5. Taking Action

Chapter 7: No More Victims
Part 1: The Future of Nuclear Power

When we set out to investigate the damage caused by radioactive substances in various parts of the world, it had never occurred to us that we would be considered experts on radiation. Wherever we went we were confronted by people anxious about the lumps on their throats, the burns on their arms, restrictions on drinking milk, and a host of other matters.

Many expressed a loss of faith in the assurances of their governments and military authorities, and many wanted to know if doctors could be sent from Hiroshima to help them. In every area we visited, the local people had suffered a great deal before managing to breach the wall of official secrecy to ascertain that radiation was the cause of their diseases. Even when the residents succeed in obtaining damning evidence of the harm done to them and revealing it to the general public, governments and businesses still, on the whole, dismiss the matter and refuse to acknowledge their responsibility. By the time the claims are recognized as legitimate, it is usually too late to do anything for the majority of the victims.

Even when qualified physicians and scientists embark on their own surveys and publish results, their efforts are largely ignored. Local doctors have played an especially vital role in the village of Seascale, near Britain's infamous nuclear facility, and in Malaysia's Bukit Merah, where radioactive waste was irresponsibly dumped. In both these cases the governments and companies concerned have refused to take the results of independent surveys seriously, preferring instead to criticize their methods and motivation. The present situation, therefore, is one of a stalemate between those who allege they have suffered from the negligent handling of radioactive substances, and those who counter that all their fears are based on ignorance and unscientific methods.

Surveying, examining, and confirming damage caused by radiation is an expensive and time-consuming business involving specialized knowledge. It would seem that this work could best be carried out by an independent international research organization, which would also provide neutral ground for all concerned parties to discuss their differences in a scientific manner. Such an organization could dispatch survey teams to any area where radiation damage was alleged to have taken place, assess the situation, and recommend appropriate countermeasures where necessary.

The accident at Chernobyl demonstrated that radioactive contamination has no respect for man-made borders, and that there are limits to what one nation can do to respond to the problems of contamination over a wide area. If an international research organization could compare the effects of radiation damage in different regions, the results of such a survey could assist greatly in unraveling the remaining mysteries in the field of radiation medicine. Moreover, the knowledge that such an organization could swiftly dispatch survey teams to any region where contamination was suspected would no doubt make those dealing with various radioactive materials think twice before indulging in any dangerous practices.

Efforts have already been made to this effect by established organizations: in the fall of 1989 the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) formed a team to survey nuclear test sites and weapons facilities, and in April 1990 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sent an international team of experts to the Soviet Union to study the effects of the Chernobyl disaster. In reality, however, both organizations are subject to the whims of their host governments, and do not have a free rein in conducting surveys. To avoid these problems, a solution would be to form a new organization under the auspices of the World Health Organization, which has wide experience in conducting health surveys and which also has been carrying out research on the possible effects of a nuclear war ever since the "nuclear winter" theory was first debated in the early 1980s.

One of the problems in urgent need of research by such an organization is that of the effects of exposure to low doses of radiation. Many radiation-linked diseases are caused by low-level exposure to radiation, yet far too little is known about it.

The experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the starting point for any study of radiation-linked diseases, and the data collected during the treatment of A-bomb survivors in these two cities has become a textbook for the world's radiation researchers. During our investigations in various regions of the world, however, we came across problems which were inexplicable even after referring to this information.

At testing sites, nuclear weapons manufacturing plants, uranium mines and refineries, we met people who had been exposed to levels of radiation far lower than those recorded in Hiroshima, yet the incidence of leukemia, cancer, and other radiation-related diseases was often unusually high. In addition, even though no genetic defects have been confirmed in the children of A-bomb survivors, large numbers of deformed children have been reported near the Semipalatinsk test site in the Soviet Union. These facts contradict much of what we have so far assumed to be the effects of exposure to radiation.

Governments and businesses have been known to quote data from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to back up their claims that there are no harmful effects from low doses of radiation, but it is becoming more and more a matter of debate whether the knowledge gained from the experience of the A-bombs is applicable to all levels of exposure.

In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, radiation-related illnesses were caused by exposure to radiation at the actual instant of the explosion and for a relatively short period after the blast. In contrast to this, people living near nuclear test sites since 1945 have been showered with radioactive fallout on several different occasions, while those near nuclear weapons manufacturing facilities have lived with radioactive contamination continuously over long periods of time. It would seem that more attention needs to be paid to the differences in the circumstances of exposure and to the warnings of those researching the effects of low doses of radiation.

As more information comes to light concerning the effects of low doses of radiation, there appears to be increasing cause for pessimism. In 1977, the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) calculated that if ten thousand people were exposed to 1 rem of radiation, one case of cancer would result. This figure, however, is only an estimate and was obtained by calculating back from what was then understood to be the danger level of 100 rems based on data from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Questions have been raised concerning this method of evaluation, and in November 1989 the American Science Council recalculated this figure using the latest information from Japan.

It subsequently announced that the risk of cancer from 1 rem of radiation was actually over ten times that estimated by the ICRP. This startling revaluation demonstrates that the data concerning Hiroshima and Nagasaki itself is far from being immutable, and that different conclusions may be drawn with each addition of new information. Defining, estimating, and verifying the effects of exposure to radiation is an exercise fraught with difficulty—precisely the reason why action should be taken now at an international level to research the effects of exposure to low doses of radiation.