Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Truth About Nuclear Power – Part 19

Subtitle: Nuclear Radiation Injures People and Other Living Things

[ Update: 9/13/2015- NRC cancels health study (for cancer cases) around nuclear plants, including San Onofre (SONGS in Southern California), citing lack of funding.  See more in the discussion below. -- end update] 

The topic of radiation sickness and death from nuclear power plants is controversial, and causes heated argument from both sides of the nuclear power issue.  Over the decades, the nuclear proponents’ position has changed from “no one has ever been injured”, to “no
member of the public has ever been injured”, to “no member of the public has died”, to “nuclear power is safer than coal or natural gas.”   That is an interesting progression, as it implies that people HAVE been injured, and have died from nuclear plant radiation.  This article, number 19 in The Truth About Nuclear Power series, explores the injuries and deaths from nuclear plants radiation releases. [Updated 6/9/2014 for reduced cancers near Sacramento, California after nuclear plant shutdown -- Roger]

Previous articles on The Truth About Nuclear Power emphasized the economic and safety aspects by showing that (one) modern nuclear power plants are uneconomic to operate compared to natural gas and wind energy, (two) they produce preposterous pricing if they are the sole power source for a grid, (three) they cost far too much to construct, (four) use far more water for cooling, 4 times as much, than better alternatives, (five) nuclear fuel makes them difficult to shut down and requires very costly safeguards, (six) they are built to huge scale of 1,000 to 1,600 MWe or greater to attempt to reduce costs via economy of scale, (seven) an all-nuclear grid will lose customers to self-generation, (eight) smaller and modular nuclear plants have no benefits due to reverse economy of scale, (nine) large-scale plants have very long construction schedules even without lawsuits that delay construction, (ten) nuclear plants do not reach 50 or 60 years life because they require costly upgrades after 20 to 30 years that do not always perform as designed, (eleven) France has 85 percent of its electricity produced via nuclear power but it is subsidized, is still almost twice as expensive as prices in the US, and is only viable due to exporting power at night rather than throttling back the plants during low demand, (twelve) nuclear plants cannot provide cheap power on small islands, (thirteen) US nuclear plants are heavily subsidized but still cannot compete, (fourteen), projects are cancelled due to unfavorable economics, reactor vendors are desperate for sales, nuclear advocates tout low operating costs and ignore capital costs, nuclear utilities never ask for a rate decrease when building a new nuclear plant, and high nuclear costs are buried in a large customer base, (fifteen) safety regulations are routinely relaxed to allow the plants to continue operating without spending the funds to bring them into compliance, (sixteen) many, many near-misses occur each year in nuclear power, approximately one every 3 weeks, (seventeen) safety issues with short term, and long-term, storage of spent fuel, (eighteen)  safety hazards of spent fuel reprocessing, (nineteen) health effects on people and other living things, (twenty) nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, (twenty-one) nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, (twenty-two)  nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima, (twenty-three) near-disaster at San Onofre, (twenty-four) the looming disaster at St. Lucie, (twenty-five)  the inherently unsafe characteristics of nuclear power plants required government shielding from liability, or subsidy, for the costs of a nuclear accident via the Price-Anderson Act, and (twenty-six) the serious public impacts of large-scale population evacuation and relocation after a major incident, or "extraordinary nuclear occurrence" in the language used by the Price-Anderson Act.  Additional articles will include (twenty-seven) the future of nuclear fusion, (twenty-eight) future of thorium reactors, (twenty-nine) future of high-temperature gas nuclear reactors, and (thirty), a concluding chapter with a world-wide economic analysis of nuclear reactors and why countries build them.  Links to each article in TANP series are included at the end of this article. 


This article explores two types of illness or death due to nuclear radiation.  First, acute radiation sickness, and second, long-term effects such as cancer from radiation exposure.

With acute radiation sickness the question is, how much radiation can a human tolerate, until illness or death occurs?   From the Mayo Clinic definition of radiation sickness: see link  
Radiation sickness is damage to your body caused by a large dose of radiation often received over a short period of time (acute). The amount of radiation absorbed by the body — the absorbed dose — determines how sick you'll be.
Radiation sickness is also called acute radiation sickness, acute radiation syndrome or radiation poisoning. Common exposures to low-dose radiation, such as X-ray or CT examinations, don't cause radiation sickness.
Although radiation sickness is serious and often fatal, it's rare. Since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II, most cases of radiation sickness have occurred after nuclear industrial accidents such as the 1986 fire that damaged the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl or the 2011 earthquake that damaged the [Fukushima] nuclear power plant on the east coast of Japan.”
Symptoms of radiation sickness include: nausea and vomiting, headache, diarrhea, fever, dizziness and disorientation, weakness and fatigue, hair loss, bloody vomit and stools, infections, poor wound healing, and low blood pressure. 
Radiation dosage is measured in G-ray, which is one joule of energy deposited in one kilogram of mass. The abbreviation is Gy.   An older measurement unit is the “rad” or abbreviation for “radiation absorbed dose.”  One Gy is equal to 100 rad.  
Nuclear medicine, dentistry x-rays, and medical x-rays are not included here.  Only radiation releases from nuclear power plants, nuclear fuel processing, and fuel research labs, but not from military power plant such as on submarines or surface ships are discussed in this article. 

