7 May 2005

Science sheds little light on radiation

By Marguerite Finn

The nuclear power debate will break out afresh soon, because we must decide whether nuclear power is the way to combat global climate change - or not.

The lack of consensus about how dangerous radiation is worries me, because the nuclear question cannot be solved until we know. One expert will say that the danger is X. Another will say it is 100 times X, and yet a third will say it is one hundredth of X. There is no agreement, particularly about the type of radiation that gets inside our bodies - whether through the skin or by inhalation.

Standards of risk assessment are based upon evidence from the atomic bomb attacks on Japan. The problems with those ancient data is they involved massive levels of radiation. To extrapolate for the lower doses that might occur from functioning nuclear reactors, scientists had to guess what would happen much lower down on their graphs. So they drew smooth curves from those huge values down to zero. No real evidence, but it looked pretty.

When clusters of radiation-type sickness have occurred near power stations, and the radiation levels measured are only slightly raised, experts have denied the sickness could be attributed to radiation, because the curves on their graphs showed that it couldn't be. Yet the lower parts of those graphs were largely guesswork!

Among those unhappy about this was the former Environment Minister, Michael Meacher. In 2001, he appointed an expert Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters (CERRIE). Its remit was "to explain the disagreements in accessible language and to propose research which might resolve them".

When CERRIE reported last year, however, Meacher was no longer a Minister and, to quote him again: "Unfortunately it seems that the procedures which prevailed in the Committee - have produced a Final Report which does not accommodate a full and fair representation of all views."

That is putting it mildly.

The Chair of CERRIE refused to accommodate the views of a minority of the Committee in its Final Report, so the minority obtained a grant and published their views in a minority report themselves. There is still no agreement.

You may wonder whether the widely ranging casualties of the Chernobyl disaster could not provide enough firm evidence of damage at all levels of radiation, to complete the graph beyond all doubt. Many Ukrainian and Russian scientists who attempted to publish details now languish in jail. However, the CERRIE minority succeeded in obtaining nearly a hundred reports from Russian scientists prepared to risk disfavour, and submitted them to CERRIE. Astonishingly, these reports were ignored and excluded from the Majority Report, although they offered boundless opportunities for exactly the sort of research Meacher was proposing.

However bad the Chernobyl disaster was, it could have been a lot worse.

A fortnight after the explosion in April 1986 that tore the heart out of Chernobyl's reactor No. 4, spreading a plume of radioactive smoke around the world, a far worse explosion was brewing out of control amongst the still hot debris. Professor Vasily Nesterenko of the Belarussian Academy of Scientists describes it thus:

"An explosion of this magnitude would cause massive radiation burns in the population within a radius of 300-320km - resulting in the whole of Europe being exposed to an enormous radioactive contamination, making life impossible. - For this reason - tens of thousands of coal-miners were urgently dispatched - to Chernobyl to dig a tunnel under the reactor and install a cooling coil to cool the concrete base of the reactor and remove all possibility of cracks appearing in the slab".

According to the Chernobyl Union Association, more than 20,000 men who took part in the operation, died".

This was only revealed on 15 January 2005. Despite courageous attempts by Russian journalist Svetlana Alexievich in her book, "Voices from Chernobyl" to tell us more, attempts to play down the true scale of that disaster have been too successful.

8.4 million people were exposed to radiation. An area half the size of Italy was contaminated. Agricultural land was ruined. Without the Russian coal-miners, Europe might have been wiped out.

Do those 20,000 men not deserve our gratitude? Who stood to benefit from our ignorance?

This is the 19th anniversary of "the worst technological catastrophy in history". Funds are now urgently required to deal with cracks that have appeared in the concrete sarcophagus. The cracks are leaking radiation. There is risk of the structure collapsing.

On 12 May, a donors' conference takes place in London. The Ukranian government hopes to raise $300million. We must pray that they succeed - before another 20,000 men are sacrificed on the altar of nuclear power.