The Washington Syndrome

by Lorna Salzman

Why is the government constantly changing its definition of safe radiation levels? The answer is simple: It's their way of covering up the truth to accommodate the nuclear power industry. Washington is afraid you would panic if the real truth were known.

In the aftermath of the near meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, we are already being inundated with the government-and-industry sales pitch about how safe nuclear power is and how we won't survive without it. Don't fall for it. Scientists who have studied the short and long-term effects of radiation, closely and for years, know that people will die as a direct result of the low-level radiation released in that nuclear accident.

Low-level radiation is defined as being within the limits set by the government for nuclear workers and non-workers in one year from all sources, from 500 millirems (half a rem) to 12 rems. Nuclear workers are allowed 5 rems per year, but with their curious exposure-bank-account system, they can get up to 12 rems from their work alone. Then there are background radiation, medical and dental x-rays, and fallout to add to the load they carry.

There are different kinds of radioactivity, which act in different ways. Alpha particles, given off by uranium and plutonium and their decay products, are not very penetrating, but if inhaled or absorbed in a wound, they irradiate a small area intensely and almost certainly induce cancer. Beta particles, such as those given off by strontium-90, a fission product created in reactors, are somewhat more penetrating and are also dangerous if lodged in tissues. Gamma rays, given off by iodine-131, another fission product as well as X rays and neutrons, are highly penetrating. They may pass through the body's cells harmlessly or cause damage that can be repaired, or they may kill cells entirely. But worst of all, they can do damage to a cell without impairing its ability to reproduce. This can lead to cancer or genetic damage.

Of greatest concern in a reactor are the fission products, primarily iodine-131 (gamma), strontium-90 (beta), and cesium-137 (gamma), which concentrate in the thyroid, bone, and tissues respectively. Iodine-131 has only an eight-day half-life. That means half of a given quantity decays in eight days, half the remaining quantity decays in another eight days, and so on. But the shorter the half-life, the more radiation is being given off per unit of time, hence the concern about iodine. Strontium and cesium have about thirty-year half-lives, but they are deposited in soil and concentrate in the human food chain. Thus they persist for hundreds of years. We are still ingesting these elements that came down from the nuclear weapons tests fallout in the Fifties and Sixties, as well as the tons of vaporized plutonium (half-life 24,0000 years) that will circulate in the northern hemisphere essentially forever.

A controversy over iodine in the Harrisburg area milk arose because of the government's attempts to downplay the dangers of radioactive iodine, and some basic facts need to be restated. First, all experts agree that no level of radiation is safe, and the increments from any source result in statistically certain increases in the occurrence of cancer and genetic damage. For this reason it would be prudent health practice to minimize radiation exposure, particularly if there is no benefit in the exposure (such as with medical X rays). Because there is no safe level, or threshold, for radiation damage, there is a continuum of "health effects" (a euphemism for cancer) from any given exposure, with certain parts of the population, such as pregnant women, infants, the elderly, and others susceptible. Even the small amounts of iodine released from Three Mile Island will result in extra cancer cases and genetic effects; the only problem is that we do not know who will suffer or when, due to the long latency period of most cancers. (Nor will we know for sure just how much was released, to be ingested by people, since the government cannot be trusted to tell us, nor was radiation monitoring begun until three days after the accident). One estimate, based on the government's own figures, postulated fifty latent cancer deaths from the increased background radiation levels. In any case, it will be many years before those health effects are perceived, and even then they will not be distinguishable from cancers from other causes.

But one thing is certain: Most, if not all, of these cancers could have been prevented by prompt evacuation of all people in the area and by converting local milk to dried milk products that could be stored for a month to maximize iodine-131 decay. The government also commissioned drug companies to produce and rush a million doses of potassium iodide to the area. (The chemical floods the thyroid gland with safe iodine, so that radioactive iodine is flushed out of the body through urination.) But it was not distributed to the people, except among the plant workers. Why were these simple protective actions avoided? To prevent public panic and fear! This avoidance amounts to an indirect act of murder, because it resulted in totally unnecessary increased radiation exposure to local people, some of whom will develop cancer as a result.

The government continues to issue misleading and murderous misinformation about so-called safe levels of iodine in milk. During nuclear tests in the Sixties, protective action, such as feeding cows stored feed and using dried milk, was recommended if iodine-131 concentrations in milk exceeded 100 picocuries (trillionths of a curie) per liter. During the 1976 fallout crisis from Chinese nuclear tests, Pennsylvania's radiological bureau used this level but then raised it to 500 under pressure from dairy unions. The government itself used 4,000 picocuries at the time as the protective-action level, and now, after Three Mile Island, it actually raised the protective-action level to 12,000!

Does this mean that higher levels are safe? Not by a long shot. There is no scientific basis for this arbitrary increase–the intent is to prevent public alarm and to allay concerns about food supplies: to make us think radiation exposure is okay. As always, the government acts as protector of private economic interests and the utilities, not of public health and safety. By suppressing the facts about the true impact of the Pennsylvania accident and its radiation releases, the government continues a long tradition of lying. Can you see what else they are telling us? They are admitting that the truth about the risks of nuclear energy cannot stand up to public scrutiny. If you could know the truth, you would not put up with it!
Lorna Salzman is the mid-Atlantic representative of Friends of the Earth, a national environmental organization of over 20,000 members.

Source: Gallery, 8/79.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.