Let’s get some perspective, please!

I have been trying to get some perspective on the nuclear industry recently and not having a lot of luck. What I have found is worlds away from the hysterical nonsense the anti-nuke brigade is sprouting. At the same time, things are certainly not as rosy as the pro-nuke lobby is announcing either. So I am just trying to put a little perspective into the argument.

Nearly 13,000 people have died as a result of nuclear accidents in the period 1946 to 2016. (Includes 4,000 deaths from Chernobyl, the largest single event, but actual deaths are still unconfirmed.)
Add the 220,000 people whose deaths were directly attributable to the atomic bombings in 1945.
Total: nearly 235,000 people.
For comparison, I am not including the deaths due to the bombings, unless otherwise stated, mainly concentrating on the period 1946 to 2016.
Not one death resulting from exposure to radiation during transport of nuclear materials has been reported since 1954 in the US, the Soviet Union and China. No incident of exposure to radiation has been reported by any nation with advanced nuclear capabilities during transport in that time.

Sobering statistics.
Nearly 1,300,000 people die every year on the world’s roads.
That is over 3,500 a day, or 14,000+ every four days, more than the 13,000 deaths the world’s nuclear industry achieved over 70 years. This means that nuclear related deaths equate to 0.01% of the world’s annual road toll. Including the 1945 deaths, this equates to 18.1% of the world road toll for any given year since about 2000.

The number of workplace deaths worldwide is not far behind the planetary road toll, but this is an estimate by the ILO, no complete and accurate numbers are available. The Japanese have a word, “karoshi” to describe death by overworking, and claims for karoshi compensation from families are on the rise.

In the US, for 2013, there were 11,208 homicides, 21,715 suicides, 505 accidental deaths all related to firearms, 250% more in one year than 70 years of radioactivity disasters. ( I have to ask, “Given that the US has almost as many homicides in a year as the number of deaths from radiation exposure over 70 years, why do they spend so much time in anti-nuke protests?”)

Worldwide, there does not seem to be a register of sporting related deaths and most countries seem not to amalgamate their statistics in this area.

The really dangerous sports, or events, Iditarod for example, kill people every year, but none like golf or lawn bowls.

Japan and Britain both report nearly 4,000 people die on their golf courses a year. With that number, combined with other nation’s figures, it is quite likely that golf alone kills more people a year than nuclear related deaths have in 70 years.

Likewise with Lawn Bowls. Apparently, more people die playing Lawn Bowls than any other sport in Britain. (Given the average age of golfers and lawn bowlers though, are we surprised.)

I include these to put some perspective into the data. It is the casual acceptance of the high number of deaths in the road toll, the workplace, sports and even gardening I suspect, on a worldwide basis, compared to the hysteria of the relatively miniscule number of deaths over 70 years from radiation exposure I question.

Six workers died in the immediate aftermath of Fukushima, none due to radiation poisoning. 1,600 people have died or suicided by 2013 but none are related to contamination, they are classified as “evacuation stress”.

The reported increases of cancers in Region 1, the most irradiated area, of Fukushima are:
• all solid cancers – around 4% in females;
• breast cancer – around 6%;
• leukaemia – around 7% in males;
• thyroid cancer – up to 70% increase exposed (the normally expected risk of thyroid cancer in females over lifetime is 0.75% and the additional lifetime risk assessed for female infants Region 1 is 0.50%).

(Disputed claim: Clinicians are suggesting that this data is actually misleading. Better diagnostic tools and methodologies have changed the nature of detection of growths on the thyroid gland. There is no existing data to appropriately compare with, and won’t be until other nations adopt the same techniques and tools.)

These figures are from the 2013 WHO report ‘Health Risk Assessment from the nuclear accident after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami based on preliminary dose estimation’.

A 2016 follow up report suggests:
Considering the level of estimated doses, the lifetime radiation-induced cancer risks other than thyroid are small and much smaller than the lifetime baseline cancer risks. Regarding the risk of thyroid cancer in exposed infants and children, the level of risk is uncertain since it is difficult to verify thyroid dose estimates by direct measurements of radiation exposure.
From a global health perspective, the health risks directly related to radiation exposure are low in Japan and extremely low in neighbouring countries and the rest of the world.
Since that report, I haven’t found anything later to dispute these assertions.

