremendously depending on which organs are hit. To carry the analogy one step further: spraying a few bullets into a large crowd can hardly be considered safe for everyone in the crowd, even if the ratio of bullets per person is very low.
Bioaccumulation causes an increasing concentration of many contaminates as one moves up the food chain. That's why beef is much higher in dioxins than cattle feed, tuna fish have much higher mercury than the water they swim in and fetal blood has higher mercury levels than maternal blood. Radioactive iodine, cesium and strontium, all beta emitters, become concentrated in the food chain because of bioaccumulation. At the top of the food chain, of course, are humans, including fetuses and human breastmilk.
In 1963, one week after an atmospheric nuclear bomb test in Russia, our scientists demonstrated the power of bioaccumulation when they detected radioactive iodine in the thyroids of mammals in North America, even though, with 1963 methods, they could not detect smaller amounts in the air or on vegetation.
Bioaccumulation is one reason why it is dishonest to equate the danger to humans living 5,000 miles away from Japan with the minute concentrations measured in our air. If we tried, we would now likely be able to measure radioactive iodine, cesium, and strontium bioaccumulating in human embryos in this country. Pregnant mothers, are you okay with that?
Hermann Muller, another Nobel Prize winner, is one of many scientists who would not have been okay with that. In a 1964 study, "Radiation and Heredity" , Mueller clearly spelled out the genetic damage of ionizing radiation on humans. He predicted the gradual reduction of the survival of the human species as exposure to ionizing radiation steadily increased. Indeed, sperm counts, sperm viability and fertility rates worldwide have been dropping for decades.
These scientists and their warnings have never been refuted, but they are still widely ignored. Their message is very clear - virtually every human on earth carries with them the nuclear legacy, a genetic footprint contaminated by the cold war, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the 400-plus nuclear power plants that have not melted down and, now, Fukushima. The risk to the future of humanity is unparalleled and so tragically unnecessary.
1. McMillan, Priscilla. "The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race." Penguin Books, March 2006.
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5. Hanson WC, Whicker FW, Dahl AH. "Iodine-131 in the thyroids of North American deer and caribou: comparison after nuclear tests." Science. 1963 May 17;140:801-2.