Disasters and Deaths

From an article by Wada, K, et. al., in Occupational Environmental Medicine, Aug. 2012 69(8): 599-602, “In the Chernobyl disaster, 134 plant staff and emergency workers received high doses of radiation ranging from 0.8 to 16 Gy resulting in acute radiation syndrome, and 28 of them died within the first 4 months.  In contrast, no workers have exhibited illness due to acute radiation syndrome in the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP accident. Almost 99% of the workers at Fukushima were exposed to a radiation dose of [less than] 100 mSv and the possibility of future adverse health effects is uncertain."  (reference is United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation Sources and Effects of Ionizing Radiation. 2008 see link note:  this article by Wada has excellent references for further reading)  (emphasis added)

A famous case in the US is that of Karen Silkwood, who died before her trial but was exposed to plutonium at her workplace, allegedly due to inadequate and illegal work practices.  Karen sued her employer, Kerr-McGee but died in a car accident. 

Long-term Chronic Effects – Cancers

One of the greatest fears, or concerns, of people is contracting cancer or having children with birth defects due to nuclear power plant radiation exposure.  A recent case on point is a lawsuit brought by nearly 80 US sailors against the Japanese government (dismissed for inability to sue a foreign government), and later amended to sue only the Japanese utility company, TEPCO, that owns the Fukushima nuclear plants that melted down in 2011.  The sailors worked on USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier involved in humanitarian efforts after the earthquake and tsunami.  The sailors allege that they now suffer from cancer, and at least one had a baby with birth defects. See link 

Additionally, investigations have been made over the years into “cancer clusters,” or areas where more cancers than average occur.  It is difficult to sort out the causes, or establishing but-for causation in the legal sense.  Cancer clusters tend to be near population centers, where multiple cancer-causing agents are known to exist.  Nuclear power plants are also near the population centers, but there are also chemical plants, smelters, and non-nuclear power plants, among others.   A 1991 study gives an excellent overview of cancer studies up to that time, from nuclear plants.   “National Cancer Institute (NCI) survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, March 20, 1991, showed no general increased risk of death from cancer for people living in 107 U.S. counties containing or closely adjacent to 62 nuclear facilities. The facilities in the survey had all begun operation before 1982. Included were 52 commercial nuclear power plants, nine Department of Energy research and weapons plants, and one commercial fuel reprocessing plant. The survey examined deaths from 16 types of cancer, including leukemia. In the counties with nuclear facilities, cancer death rates before and after the startup of the facilities were compared with cancer rates in 292 similar counties without nuclear facilities (control counties).” See link

However, the NCI 1991 survey admits several issues: they studied only deaths due to cancer.  They did not have data to conclude if proximity to a nuclear plant was a factor, saying “the counties may be too large to detect risks present only in limited areas around the plants.” 

Also, the NCI study references a British study on childhood leukemia incidence that showed increased leukemia cases in children that lived near nuclear power plants.  See  "Cancer Near Nuclear Installations," David Forman, Paula Cook-Mozaffari, Sarah Darby, et al. Nature, October 8, 1987.

A study by Jablon and Boice, Jr. from 1993 of nuclear plant workers at one plant stated: “A second follow-up of 9,000 workers at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant (MD, USA) identified 346 deaths in the years 1969-88, 101 of which were attributed to malignant neoplasms. The original study had the primary purpose of assessing the feasibility of studies of workers based upon individual plant and Nuclear Regulatory Commission records. The average, cumulative, occupational dose through 1984 was low, only 21 mSv, but ranged up to 470 mSv, with 12 percent of the workers receiving more than 50 mSv. Mortality from most causes of death was low and there was a deficit of deaths from diseases of the circulatory system. Ionizing radiation exposures were not related to the probability of death from neoplasms generally or from any specific form of cancer. There were only two deaths from leukemia, whereas four were expected at population death rates. Larger numbers of workers, followed for longer periods of time, are needed to determine the mortality risk to workers in the nuclear power industry. The difficulties in obtaining dose information for transient workers were so great, and so time consuming, as to make questionable the practicability of studying the workers at a large number of power plants in this way.  See link

