Posted on April 16, 2012 8:51 pm

Downplay Dangers of Nuclear Power

Media, Academia Join Forces to Downplay Dangers of Nuclear Power



Media, Academia Join Forces to Downplay Dangers of
Nuclear Power

Last April 20 the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published an
on-line article entitled “Short-term
and Long-term Health Risks of Nuclear-Power-Plant Accidents
” by Dr.
Eli Glatstein and five other authors. The article was riddled with
distortions and misinformation, and overall was very poor research. As
the NEJM is a peer reviewed journal and has a significant letters
section, I wrote a letter pointing out some of the errors committed by
the authors, and a longer piece containing a comprehensive critique.

The NEJM demands that letters to the journal contain material that
has not been submitted or published elsewhere, so I had to refrain from
submitting my longer piece anywhere until the NEMJ made a decision on my
letter. When my letter did not appear after a couple of weeks I
inquired, and was told that the article would soon appear in the printed
version of the Journal, and that no letters about the article could be
published until after the print version came out. The printed version
finally appeared on June 16.

However, on July 1,1 was notified by the NEMJ that they would not
publish my letter due to “space constraints.” The four letters that they
did publish in response to the article were at most only mildly critical
and missed the glaring short-comings of the report. In other words, NEMJ
sat on my letter and effectively stifled my critique of what can only be
described as industry propaganda for almost three months until public
attention had moved on to other matters. However, with attention once
again focused on the still-out of control Fukushima reactors on the
first anniversary of the accident, my expose on how the media and
academia have joined together to downplay the dangers of nuclear power
is a poignant as ever.


Since the nuclear disaster in Fukushima started in March, the media
has been full of misinformation about the dangers posed by the nuclear
accidents and the damage caused by past accidents such as those at
Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Whether it is

Jay Lehr
on Fox News1

George Monbiot
on Democracy Now,2
the story line is the same: there were only dozens of deaths from the
Chernobyl and none from TMI, the health consequences for the general
population are negligible, and all things considered nuclear power is
among the safest forms of energy. In some cases the lines are spoken by
industry hacks whose true motive is to protect profits, while other
times the spokesperson is a global warming tunnel visionist who has lost
sight of the fact that we as humans have ingeniously devised a multitude
of ways to mess up our planet, including nuclear wars and disasters.

Lehr and Monbiot both made reference to a

2005 report
commissioned by the United Nations that included the
participation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the
World Health Organization (WHO) and several other UN-linked agencies.
Oddly enough, the official press release by the UN announcing
publication of the report starts off with the following sentence:  “A
total of up to four thousand people could eventually die of radiation
exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP) accident nearly 20
years ago, an international team of more than 100 scientists has

The reference to 50 deaths pertained to those “directly attributed”
to radiation from the disaster. Moreover, this report represents the
most conservative of studies from credible sources, with other estimates
reaching as high as almost one million Chernobyl deaths.

Lehr works for a public policy think-tank and Monbiot is a
journalist. Perhaps we should expect writers from those professions to
misleadingly cite sources in order to promote a preset agenda in the
hope that no one will check their sources. However, it comes as a shock
that medical doctors writing in a prestigious medical journal like the
New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) would resort to the same
practice. On April 20 the NEJM published an
by six doctors entitled: “Short-term and Long-term Health
Risks of Nuclear-Power-Plant Accidents.”  I will not presume to know
what the motives of the authors were or what led them to their erroneous
conclusions, but I do feel the need to point out the errors that somehow
the NEJM’s peer review process failed to notice.

The authors prominently cite two International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) studies in downplaying the deaths from Chernobyl. The authors
state that “[a]lthough the Three Mile Island accident has not yet led to
identifiable health effects, the Chernobyl accident resulted in 28
deaths related to radiation exposure in the year after the accident. The
long-term effects of the Chernobyl accident are still being
characterized, as we discuss in more detail below.” What is the reader
intended to take from this statement? First of all, that the TMI
accident in its totality did not cause any health effects that have been
identified, which is itself a problematic statement. Secondly, that the
total deaths from Chernobyl were the 28 in the first year plus whatever
would be discussed later in the paper. As it turns out, the rest of the
paper only mentions fatalities one other time, and that is that 11 of 13
plant and emergency workers that underwent bone marrow transplants died,
and it is not clear whether or not these eleven are included in the
above mentioned 28 fatalities. So the reader is left with the impression
that the studies that the NEJM authors are citing conclude that the
Chernobyl accident in its totality produced only a few dozen fatalities.

However, just as with Lehr and Monbiot, the NEJM authors start with
the most conservative studies and then are misleading in their
citations. They ignore the existence of high-profile studies that draw
very different conclusions, omit the more damning parts of the studies
they do cite, and then quote statements that were not intended to
portray the totality of the accidents as if they were bottom line

For instance, in making the assertion that Chernobyl caused 28 deaths
in the first year, the NEJM authors cited an
IAEA report
that actually said: “The accident caused the deaths
within a few days or weeks of 30 ChNPP employees and firemen (including
28 deaths that were due to radiation exposure).”