In 1986, experts predicted as many as 40,000 extra cancer deaths from the radiation spewed onto parts of what was then the Soviet Union. This represents a less than 1% increase in the cancer mortality rates expected in the affected population. Statistically, the deaths are undetectable, so we may never really know. A more recent claim puts this figure at 985,000, but this claim includes an affected area that extends from Norway to Libya to Japan. The weakness of this argument is that there are more than 2 billion people living in this area, less than 1/3 of the world’s population. The number cited represents a 0.05% increase in cancer rates. (Given this area includes most of China and Northern India, 2bn people would be a conservative estimate.)

Given also that the explosion released at least 100 times more radiation than the atom bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima (but where does this number come from?), it is not surprising that the majority of Cesium 137 fell within 100kms from Chernobyl. There were, however, odd Cesium concentrations in Norway and Switzerland. Russia, Belarus and Ukraine received over 75% of all fallout, and there were claims of radioactive rain falling in Ireland. (Given the prevailing winds in Ireland  at that time of year are from the west, this claim must be treated with a certain skepticism).

30 plant workers and firemen were dead within three months and several further deaths occurred later. One person was killed immediately, a second died in hospital soon after as a result of injuries received from a helicopter crash and another died at the time from a heart attack. Acute radiation syndrome (ARS) was initially diagnosed in 237 people. There were people involved with the clean-up and it was later confirmed in 134 cases. Of these, 28 people died as a result of ARS within a few weeks of the accident. Nineteen more died between 1987 and 2004 but, however likely, their deaths cannot necessarily be attributed to radiation exposure. Nobody off-site suffered from acute radiation effects.

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) has identified 49 immediate deaths from trauma, acute radiation poisoning, the helicopter crash and about 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer in the affected area. A further UN study estimates the final total of deaths associated with the disaster will be around 4,000 people. This will only be an estimated 3% increase in cancers which are already common causes of death in the immediate region.

The wildlife is returning to Chernobyl. In all categories, increasing numbers of animals are giving rise to speculation about the real environmental impact not being as devastating as predicted. People too are returning, much to the annoyance of the Government that refuses to provide any services, especially social welfare and medical services, to the region. The outcomes from that are predicted to be dire, or benign, or more likely, somewhere in between.

Other deaths
Many other deaths appear to have been as a result of mishandling radioactive isotopes for radiology. For example, in Mexico City, 1964, a boy took home an unprotected Cobalt 60 radiography source. Four people died and eight were treated with severe burns. Over the years, similar incidents have occurred, most around poor handling and management of radiography sources which have resulted in about 100 deaths over the period of 1956-2016. These deaths have occurred due to operator error or equipment malfunction. Most other deaths are related to nuclear power plants or recycling facilities.

While on radiography, a CT scan exposes us to a dose of radiation up to 15 mSv. Compare this with normal background radiation of 1.5mSv/y (milleSieverts per year). A “gray”, or gy, is the measurement of 1 joule of gamma or x-rays energy absorbed per kilo.  Calculated, this is 1.5 millisievert/year = 4.753213172104 x 10-11 gray/second, or just 10% of the dosage of 1 CT scan. It is about 100 times the radiation received from a chest x-ray. Sounds dreadful doesn’t it, but this is about a 0.04 per cent increase in risk of developing a cancer, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists estimates.

Near misses are not counted. For example, 1958, Oak Ridge, US, saw 8 workers exposed to high levels of radiation, but there was “no lethality”. No explanation if death occurred years later as a result of exposure, but the workers all survived the exposure, so a near miss. There are few military deaths, or perhaps the military are just covering it all up. Again, Russian and Chinese attitudes are not helpful in determining the real numbers of deaths as a result of accidental contamination.

The effect of high levels of irradiation on humans is well documented, but perhaps not well understood. The effects of low level, long-term exposure is not. The criteria and assumptions of the joint US-Japan Life Long Study of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors were applied to Chernobyl, and it was found there was no actual correlation at all.

Any study to determine effects would be rendered unusable because there would be an impossibly large number of people involved. A variation of as much as 1% could just be a natural variation. There is indeed evidence to suggest that body immune systems can overcome such exposure. For example, a predicted increase in leukaemia from Chernobyl has not eventuated, yet Fukushima has seen a statistical increase of up to 7% in males, but not in females. So far, neither side of the argument can support their position based on accurate evidence.

There are other issues as well. A worldwide decline in air quality is leading to rises in a range of respiratory illnesses and includes cancers of the lungs, stomach, colorectal cancers. Also, smoking has recently been connected to cancers of the bladder, kidney, pancreas, and cervix. Newer evidence is adding leukaemia and colorectal cancers to the list. Increasingly, the Western diet is found wanting, and is now being connected to a range of alimentary cancers that we have seen statistical increases in for the last decade or so. The picture is becoming even more confusing.

