On nuclear radiation – past and future – extract from article on Chernobyl

DOES CHERNOBYL STILL MATTER? Public Books, BY GABRIELLE HECHT , 25 Nov 19, “……. The question is not whether an accident of Chernobyl’s gravity can happen elsewhere, but how to prepare for the consequences when it does.

That’s one of the questions Kate Brown considers in Manual for Survival. Offering a wealth of new information and analysis, Brown speeds past the reactor explosion. Instead, she focuses on dozens of previously untold stories about how people coped with their newly radioactive lives.

Brown’s protagonists include women who worked at a wool factory fed by contaminated sheep and butchers ordered to grade meat according to radioactivity. Ukraine, we learn, kept serving as the Soviet breadbasket, despite food radiation levels that exceeded norms. The concentrations of radionuclides were biomagnified by receptive organisms and ecologies, such as mushrooms, wild boar, and the Pripyat Marshes. Defying expectations, some foods, over time, have even become more contaminated.

Brown’s descriptions add historical flesh to arguments first developed by Olga Kuchinskaya, in her 2014 book on Belarus’s Chernobyl experience, The Politics of Invisibility: Public Knowledge about Radiation Health Effects after Chernobyl.

Since the first studies of bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, science on the biological effects of radiation exposure has been subject to controversy. Like all scientific work, these early survivor studies had limitations. Exposure estimates were unreliable.

The largest study began data collection five years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts, so it didn’t include people who died or moved between 1945 and 1950. Another problem lies in the applicability of these studies. Bomb exposures, such as those in Japan, mostly consist of high, external doses from one big blast. Yet postwar exposures have mainly consisted of low doses, delivered steadily over a long period. They often involve internal exposures—such as inhalation of radioactive particles or consumption of irradiated food—which can be deadlier.

Irrespective of their limitations, however, the findings of these survivor studies have served as the basis for establishing regulatory limits for all types of radiation exposures. Critics argue that extrapolating from the Japan data underestimates low-dose effects: If you’ve already decided that the only possible health effects are the ones you’ve already found, surely you’re missing something? Among other limitations, studies of external gamma radiation exposures cannot illuminate the long-term health effects of inhaling radioactive alpha particles.

Brown injects the work of Dr. Angelina Gus’kova into this story. Gus’kova started treating radiation-induced illnesses in the 1950s, while working at the top-secret Mayak plutonium plant (where the radioactive spills from a 1957 accident continue to contaminate people, land, and water). A neurologist, Gus’kova made observations that extended beyond the narrow cancer focus of most Western practitioners who studied the health effects of radiation exposure. Her patients displayed a wide range of symptoms, which Gus’kova and her colleagues dubbed “chronic radiation syndrome.” Not that they neglected cancer: a 40-year study of 1.5 million people who lived near Mayak found significantly higher cancer and death rates than those reported in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Soviet rubric of “chronic radiation syndrome” did not exist in the West. Yet Gus’kova’s findings did align with those of dissident scientists in the US and the UK. Thomas Mancuso, for example, was pushed out of the US Atomic Energy Commission because he refused to give the Hanford plutonium plant a clean bill of health after finding that workers there sustained high rates of cardiovascular disease, immune system damage, and other illnesses.

Alice Stewart, meanwhile, was shunned by the British establishment after her 1956 research showed that x-raying pregnant women increased the risk of cancer and leukemia in their children by 50 percent. Over the years, these and other scientists whose data challenged the findings of American and European nuclear establishments found themselves sidelined and defunded.

In tandem with perestroika, Chernobyl opened communication between Soviet and Western nuclear experts, engendering what Brown calls an “unholy alliance.” In 1990, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sent a mission to Belarus and Ukraine to assess radiation damage. Belarusian scientists reported rising rates of many diseases in contaminated areas. Nevertheless, the IAEA team rejected radiation as a possible cause. Such correlations didn’t appear in Western data.

Instead, the IAEA teams used dose estimates provided by distant Moscow colleagues and ignored local Belarusian and Ukrainian descriptions of people’s actual consumption habits, which included significant amounts of contaminated food and milk. The IAEA assessments neglected the internal exposures resulting from this consumption. Yet these assessments now serve as international reference points. “Underestimating Chernobyl damage,” Brown warns, “has left humans unprepared for the next disaster.” …….

Brown is on the right track. Many modes of scientific inquiry aren’t equipped to address our most urgent questions. Clear causal chains are a laboratory ideal. The real world brims with confounding variables. Some scientists studying Chernobyl’s “exclusion zone”—the region officially declared uninhabitable due to contamination—are trying new techniques to grapple with this reality. Tim Mousseau and Anders Møller, for example, collect data on the zone in its ecological entirety, rather than focusing on single organisms. Their findings belie romantic tales of wildlife resurgence (such as the one offered up by a 2011 PBS special on the radioactive wolves of Chernobyl). They too have met resistance. …..

we can refuse to see Chernobyl and its kin as discrete events of limited duration. Brown, for example, treats Chernobyl as an acceleration of planetary-scale contamination that began with the atomic arms race.

Let’s be clear: the contamination continues. After the triple meltdown at Fukushima, scientists found highly radioactive, cesium-rich microparticles in Tokyo, 150 miles south of the accident site. When inhaled, such particles remain in human lungs, where their decay continues to release radioactivity for decades. Contaminants from future accidents will, in turn, accrete on the radioactive residues of their predecessors.   https://www.publicbooks.org/does-chernobyl-still-matter/

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