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Radiation sickness is not a myth, George

The nuclear industry exudes confidence when setting out its business plans and tying down government subsidies – but when it all goes wrong it’s as if they never studied or understood the dangers of radiation at all.

Workers then give their lives, using chaotic, unscientific, and increasingly desperate measures. Meanwhile populations are terrified, displaced, their homes and possessions abandoned, sometimes for ever, and their livelihoods and education wrecked.

After radiation more than 7.5 million times the legal limit was found in the sea off shore from Fukushima, the leak was finally halted yesterday using, according to reports, “a mixture of sawdust, newspaper, concrete and a type of liquid glass”. A couple of days earlier they tried “cement, an absorbent polymer and rags”.

In a confidential assessment for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, US engineers helping with the crisis in Japan have warned that desperate measures taken were likely to result in further disaster. Seawater pumped to cool waste nuclear rods clogged pipes, so it didn’t reach the rods at all. A build up of hydrogen and oxygen may cause further hydrogen explosions.

This is advanced science? This is safe? This is the energy source that is going to save the planet from global warming?

The same approach dominated the Deepwater Horizon leak in the Gulf of Mexico, where BP and partners were making it up as they went along. Permitting new coal-fired power stations on the basis that “carbon capture and storage” will work eventually, is a further example of this cavalier approach to the health and safety of populations, whilst real science is totally ignored.

Which brings us to that enthusiastic convert to nuclear power, George Monbiot. After declaring that Fukushima actually helped the case for nuclear generation, Monbiot has now turned on campaigners, claiming that there is no scientific evidence that nuclear radiation causes health problems.

Well George, here’s some evidence, published in proceedings of the Royal Society. Scientists working in Ukraine and Israel have found that DNA of children born to members of the Chernobyl clean-up teams has mutated, with a sevenfold increase in the emergence of new DNA strands. This indicates that low doses of radiation can induce multiple changes in the collection of genes that parents pass on to their offspring. The report concludes:

The very fact that much lower doses of radiation than previously generally believed can double the number of genomic changes needs serious attention. This is all the more important when a significant proportion of the human population is subjected to increased mutagenic pressure.

The disaster in Fukushima is happening in one of the world’s most densely-populated countries, within 240 kilometres of Greater Tokyo’s 35 million people. We have no idea what the long-term effects of this uncontrolled experiment will be on the human genome.

Campaigners like Monbiot have accepted that with the kind of growth curves demanded by capitalism for its survival (not for our survival), there is a massive energy shortfall and they fear it will be filled by a huge return to coal-fired power, increasing global warming.

They are not wrong there – but their 'solution' is absolutely wrong because it’s based on the acceptance of the unacceptable and unsustainable system of production for profit. Monbiot’s is just another version of the There is No Alternative argument.

The solution is to fight for an end to the capitalist growth mania, and remove energy generation from reckless profit-driven corporations. With research and development of alternative energy, we can stop measuring growth by counting profits from sales of commodities. Instead, better health, plenitude, equality and fairness, food for the hungry, land for landless, and a thriving eco-system can be used as the scientific measures of our success.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
7 April 2010

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Derek says:

I cannot find anything in George Monbiot's article which claims there is no scientific evidence that nuclear radiation causes health problems, as you allege above. What he actually says is that many claims made by the anti-nuclear lobby are "ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged, and wildly wrong." In particular he criticises the shortage of scientific references in much anti-nuclear literature. The link you offer in support of your contention that there is evidence that radiation causes health problems is to a BBC News website. For the benefit of more scientific readers allow me to provide a link to the actual journal article: Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B (2001) 268, 1001-1005 which is here. The paper studied 41 children born after Chernobyl to plant workers involved in the clean-up operation. It found an increased amount of genetic mutation among the sample. However, it does not associate any "health problems" with these genetic changes.

Penny says:
George Monbiot MAY believe that nuclear radiation causes health damage - but he doesn't state it here or in any of his recent pro-nuclear blogs. There is of course lots of evidence about health risks from radiation. The item of research I quoted was because I thought it was significant to note the issue of changes in human DNA from relatively low levels of radiation. As I said, and as the scientists carrying out the research say, we have no clear idea about what the long term effects of this will be on the human genome. The whole nuclear industry is an uncontrolled, profit-driven experiment on the human race and the eco-system as a whole and none of the 'precautionary principles' adopted in other fields seems to apply to them.

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