Fresh Ideas by Ursula Carlson: We must enter the nuclear debate
For the Nevada Appeal
When I first visited Latvia in 1989, the nuclear disaster of 1986 in Chernobyl still was a hot topic of conversation and concern among my relatives. My hometown was only 400 miles northwest of Chernobyl as the crow flies, and Latvia’s southern border was a mere 300 miles from the nuclear plant. In the three years that had elapsed, there had already been a pronounced number of birth defects. (Today in Belarus and Ukraine there are group homes full of deformed children.)
Today we also know, according to a 2009 report by the New York Academy of Sciences (the report itself a translation of a Russian source) that almost one million people have perished from cancer and other diseases attributed to the effects of that nuclear disaster. It is worth mentioning that one million is not even in the same ballpark as the 4,000 deaths predicted by the International Atomic Energy Agency. How can there be such a dramatic discrepancy?
The figurative “fallout” from nuclear accidents lasts for decades and generations because it takes years for cancers to develop. Leukemia takes only 5 to 10 years to emerge; “solid” cancers take 15 to 60. According to Helen Caldicott, the physician and world renowned anti-nuclear activist, “most radiation-induced mutations are recessive; it can take many generations for two recessive genes to combine to form a child with a particular disease.” She points out that physicists speak about “permissible doses” of radiation and maintains that doctors know there is no such thing as a safe dose of radiation and that radiation is cumulative. It is her perspective that the physicists employed by the nuclear industry have been “outperforming doctors” in terms of lobbying for nuclear weapons and/or nuclear energy. As a physician, she is committed to educating the public about the dangers of nuclear energy.
But what about someone like me? Who and what can I believe? I have read that the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (July 2010) reports that since the November 2004 attack on Fallujah, Iraq by U.S. forces, there has been a “four-fold” increase in all cancers and a 12-fold increase in childhood cancer in those younger than 14 years of age.
In addition, I have read that Greenpeace has conducted studies on marine life 12 miles out from the Fukushima nuclear plant, independently verified by Belgian and French laboratories, that there are above-legal levels of radioactive iodine-131 and caesium-137 in several species of fish and shellfish. Jan Vande Putte, a Greenpeace radiation expert, says “Despite what the authorities are claiming, radioactive hazards are not decreasing through dilution or dispersion of materials, but the radioactivity is instead accumulating in marine life.”
I can’t help but think that no government wants to panic its people – no matter the topic. It’s all about reassurance. But what are the repercussions of the status quo? Climate change is creating cataclysmic events. Can nuclear power plants (or off-shore oil drilling) withstand what Mother Nature might trigger? We need to have a serious discussion about energy. We need information, not reassurance.
• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., professor emerita at Western Nevada College, lives and writes in Carson City.