'That stuff' is still with us

October 16, 1991

Radioactive Heaven and Earth
International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War
Zed Books. $20.99
Reviewed by Craig Cormick

There is an anecdote that President Kennedy's science advisor, Jerome Wiesner, was explaining to him about the fallout from continued nuclear testing. According to the story, as they stood in Kennedy's office one rainy day, Wiesner said that the rain was bringing down radioactive debris from the clouds.

Kennedy said, "You mean that stuff is in the rain out there?"

Wiesner gave the only answer he could, "Yes".

We are all exposed to varying doses of radiation when we stand outside in the sun, when we have an X-ray or even when we work in front of a computer terminal.

A lot of this radiation is deemed "natural", and comes from the earth, the sun and other sources that naturally emit radiation. "Artificial" sources include machinery and equipment and the ever-present results of nuclear testing.

According to Radioactive Heaven and Earth, not only has major environmental harm been caused by the radiation from nuclear tests, but its presence will lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths in coming decades.

The book looks at the effects of the almost 2000 nuclear tests which have been conducted around the globe, and concludes that the radiation will contribute to about 43,000 cancers by the year 2000.

Using statistics provided by the US National Research Council's Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation, the International Physicians estimate that the radioactive materials from nuclear weapons tests, particularly the 518 atmospheric tests, over a longer period may lead to as many as 2.4 million cancer deaths.

The books stresses that, despite the large amount of knowledge we possess as to the harmful effects of high-dosage radiation, we are still painfully ignorant about the potential damage of long-term low dose radiation.

The children from Chernobyl who have been touring Australia are a case in point. While those who received high doses are well documented, and their diseases all too painfully apparent, US medical teams admit the full extent of damage won't be known for many decades.

Some cancers, such as thyroid cancer, may not be evident for 30 years.

Atomic weapons testing has left an appalling list of fatalities around the globe, ranging from the US and Australian deserts to the Marshall Islands and French Polynesia in the Pacific, to Kazakhstan in the Soviet Union. The effects on communities living near major nuclear tests were similar to those of the communities around Chernobyl — high levels of radiation-associated diseases that took up to three decades to develop.

But the list of global "hot spots" is patchy and incomplete. Some are well documented, such as the fallout from Chernobyl as it made its way around Europe, or Albany, New York, where a thunderstorm, following a US nuclear test, brought down large levels of fallout thousands of kilometres from the test site.

Radioactive Heaven and Earth says, "... it is probable that large numbers of hot spots with initial radioactivity levels thousands or millions of times greater than average levels have occurred throughout the globe as a result of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. The location of these hot spots, and the victims who live in some of them, will in most cases remain unknown."

The book argues that the effects and risks of nuclear weapons testing have been underestimated, largely due to three reasons:

  • Governments have deliberately withheld information from public view.

  • Studies of effects of atmospheric tests have been inadequate.

  • The risks to future generations of underground testing have not yet been studied seriously.

Although nuclear testing is now conducted almost exclusively underground, there are considerable fears that it is not always as safe as is made out. For instance, despite continued French claims that the coral base of Moruroa atoll is safe, scientists have witnessed "venting" or escape of nuclear material.

Radioactive Heaven and Earth lists four main ways that underground tests contaminate the environment:

  • containment failures — such as venting or seepage;

  • late-time seeping — slow releases over a long period;

  • controlled tunnel purgings — when underground test sites are cleansed to provide access;

  • operational releases — done intentionally, often for measuring purposes.

The book says, "The US Department of Energy has been singularly unsuccessful in its search for an acceptable site for a nuclear waste repository. The current site, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, is considered unsafe by some geologists, who say that mineral-laden water may invade the deposit site before the radioactive material has decayed."

Considering that some of the most dangerous material, such as plutonium, has a half life of about 24,400 years, there is reason for concern.

Radioactive Heaven and Earth says, "Except at very high doses, radiation damage is not immediately apparent. Most of the damage des and even centuries, after which causal connections are difficult to establish."

We cannot expect to learn the effect of this long-term low dose radiation easily or quickly. Even our knowledge of high dose radiation damage was often learned the hard way, over many years.

Even though X-rays were discovered as long ago as 1896, and their dangers reported within the first year, it was not until many hundreds of X-ray operators and radiologists had died of cancer and leukaemia that any controls were developed, and that was not until the 1930s.

Similar stories abound of people living near nuclear test sites, or accidentally contaminated by fallout. In the Marshall Islands, following several US nuclear weapons tests, the people of Bikini were returned to their atoll in 1972, when the levels of radiation were deemed safe. However, by 1978, internal doses of radiation in the people had increased above a "safe" level, and they were forcibly evacuated.

Much of the radiation from bombs tested in the atmosphere in the Marshall Islands is still in the atmosphere, adding to the long-term low doses of radiation we all receive.

Publications of the International Atomic Energy Agency stress that a study into the effects of long-term low dose radiation would require observing a population of millions over several generations.

We can consider ourselves a part of this grand experiment.

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