The above numbers are taken from a variety of internet sources and really, cannot be vouched for as being accurate. Even so, the comparisons are telling. For example, if 50% of world road deaths are actually suicides and murder-suicides, and discounted as part of the road toll, then the “real” road fatality figure stands at nearly 650,000 people. If radiation related deaths reported since 1946 is only one twentieth of the “actual” figure, then the number of deaths rises to 260,000 people, in 70 years. The ratio is still 5:2, or 40% in comparison to annual road fatalities.

It is estimated that there was less than 100 million vehicles on the roads in 1946 as compared to 1.15b vehicles in 2012. Given the annual road toll now is about 1.3million, on a pro-rata the number of road deaths worldwide in 1946 could be reasonably calculated to about 100,000 deaths. In 1946 there was 1 attributed radiation related death outside the bombed cities population. Any Russian and Chinese related deaths are not known or not clearly recorded, they have never said.

How do we assess the relationship between cancers and long-term low level exposure? It doesn’t appear we can with any accuracy. We can only guess and those guesses seem to be based on “discovered evidence”. The criteria for selecting that evidence is often too narrow to be meaningful, or too broad to give an adequate answer. As yet, no one has presented a figure for the number of chemotherapy packages purchased for use in the affected areas. There has been no comparison of those purchases to world average sales, or even tumour removal operations, pre- and post- disastrous events.

How many people are misdiagnosed or die of other causes, or do not even seek medical treatment? We just don’t know.

The reason for this is, I suspect, the emotive position taken by authors before they begin writing. If pro-nuke, they will report the bare minimum, but if anti-nuke, they will want to maximise the dangers. That is why there is a variation in the “recorded” numbers.

Uranium mining
Uranium totals about 8,000 tonnes of Uranium Oxide, U3O8, a year compared to 100,000,000 tonnes of thermal coal and 600m tonnes of iron ore.

Uranium mining royalties, $21m, and business taxes, $42m, yield $63million for Australia.

The question here is, is it really worth the heat generated by mining uranium? At $63m p.a., I doubt it.

We have to agree that nuclear energy is a very clean energy if it is well designed, well-built, appropriately operated, and properly managed. Far too often, it is none of those things. Flaws in design, simple human error or plain incompetence, greed, corruption, or, insufficient or weak oversight always means nuke plants will never work as they should. The most dramatic events regarding nuclear materials have been around power plants. The response is then, don’t build nuclear power plants. Yeah, like that is going to happen.

Underground storage facilities have had no public exposure to radiation, but mismanagement at one plant has caused that storage facility to be closed and landed a massive cleanup bill.

This information above could give the wrong impression that such events are common and always with disastrous results. In fact, when considering the entire industry involving radioactive sources, the number of workplace accidents when compared to almost all other industries is very small indeed.

The thing that appears to be driving the anti-nuclear campaign is fear. Fear of an unknown, unseen and real danger that has replaced our traditional fears. Unlike witches, warlocks, wizards, vampires, werewolves and zombies, radiation is real and even more scary. We need to be more factual about the discussion, the pros and cons and not just promote fear, but to get and keep genuine discussion going.

NOTE: None of the figures here are properly referenced, they are taken from all over the web. This paper was intended for another use, I had no intention of including it on my blog. I only used keyword searches, including terms such as “radiation exposure”, “Fukushima thyroid cancer”, “Chernobyl deaths” and so on – nothing fancy or overly scholarly. Anyone could replicate this information quickly I would expect.

I did ignore the more outrageous web sites, but there were some serious questions about a number of sites I did discover. I found a couple of subtleties between two maps, purporting to be the same map, of Cesium 137 distribution from Chernobyl. One showed a number of small pockets throughout Europe where the most dense levels cesium 137 was recorded, but the other showed much larger areas with the same levels of density.

This is why it is hard to get any unbiased views on this topic. People lie. They want to present their case in the best possible light, so they minimize or maximize the negative data. I wouldn’t trust any site that is pro-nuclear, nor would I trust any site that is anti-nuclear for factual information. Both sides can “justify” their claims, but skew it so it is either better or worse than it really is.

About colinfraser

I claim the title of educator, because I want to be more than "just" a teacher.
This entry was posted in General, Politics, Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Let’s get some perspective, please!

  1. Pingback: A Contaminated Nuclear Environment | Colin's Blog.

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