Notice that the IAEA statement is limited to power plant employees
and fireman, whereas the authors imply the entire population. In fact,
that IAEA study focused on the “600 emergency workers who were on the
site of the Chernobyl power plant during the night of the accident,” and
not the exposed population at large or the hundreds of thousands of
“liquidators” who worked to contain the plant over the next couple
years. Moreover, the IAEA study did not preclude the possibility that
some of the liquidators or general public could have been killed due to
radiation exposure in the first year, not to mention subsequent years.
While the authors only mention a handful of cancer deaths in subsequent
years, the second

IAEA study
acknowledges that among the one million or so most
exposed, several thousand Chernobyl-caused cancer deaths would be “very
difficult to detect.” The study states the following:

The projections indicate that, among the most exposed populations
(liquidators, evacuees and residents of the so-called ‘strict control
zones’) total cancer mortality might increase by up to a few per cent
owing to Chernobyl related radiation exposure. Such an increase could
mean eventually up to several thousand fatal cancers in addition to
perhaps one hundred thousand cancer deaths expected in these populations
from all other causes. An increase of this magnitude would be very
difficult to detect, even with very careful long term epidemiological

Clearly, the content of these two IAEA studies was not accurately
reflected in the NEJM article. Moreover, the IAEA is not necessarily the
best source of information. It was never intended to protect the public
from the dangers of nuclear power plants. That is not part of its
mission. The statute of the IAEA

[t]he Agency shall seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of
atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world.  It
shall ensure, so far as it is able, that assistance provided by it or at
its request or under its supervision or control is not used in such a
way as to further any military purpose.

Thus, the IAEA was created to PROMOTE nuclear power (while checking
the proliferation of nuclear weapons). It therefore cannot be assumed to
be an unbiased or authoritative source of information on the health
risks of nuclear power.

The NEJM article is misleading or inaccurate in other instances. For
instance, its discussion is weighted too much towards whole body
radiation, which is really only relevant to the emergency workers. The
article acknowledges that it is not whole body radiation, but rather
internal contamination
that is “the primary mechanism through which
large populations around a reactor accident can be exposed to
radiation.” So why emphasize whole body radiation if it is not the
mechanism through which populations are endangered?

They then launched into a long discussion about acute radiation
sickness, which is largely a red herring since the threat to the general
public is mainly from cancer. The NEJM article further obfuscates the
issue with a table that compares the effective doses of radiation that a
resident near a nuclear accident is exposed to with what someone is
exposed to from something mundane like an airplane ride or a chest
x-ray. This is like comparing the force of a cool breeze to the force of
a knife slicing the jugular. The knife is lethal because it allows a
very small amount of force to be concentrated on a vulnerable target.
Similarly, the risk to Fukushima residents is not radiation spread out
over their entire body, but rather radioisotopes like iodine 131 being
concentrated by biological processes into a vulnerable target like the

The NEJM authors mislead in other ways. They write “After Chernobyl,
approximately 5 million people in the region may have had excess
radiation exposure, primarily through internal contamination.” They cite
the second IAEA study. The reader is likely to assume that up to 5
million people in the countries in Europe and Asia where the fallout
from Chernobyl may have reached could have been exposed to excess
radiation (i.e. radiation in excess of normal), and that this is the
limit of exposure to internal radiation.

However, the IAEA study is only referring to the contamination region
designated by the former USSR (a small area in the corners of Ukraine,
Belarus, and Russia) and does not imply that excess radiation exposure
(internal or otherwise) was limited to this area. In fact, they do not
use the word “excess,” but rather specify a particular level of
radioactive cesium. The actual wording of the IAEA report was as

More than five million people live in areas of Belarus, Russia, and
Ukraine that are classified as ‘contaminated’ with radionuclides due to
the Chernobyl accident (above 37 kBq m-2 of 137Cs).

On the same page, the report also

that “The cloud from the burning reactor spread numerous
types of radioactive materials, especially iodine and caesium (sic)
radionuclides, over much of Europe.” It added that radioactive
cesium-137 “is still measurable in soils and some foods in many parts of
Europe.”  Thus, there certainly were people outside of this narrow
region of 5 million inhabitants who also were exposed to Chernobyl
radiation through their environment and food. Indeed, the authors
discuss the move by Polish authorities to administer potassium iodide to
10 million Polish children. Obviously Polish officials feared radiation
exposure to these people.

Furthermore, there is major omission in the authors’ discussion of
radiation. They discuss beta and gamma radiation, but do not mention
alpha radiation. They then go on to dismiss the danger of plutonium
contamination, which is dangerous precisely because it is an alpha
emitter. They state that “Radioisotopes with a … very long half-life
(e.g., 24,400 years for plutonium-239) … do not cause substantial
internal or external contamination in reactor accidents.” The authors
are either lying or ignorant. The danger from plutonium-239 has nothing
to do with its half-life (long half-lives indicate slower radioactive
decay). Plutonium, if ingested internally, is dangerous because the
large and heavy alpha particles it emits are the most damaging to DNA
and the most likely to cause cancer. In fact, Plutonium is the most
lethal substance known to mankind.

