Both the great Truths and the great Falsehoods of the twentieth century lie hidden in the arcane, widely inaccessible, and seemingly mundane domain of the radiation sciences

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Trial of the Cult of Nuclearists: SCAM NUMBER SEVEN

What follows is the continuation, in serial form, of a central chapter from my book A Primer in the Art of Deception: The Cult of Nuclearists, Uranium Weapons and Fraudulent Science.

SCAM NUMBER SEVEN: Following a radiation release, avoid conducting adequate radiation monitoring.

First-year students of philosophy are invariably presented with this classic dilemma to ponder: If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? An analogous conundrum is routinely posed by the Cult of Nuclearists: If radiation is released into the environment and no one is there to measure it, does a hazard exist? They would like the world to believe that the answer is no, no hazard exists. Each radiation release and its health consequences evaporate when no adequate radiation-monitoring data testifies to the event. No causality can ever be established between radiation and illness if exposed individuals have no information on the doses of radiation they have received. Most people suppose that radiation monitoring of the population and the environment is carried out with diligence. This is an unwarranted assumption. As Caufield observes,

Monitoring radiation in the environment and in humans is, in fact, so difficult that it is rarely done. Many people assume that radioactive releases are closely monitored and that government agencies know the radiation exposure of the local soil, water, plants, animals, and people. This is not the case. Some, but by no means all, radiation users are required to continuously monitor their own routine releases for gamma — through rarely for alpha — emissions. Water, soil, and food, however, are checked only sporadically and usually only for gamma radiation. Members of the public are not monitored for radiation exposure because of the expense, the inconvenience, and the fear that such monitoring would cause alarm” [1].

Radiation released into the environment poses a challenging problem to public health. Once liberated from its source, radioactivity most often migrates in the form of individual atoms or small particles. The pathways that these particles follow are determined by environmental forces working in concert with natural chemical processes. The fate of this radiation and the biological effects it produces remain unknown until scrutinized by meticulous scientific investigation. If this research is not undertaken, the perfect crime has been committed. Forensic investigation falters when there is no weapon and no body. So daunting is the problem posed by radioactive atoms freely dispersed around the planet that science has yet to evolve to the level of sophistication necessary to assess the full spectrum of biological effects that mankind’s nuclear experiment has produced. What the general public fails to appreciate is that the determination of levels of internal contamination is most often a costly, labor-intensive undertaking frequently requiring sophisticated detection equipment. The popular image in the public mind is of a radiation-safety officer dressed head to toe in protective clothing, a breathing apparatus strapped to his back, carrying a geiger-mueller counter that he swipes back and forth as he moves through the environment. This type of monitoring provides information about radiation in the environment. But it provides only indirect information about the potential hazards of internal contamination to those potentially exposed. Measurements of the actual levels of alpha and beta emitters trapped within a human body cannot be done by simply running a handheld detector over the body’s external surface. Given the limits of the technology, internal contamination, except in instances of acute exposure, is rarely performed. As a substitute for this, mathematical modeling is performed, based on environmental data to provide estimates of probable dosages of those potentially exposed. Estimates? Probable? Potentially? Another dirty little secret of the Nuclear Age scurries out from the shadows. With widespread monitoring of internal contamination not possible, knowledge of the fate of radionuclides liberated into the environment and their ultimate biological impact as it pertains to human health is simply not known. Average levels of contamination absorbed by humans can be estimated, but these may fail to take into account anomalous situations which result in individuals accumulating medically significant levels of contamination. When radiation escapes in the environment, it is not always uniformly distributed. Modeling the distribution of escaped radioactivity and possible patterns of uptake by humans may not accurately reflect the reality of what is taking place. Radioactivity can accumulate in unidentified hotspots. Animals used as food may accumulate environmentally dispersed radioactivity in their tissues at unexpected levels that may be hazardous. People’s patterns of consumption of contaminated food and water varies. People vary in the multiple exposures they receive from the full gamut of radiation-emitting sources. Formulating estimates of the “average” dosage for members making up a population can mask elevated and hazardous exposure to particular individuals. What we are doing to ourselves and to our planet is not known with sufficient precision to conclude that all is well.

The Cult of Nuclearists in the United Kingdom claims that plutonium released from the nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield is medically insignificant. The Pentagon declares that depleted uranium released amidst populations is harmless. Such claims are scientifically baseless. Unless dosages are measured for the entire exposed population, unconditional affirmations of safety of all those exposed are not credible. The alternative is to speak the truth. But this would entail admitting that some amongst us are being made sick and are dying from nuclear pollution.

The AEC successfully misled the nation on the health hazards emanating from the Nevada Test Site by not conducting adequate radiation monitoring. Who amongst the population were exposed and the dosages they received will remain forever unknown. These people make up an invisible cohort of silent victims, casualties of the Nuclear Age. This cohort is filled by other faceless victims as well. What was the fate of the sport-fisherman vacationing in Washington State who consumed gluttonous quantities of salmon drawn from the Columbia River, a river heavily contaminated by high-level radioactive waste discharged from the Hanford Reservation?

Footnote: The Hanford Reservation in Richland, Washington was originally constructed to produce plutonium for the Manhattan Project and was a major production facility for nuclear material after the War. Today, 50 million gallons of high level liquid are stored underground in 177 storage tanks. In addition, the site is home to 2,300 tones of spent nuclear fuel, twelve tons of plutonium in various forms, 25 million cubic feet of buried or stored solid waste, and about 270 billion gallons of groundwater contaminated above drinking water standards.

In 2005, the Government Accountability Project and Boston Chemical Data Corporation released a study on contamination of the Columbia River. This study provided the first solid evidence of plutonium contamination in fish. Aquatic creatures were also found to be contaminated with elevated levels of strontium, mercury, beryllium, uranium and cesium.

The study also published data on strontium-90 contamination of mulberry plants offering proof that contaminated groundwater was being transfered into the biosphere. Rodent droppings bore evidence of a 13-fold increase in strontium-90 over similar specimens found downstream Hanford. This provided direct evidence of strontium-90 contamination in the food chain of higher organisms.

How much strontium-90 and cesium-137 did you or your parents ingest through the consumption of contaminated beef and dairy products during the era of aboveground weapon testing or after Chernobyl? How much depleted uranium did your son actually inhale during Operation Desert Storm? Estimates of dosage float around for these events, but really, they are nothing but guesses. They represent averages based on a number on unverified assumptions. Without precise monitoring of these seemingly innocuous events, ignorance prevails as to who the real victims of a radiation accident are. This suits the Cult of Nuclearists just fine.

The United States, with impunity, bombs foreign populations with uranium weapons and disguises its misdeeds by not monitoring radiation levels in the environment or within the bodies of contaminated victims. This casts a veil over the entire enterprise. Uranium/depleted uranium is deemed harmless because no efforts are being made to find out anything further about its effects. It falls to independent investigators to unearth the smoking gun. As this is being written, news is leaking out of Iraq that, in areas of downtown Baghdad, radiation has been measured at 1,000 times background levels. Why? How did that radiation get there? Who has been exposed? What were their dosages? Has anyone become ill? To these questions, no answers are forthcoming. A perfect crime.


[1] Caufield C. Multiple Exposures: Chronicles of the Radiation Age. Toronto: Stoddart; 1988.