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Nuclear’s Health Risks on Chernobyl Anniversary

Physicians for Social Responsibility Cites Flawed Evacuation Zones

26.04.2011 Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) today cited gross inadequacies in evacuation zones around nuclear reactors and underscored the ongoing health risks of nuclear energy to the public.  The 25th anniversary of Chernobyl and the continuing crisis at Fukushima—both Level 7 nuclear disasters—are clear reminders that standard evacuation zones cannot protect the public from a nuclear accident.  One-third of the population of the United States (over 111 million people) lives within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor. Given the consequences of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, PSR is calling for a major reassessment of contingency plans for nuclear accidents, as well as a full and fair accounting of the data on the impact to public health and the environment.

PSR unveiled a new interactive Evacuation Zone Map at a press conference today held jointly with the Institute for Policy Studies’ Robert Alvarez.  The map, which is available at www.psr.org/evacuation2011, shows a person’s residence in relation to a nuclear reactor and an evacuation zone.

“The original evacuation zone around the Fukushima reactors and the current 10-mile evacuation zone mandated in the US are insufficient,” said Jeff Patterson, DO, immediate past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “We must reevaluate our contingency plans for protecting the public from these dangerous reactor sites. The nuclear industry, and our government, continues to put innocent lives at risk by ignoring the real dangers of nuclear accidents to public health.  As we have seen in nuclear testing, the Kyshtym explosion, Chernobyl and now in Fukushima, when catastrophic releases of radiation happen, they quickly affect not just populations nearby but the whole world, spreading long-lived radioactive pollution everywhere.”

Using simulation software provided by the US Government, PSR analyzed what would happen from a nuclear reactor accident near a major metropolitan area: the Braidwood reactor outside of Chicago. The simulation modeled a loss of coolant accident with exposure of the reactor core, a containment breach, and release of the reactor’s superheated radioactive fuel into the air. The resulting plume of radioactive materials would extend north from the reactor itself to the northern edges of metropolitan Chicago, and east into Indiana and Michigan.

“The computer simulation of an accident at Braidwood in Illinois showed that more than 200,000 people would likely receive high enough doses to develop radiation sickness and 20,000 might receive a lethal dose, according to PSR projections,” said Andrew S. Kanter, MD, MPH, president-elect of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The accidents in Chernobyl and Fukushima provide important lessons regarding the danger to public safety and the need for evacuation zones that are appropriate and feasible around nuclear reactors, if they are to continue to operate. On April 26, 1986, the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, contaminating approximately 77,000 square miles of land and spreading dangerous radioactive isotopes around the world.  The impact of the disaster on public health continues to be felt 25 years later.

From 1986 to 2000, 350,400 people were evacuated and resettled from the most severely contaminated areas of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.  The range of credible estimates of the number of resulting excess deaths ranges from 27,000 in a report by the Union of Concerned scientists (not including thyroid cancer or other causes) to 985,000 in a report by the New York Academy of Sciences (including in European countries, where there was radioactive fallout). The current permanent exclusion zone around the Chernobyl reactor extends for 30 km and 5,800 square km is heavily contaminated. Areas 300-400 km away in Belarus are uninhabitable.  Hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of forest and agricultural area are off limits or required decontamination.

In Japan, radiation from the crippled reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex has been detected well outside the 20 km evacuation zone. Radiation measurements of soil samples taken as far away as 50 km from the reactor showed levels of cesium-137 which exceed the cut-off used for determining the long-term evacuation zone around Chernobyl.

“The 50-mile zone for Americans living near Fukushima recommended by Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko on March 16 was appropriate and should be required for nuclear reactors in the United States as well,” said Dr. Kanter. “It is clear that the authorities and health care system would not be able to properly protect the health of all the people and vulnerable populations that would need to be moved in the case of significant reactor accident, let alone the massive number of injured or potentially injured, and the entire process would likely be a public health disaster.”

The nuclear industry’s most common argument is that there is no significant health consequences associated with low doses of radiation.  However, it is the consensus of the medical and scientific community, summarized in the National Research Council’s BEIR VII report, that there is no safe level of radiation.  Any exposure, including exposure to naturally occurring background radiation, creates an increased risk of cancer.  The BEIR report concluded that every thousand man rems of radiation exposure will cause one cancer.

While the risk of low dose exposure may be very low for a given individual, when large numbers of people are exposed, there are health consequences.  If one person receives 1 rem of exposure, he or she has a one in one thousand chance of getting cancer.  If a thousand people are exposed, one of them will get cancer.  If a million people are exposed, one thousand of them will get cancer.  While the dose of radiation in a glass of drinking water may be so low that any one person does not need to take specific protective measures, the cumulative impact on the whole community may be very significant.

“We cannot be asked to protect the public after the fact,” said Ira Helfand, MD, a member of the Board of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “The health system cannot respond adequately to a large scale disaster on the order of Fukushima. The risks to public health, the economy and our environment from nuclear power far outweigh the benefits.”

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