As mentioned above, the IAEA cannot be thought of as an
authoritative, unbiased source of health information given its explicit
mission of promoting nuclear power. The same can be said for other
sources cited by the authors, including the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory
Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development. At the same time, the authors ignored
prominent studies produced independently of the nuclear industry and
affiliated governmental bodies that indicate that there were indeed
serious public health consequences from the Chernobyl and Three Mile
Island accident.

Significantly, the authors failed to mention the seminal work on the
consequences of radiation exposure from Chernobyl done by Yablokov,
Nesterenko and Nesterenko of the Russian National Academy of Sciences.3
This team of scientists from Russia and Belarus studied health data,
radiological surveys and 5,000 scientific reports from 1986 to 2004,
mostly in Slavic languages, and estimated that the Chernobyl accident
caused the deaths of 985,000 people worldwide. Given the prominence of
this report and the fact that its findings are completely at odds with
the conclusions reached by the IAEA and other sources cited by the
authors, it was intellectually dishonest not to mention the report if
only to dismiss it.

Indeed, the Yablokov et al report is hardly the only major
study to contrast starkly with the minimalist portrayal of the health
consequences from nuclear accidents. Regarding Three Mile Island, there
is the June 1991 Columbia University Health Study (Susser-Hatch) of the
health impacts from the TMI accident published its findings in the
American Journal of Public Health and subsequent work by Dr. Steven Wing
of the University of North Carolina. These studies point to increased
incidences of cancer in areas close to the reactor or downwind from it.

Another example of minimizing potential health impacts of a nuclear
plant accident is this statement in connection with the accident at

Although the radioactivity in seawater close to the plant may be
transiently higher than usual by several orders of magnitude, it
diffuses rapidly with distance and decays over time, according to
half-life, both before and after ingestion by marine life.

Japan has a massive fishing industry because, along with rice, fish
is the staple of the Japanese diet. Any release of radiation into
coastal fishing grounds will wind up being concentrated through
biological processes as it works its way up the food chain and
eventually to the Japanese dinner table. The narrow restrictions on
commercial fishing near the Fukushima coast may be obeyed by fisherman,
but many of the fish they seek are migratory, and there is no way of
preventing these fish or their food sources from passing through
contaminated water. Moreover, the claim that the radioactivity “decays
over time” glosses over exactly how much time. While some of the
radioisotopes being spilled into the ocean have half-lives of days,
others have half-lives of years and even millennia. The impact on health
from releases into the ocean cannot be so lightly dismissed.

Although it will take some time for the dust (or fallout) to settle,
it may well turn out that the Fukushima disaster is the worst nuclear
accident of all-time, surpassing Chernobyl. The contamination from the
Chernobyl accident led to the establishment of a 30-kilometer wide “zone
of alienation” to which people are not allowed to return. The current
evacuation zone around the Fukushima plant is of comparable size, and
with the Fukushima reactors continuing to release contamination for the
foreseeable future, the only question is how large will be Japan’s “zone
of alienation.” And while greater Tokyo has so far been largely spared
due to the prevailing winds blowing so much of the contamination into
the Pacific, winds will be changing with the upcoming monsoon season and
the summer typhoons. [Note: countless radioactive “hot spots” have since
been detected all over greater Tokyo, particularly in places where rain
water accumulates.]

It is this proximity to Tokyo, one of the world’s most densely
populated metropolises, that could make Fukushima the worst industrial
calamity in history. An increase in cancer mortality even of the
“difficult to detect” scale referred to by the IAEA study described
above could condemn several tens of thousands of people. And that is far
from being the worst case. The NEJM authors and others who propagate
myths about the minimal casualties from Chernobyl and other accidents
feed into a mindset that is leading to disastrous policy decisions. The
only way to correct course is to identify the myths and the mythmakers.

  1. Jay Lehr said that at
    Chernobyl “the bottom line was that 50 people died in the explosion
    from radiation from fire…” []
  2. George Monbiot stated
    that “so far the death toll from Chernobyl amongst both workers and
    local people is 43.” []
  3. Alexey V. Yablokov,
    Vassily B. Nesterenko, Alexey V. Nesterenko, “Chernobyl:
    Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment
    2010, Nature – 400. Also available at: Annals of the New York
    Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1181 []

Titus North is the Executive Director of

Citizen Power
, a non-profit research and advocacy organization in
Pittsburgh, PA. Dr. North has an M.A. in International Relations from
Sophia University in Tokyo and a Ph.D. in International Political
Economy from the University of Pittsburgh. Before joining Citizen Power,
he taught at the University of Pittsburgh for five years and covered the
Japanese financial markets for Thomson-Reuters for 20 years.

Read other articles by Titus