UPDATE - 6/9/2014: Cancer rates near Sacramento, CA decreased significantly after the Rancho Seco nuclear plant was shut down.  "The first long-term study of the full-population health impacts of the closure of a U.S. nuclear reactor found 4,319 fewer cancers over 20 years, with declines in cancer incidence in 28 of 31 categories – 14 of them statistically significant – including notable drops in cancer for women, Hispanics and children.

Published in the peer-reviewed medical journal, Biomedicine International, the major new article, “Long-term Local Cancer Reductions Following Nuclear Plant Shutdown,” is the work of epidemiologist Joseph Mangano, M.P.H. M.B.A., executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, and internist and toxicologist Janette Sherman, M.D." -- see link   

Approximately 18 million Americans live within 20 miles of a nuclear power plant (5 percent of total population), while 116 million live within 50 miles (almost one-third of total population)   -- end update] 

[Update- 6/14/2014: Thyroid cancer cases increased in children near Fukushima.  

"Medics from Fukushima Medical University tested children's thyroid glands because they are very sensitive to such chemicals as iodine. Thyroid cancer among children is very rare, but 72 children with suspected thyroid cancer have already been identified and this number is expected to grow in the coming years. . . "   -  Voice of Russia see link   -- end update]
Read more:


The effects of ionizing nuclear radiation from nuclear power plants are real and deadly.  It can be seen, now, why the industry had to change its tune from “no one has ever been injured,” because in fact hundreds of people died after the Chernobyl explosion.  Nuclear proponents argue quite vigorously that “Chernobyl can never happen again,” and that argument will be explored in a future article on TANP.  It is obviously wrong, as a meltdown at Fukushima occurred just a few years later.   Fukushima also exposed hundreds of workers to nuclear radiation, and it is not yet known how many of them will ultimately die from radiation exposure, i.e. cancer.   Given the unsafe operating practices in US nuclear power plants, the near meltdowns or near-misses that occur at alarming frequency (one every 3 weeks, on average), it can be seen that concerns over cancers, birth defects, and radiation sickness are justified.  No matter how the industry spins the facts, the evidence is clear.  Nuclear power is not only too costly, but it is unsafe.  It causes deaths and fear of agonizing, lingering death from cancers. 

It is a shame that in this modern era with internet and database capabilities, a comprehensive study cannot be conducted to determine how many people of all ages contract radiation-related illnesses such as leukemia, thyroid disease, and other cancers.   It is a certainty that the nuclear industry does not want that information discovered and published.    

[UPDATE 9/13/2015 - the NRC has cancelled a study that would have determined, then published, the statistics on greater-than-normal incidences of diseases among persons, especially children, living within close distances of nuclear power plants.   The technology and data is available for the study, but NRC chose not to allocate funding to the study.  Predictably, nuclear advocates cheered, and nuclear opponents are disappointed.  see link to the article.   

An earlier (1991) study of health effects near nuclear plants was fatally flawed by design, and its results are not surprising.   

Quoting the article: "Among the study’s many problems, according to scientists who were designing the new probe:

•"It tracked mortality rates based on where people died, rather than where they lived before getting cancer. That makes it hard to determine true lifetime exposure.

• "It tracked deaths, rather than total cancer cases. That may downplay the full health impact of living near a reactor, since many cancer patients survive.

• "It used countywide data to reach conclusions – a blunt instrument that may again downplay the impact on those living closest to a reactor. Residents in La Habra and San Clemente live in the same county – but few would argue that they had the same exposure to San Onofre.

"To remedy all that, the NRC asked the NAS to evaluate cancer diagnosis rates, not just cancer deaths; and to explore how to divide the areas around nuclear facilities into geographical units smaller than counties. The NAS made no bones about the effort being difficult and time-consuming, but said it could be done."   

This is certainly an area where citizen volunteers - qualified and motivated - should step forward to perform this study pro-bono.   Also, it is a shame that the US government cannot find the $8 million to perform the initial study of 7 reactors.   In an era where government spending, and borrowing, is full of studies for irrelevant issues, this one is certainly deserving of funding. --- end update 9/13/2015]

Previous articles in the Truth About Nuclear Power series are found at the following links.  Additional articles will be linked as they are published. 

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.

Marina del Rey, California

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