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CONTRIBUTION · 6th May 2011
M S Craven
“Safe” Radiation Levels

Despite what the media and Japanese government are inferring, there is no such thing as “safe” radiation levels. In order to reassure the public that nuclear energy is safe, governments have radiation exposure limits. Permissible radiation levels, allowable radiation levels, and legal radiation levels are reached during routine operations or during emergencies and are found in the ground water, tap water, vegetables, milk, animals and humans. They are permitted under law, but are they really safe?

The amount of natural cosmic radiation we are exposed to in our daily lives is about 1-millisievert per year. Recently the Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary admitted that 1,500-millisieverts, per hour, were spewing from Fukushima. When you multiple 365 days in a year by 24 hours in a day, you get 8,760 hours. Multiply 1,500-millisieverts, per hour, by 8,760 hours and that is 12,690,000 times the normal amount of radiation we are exposed to. To any rational human being these figures are frightening, and this is just the figures they will admit to.

Professor Higley, Head of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics at Oregon State University, says that the average person receives about one to two millisieverts a year from natural sources in their environments, and one chest x-ray yields about 0.2-millisievert.

According to the World Nuclear Association, fifty millisieverts is the lowest cumulative annual dose for which there is evidence of radiation-related cancer in adults.

To put this in context, in the 1950s researchers showed that a single pelvic x-ray of a pregnant woman could double the rate of childhood leukaemia in the unborn baby. If that x-ray were given in the first 3 months of pregnancy, the risk could be increased by 10 times. Just two abdominal x-rays preformed on male, increases the risk of his children developing leukaemia. Even CT scans, which are considered to be low risk, will give a 40 year old woman a one in 270 chance of getting cancer. A 20 year old has a two in 270 chance. In the US there are 70 million CT scans a year, causing an estimated 29,000 cases of cancer yearly.

These statistics are for procedures as mundane as x-rays and CT scans. Imagine the effect of a huge nuclear disaster such as Fukushima in comparison. "There is no safe level of exposure and there is no dose of (ionizing) radiation so low that the risk of a malignancy is zero"-- Dr. Karl Morgan, the father of Health Physics.

The National Council on Radiation Protection says, "Every increment of radiation exposure produces an incremental increase in the risk of cancer."

In the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, "No Dose Too Low" Dr Ian Fairlie and Dr Marvin Resnikoff report that "One can no longer speak of a 'safe' dose level."

Mary Olson, of Nuclear Information and Resource Service writes, "Radiation carries a risk, not a certainty, of DNA damage at every level of exposure. An emission from a radionuclide that chanced to ride on your sandwich into your tummy, an exposure so tiny that it would never be measured, has the capacity to start what might become fatal cancer."

On March 21, 2011, Dr. Chris Busby from the European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECCR) predicted 120,000 cancers worldwide from the Fukushima accident, based on current known releases. He also confirmed that three spent fuel pools were burned up, putting the radiation levels at 24,000 times that of Hiroshima, times three spent pools. 72,000 times the radiation of Hiroshima is now in the atmosphere, and that is only from the spent fuel pools. Radiation will continue to escape from the reactors until they are rebuilt or entombed.

There is no safe level of radiation.

Chernobyl has taught us that countries with nuclear power, such as Japan, France, India, China, the United States, and Germany - must distribute stable potassium iodide (KI) before an accident, because it must be used within the first 24 hours and repeated every 24 hours until the radiation levels are within normal ranges.

North America needs to be far better prepared for nuclear disaster. To see why, we need only look at the terrible events that have occurred and are occurring in Fukushima. Due to mishandling and a terrible lack of precautionary measures, Fukushima is predicted to be the worst nuclear disaster the world has experienced, killing hundreds of thousands of people and inflicting low-level radiation on many more. Fukushima will not only have consequences for Japan, but the entire world, including North America and Canada. Contaminants released into the ocean around Fukushima could have terrible consequences for local wildlife, and have a serious effect on the food chain. More research must be conducted into the effect of radiation on the ocean, as there are substantial uncertainties of knowledge in this area.

While the media says that radiation is “within safe levels,” there is no such thing as a “safe” amount of radiation; the effects of low-level radiation over time are terrible and numerous. Ionizing and non-ionizing radiation are both dangerous, and their symptoms vary enormously. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether damage is attributed to radiation or not, as the symptoms can be as diverse as memory loss and diabetes to HIV and learning defects, in addition to the typical increased risk of cancer. Small doses of high-level radiation also cause radiation sickness, and the gamma radiation released drastically increases the risk of cancers such as thyroid cancer. This can be treated with doses of potassium iodide (KI) in the 24 hours following a nuclear event. The storage and distribution of potassium iodide is just one of the measures North America needs to take. Proper nuclear safety procedures need to be created so that in the event of a disaster, we have a plan of action. Nuclear disaster is not just an ethereal concept: it can and will occur, and the world needs to ensure it is fully informed and has taken every precautionary measure possible.

Fukushima is a warning: the world must take action, or face the terrible consequences of inaction.