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Wellness Corner - Nuclear Power and Health - September 2016

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Wellness Corner - September 2016
What do we know about the effects of nuclear power on human health?

By Gary Pace, M.D.

Last month, this column looked at some of the current developments in the use of nuclear power. Any successful efforts at combatting climate change are going to involve leaving large oil and coal reserves in the ground and transitioning to renewable energy sources. Due to its seemingly low carbon footprint, nuclear power has reappeared as an option under consideration. If we as a society pursue this option, what might the impact be on human health?

Research into Health Problems from Reactor Accidents

It is difficult to get clear information about this topic, but it appears that people’s worse fears arising from the devastating consequences from the detonation of atomic bombs have not borne out when looking at the nuclear power industry. 

Living near modern nuclear plants has generally not been found to lead to an increase in health problems. Despite this reassuring news, long-term storage of radioactive waste has not been well managed at this point, and the leakage of storage tanks will likely lead to significant problems down the road, if a permanent solution is not achieved. 

The main concern when looking at human health effects is from nuclear reactor accidents, either due to mechanical malfunctions (Chernobyl), natural disasters (Fukishima), or terrorism. 

Findings from research on health impacts from radiation exposure falls into two main categories: 

Acute Radiation Exposure

This has never been an issue for the general public from a nuclear plant accident, although atomic bomb explosions clearly led to major health problems. Reactor accident cleanup crews have suffered from radiation sickness, with 134 workers at Chernobyl suffering from illness – mainly bone marrow suppression, gastrointestinal problems, and skin burns – leading to 28 deaths. 

Long-term Cancer Risk

The main route of exposure for the general population is through nuclear fallout (not the initial radiation release, but from the radio-isotopes in the particles emanating from the site). Research on animals shows this avenue does not cause acute illness, but can increase the long-term cancer risk, mainly through exposure to radioactive Iodine and Cesium. 

The human data on increases in cancers from proximity to a reactor accident are somewhat inconclusive. After the bombing at Hiroshima, huge increases in leukemia and non-thyroid cancers were seen. These have not been found after Chernobyl or Three Mile Island

The clearest connection between radiation effects from nuclear reactor accidents and human health is the increase in thyroid cancers from iodine-131 exposures, especially in children. Radioactive iodine is found in high concentrations at nuclear plants, and after an accident it is dispersed and can easily enter the food chain and water supply. Once it gets into the body, it rapidly accumulates in the thyroid gland and it can lead to cancer. There was a large increase in thyroid cancers in children in the areas surrounding Chernobyl (up to 100 times the expected rate in some regions) that started about 5 years after the accident. Thyroid cancer incidence was much lower in children who were not iodine deficient or who received an iodine supplement at the time of the accident.

Cesium-137 has also been associated with various forms of cancer and has been detected in markedly increased levels after some of the reactor accidents.

Conclusions

Data from monitoring water and air after Fukishima has taught us that the impact from reactor accidents is not local, but global. Increases in levels of iodine-131 were found in March 2011 (soon after the accident) in places as diverse as rainwater in Boise, Idaho, drinking water in Philadelphia, and milk in Little Rock, Arkansas. The eventual health effects are yet to be determined.

Given the extremely sensitive nature of radiation exposure, many people find government monitoring and reassurances somewhat unconvincing. There is a Sonoma County company, IMI, that sells small radiation monitors and is working on some crowd-sourcing strategies which empower the public to access the information.

One of the complex questions that will need to be answered during this coming era of grappling with climate change is: Does the benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by building new nuclear plants outweigh the harm done by potential health risks from accidents and nuclear waste disposal challenges?

Comments:

Radioactivity can NOT be “diluted”. It is merely spread.

Jim Piver