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If you’ve never heard of the Soviet Union’s first serious nuclear disaster called “Mayak,” we’ll get to that later. But first, I must point out that from the start of the nuclear power plant crisis in Japan, I have been urging calm. And some out there have been taking me to task — there are a few nasty comments posted beneath this collection of almost two dozen TV appearances I’ve made this month. But I’m sticking to my guns. While the situation is serious, everyone would still do well to calm down.
This week, the media was abuzz with word that radiation levels at the Fukushima nuclear power plant were 10 million times higher than the “normal” level. It turned out to be a “mistake.” No matter. Panic created (and not easily calmed). And headlines later trumpeted the fact that radiation levels in milk in Washington state were elevated. Yes. But, according to The Wall Street Journal story, they were in “amounts are far too low to trigger any public-health concern.” How low? The story says: “less than one five-thousandth of the safety safety guideline set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
No matter. The “sexy” headline on this WSJ story still blares: “Radiation Traces Found in U.S Milk.” Most Americans have been conditioned to skip over the word “traces,” especially because they’ve been told for weeks — and, really, their entire lives — that any radiation is bad, and probably deadly. A more accurate headline would be: “Nothing to Fear from Radiation of U.S. Milk.” Alas …
Considering all this unwarranted alarmism in the U.S. media, I was heartened to read some needed perspective — but I had to go back in the archives of the German press to find it. Der Spiegel in 2007 printed an now-timely article on research performed on a largely unknown, but truly huge nuclear disaster in the former Soviet Union. And just as with Chernobyl, the expected catastrophic devastation and immense loss of human life did not occur.
With the Chernobyl disaster, mind you, we’re talking about radiation 10,000 times greater than what has been measured in Japan — which, by and large, is harmless to the general population of that island, let along the United States. The Der Spiegel story is aptly titled: “Nuclear Exaggeration: Is Atomic Radiation as Dangerous as We Thought?”
A mounting number of studies are coming to some surprising conclusions about the dangers of nuclear radiation. It might not be as deadly as is widely believed.
And the Mayak incident is the case study. Some 30 years before Chernobyl (in 1957) “a tank filled with 80 tons of nuclear waste exploded. According to an eyewitness, a ‘strange, bright red fog’ rose several thousand meters into the air.”
Though the media has claimed that many people died in and around that Siberian town of 17,000 because of the disaster, that is not the case. A team of Bavarian scientists traveled to Mayak in 2007 to take extensive soil samples. According to the story, the scientists looked back into the archives and found: “Employees there were examined with a dosimeter, sometimes once a week, and required to provide urine samples. … The results of the tests were documented in more than 7,000 health records encased in gray cardboard folders.” More from the story:
There are even kidneys and livers of workers who died at the site. Preserved in paraffin, they are kept stored next to frozen vials of blood at the Biophysical Institute of Osyorsk. Russian doctors are also collecting hair samples from those workers still alive today along with teeth that have fallen out.
Outfits like Greenpeace, according to the Der Speigel story, have claimed:
272,000 people were harmed at the facility and in the surrounding area. Even in the town of Muslyumovo, 80 kilometers (50 miles) away, “one in two adults are infertile, and one in three infants are born with deformities.”
That claim is simply bogus. As the Der Spiegel investigation notes:
As deeply disturbing as these claims are, the tests in no way bear them out.
Well, what about the folks who worked at this plutonium-enrichment plant? The Bavarian scientists looked into that, too. The Der Spiegel story describes what those workers did then — and what the scientists discovered about them years after the experience (emphasis mine).
There, in a long brick building, workers, including many women, sat in a dimly lit environment and placed the encrusted rods into nitric acid, triggering a process that allowed them to remove the weapons-grade plutonium. While the same work was performed with remote-controlled robotic arms in the West, the Soviet workers were not even given masks to wear. There was nothing to stop plutonium gases from entering their lungs.
And yet the amount of health damage sustained by these workers was astonishingly low. The GSF study has examined 6,293 men who worked at the chemical plant between 1948 and 1972. “So far 301 have died of lung cancer,” says Jacob. “But only 100 cases were caused by radiation. The others were attributed to cigarettes.”
The second large, but as yet unpublished study by the GSF scientists also offers surprisingly low mortality figures.
Please read the whole article in Der Spiegel. I wish most reporters and commentators in the U.S. would take the time. It would go a long way to allying fears of irradiated milk in Washington state, let alone in Japan.