Nuclear Power and human health in Finland
Prof. Chris Busby
In the debate about the development of nuclear power in Finland, the Director General of the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, Jukka Laaksonen, has written an article which is patronising, misleading and incorrect.
I will begin with the obvious error. Prof Schmitz Feuerhake referred to the KiKK study of child leukaemia near the German nuclear plants; Laaksonen’s response was there have been similar studies done since the 1970s which show no increases in child leukaemia. This is untrue. In reality, most of the studies which have looked have found such increases. KiKK is not new. In 1983 there was found a 10-fold excess of child leukaemia near the nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield. This was followed by the discovery of statistically significant excesses of child leukaemia near the Dounreay reactors in Scotland, near Hinkley Point reactors in Somerset, UK, near the Atomic Weapons site at Aldermaston UK, near the French reprocessing plant at La Hague in Normandy, near Kruemmel in Germany and so forth. It seemed to be a question of whether the plants discharged to areas where there was a geophysical source of transferring the radioactive material in the discharges to the mothers of the children, or the children themselves. In a 2007 meta-analysis of all the studies of child leukaemia near nuclear plants most of the studies showed excess rates. Of course, the response was always the same: the doses were too low. I will revisit this below.
And extremely relevant to the argument about the cause of the nuclear site child leukemias is a study I carried out of the increases of infant leukaemia (age 0-1) in those children who were in the womb at the time of the Chernobyl fallout. These infant leukaemia increases were reported from several countries, Greece, Germany, Wales, Scotland, Belarus even the USA by several different research groups. Comparison of the excess rates reported with the numbers predicted by the current risk model of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) showed an error in that model of about 500 fold. This is also approximately the number needed to explain the nuclear site child leukemias but in the case of the Chernobyl infants in the womb, there is no other explanation but exposure to radionuclides.
But childhood leukemia is a very rare disease, with rates of about 6 per 100,000 children per year, and so to be able to detect changes you have to have a very large base population living in the exposure region, which is about 5km from the plant, or living where the plant sends its radioactive discharges (by sea, river or air).
Since child leukaemia follows genetic damage in the womb, the same genetic damage will occur in adults and will lead to increases in cancers which have a much higher incidence rate. We have studied female breast cancer near nuclear sites in the UK and in areas where contaminated sea sediment appears on the coastal areas near the nuclear sites. In two different nuclear power plants in the UK, Hinkley Point in Somerset and Bradwell in Essex we have found a statistically significant doubling in female breast cancer risk in those populations living next to the coast. In both these studies, the UK government has followed up our work and had to concede it is correct, yet again the same argument is deployed as was made by Jukka Laaksonen, that the doses were too low to cause the effect and therefore it cannot be the radiation. This brings me to the explanation.
Absorbed Dose is meaningless
The unit for measuring radiation in humans is Absorbed Dose. The concept is fundamental to radiation protection. For how can you make limits to exposures, or assess risk, if you have no way of measuring radiation? You might ask who it is that is making the frightening statement that Absorbed Dose is meaningless. The answer is that it is the International Commission on Radiological Protection itself in a draft to its 2007 Risk Model:
- (50) For radiations emitted by radionuclides residing within the organ or tissue, so-called internal emitters, the absorbed dose distribution in the organ depends on the penetration and range of the radiations and the homogeneity of the activity distribution within the organs or tissues. The absorbed dose distribution for radionuclides emitting alpha particles, soft beta particles, low-energy photons, and Auger electrons may be highly heterogeneous. This heterogeneity is especially significant if radionuclides emitting low –range radiation are deposited in particular parts of organs or tissues, e.g. Plutonium on bone surface or Radon daughters in bronchial mucosa and epithelia. In such situations the organ-averaged absorbed dose may not be a good dose quantity for estimating the stochastic damage. The applicability of the concept of average organ dose and effective dose may, therefore, need to be examined critically in such cases and sometimes empirical and pragmatic procedures must be applied.
Let me explain what they are saying since it is critical to the argument about nuclear power in Finland (or anywhere else). Absorbed Dose is an average quantity equal to Energy divided by Mass. 1 Joule per Kilogram is equal to one Gray. The average dose over a year to people in Finland is about 0.002 Joules per Kilogram, about 2mGy. (I am simplifying slightly since there are some weighting factors employed which multiply alpha emitters like Radon and Uranium by 20 to get Sieverts). Absorbed Dose can be used to assess external radiation since all the cells in the body get the same fraction of dose, are equally irradiated. It was these external doses to the Japanese A-Bomb survivors that define the cancer yield per unit absorbed dose in the ICRP risk model. But the idea breaks down for internal irradiation to novel substances which target specific parts of the body. The targets we are most concerned with are the DNA bearing targets, since this is where cancer begins. Now the total DNA is a very small fraction of the total body, in terms of mass, yet many of the radionuclides which are released by nuclear plants have big affinities for the DNA, one example is Strontium-90, which follows Calcium in its chemical nature. Plutonium and Uranium both bind to DNA, and both are released from nuclear plants.
In addition, there are releases of Tritium, as a form of radioactive water and hot particles which are like tiny radioactive sparks that can get into the body and cause huge doses to locals tissues. None of these can be compared to natural background radiation, internal or external since the exposures are quite different.
There is a good analogy. I can sit in front of a fire and warm myself: I receive some number of Joules per Kilogram. I can assess my dose in Grays. Or I can reach into the fire and take out a red hot coal and eat it. The same number of Grays produce quite a different effect. This is why the comparison with natural background radiation is false and misleading. It is like measuring all poisons by Absorbed Weight.
In April 2009 I met with the (then recently resigned) Scientific Secretary of the ICRP Dr Jack Valentin in Stockholm. I raised these concerns and asked him if the ICRP risk model (which he wrote) could be used to assess the health effects of exposure to internal radionuclides. He said it could not. When I asked him why he replied that the uncertainties were too great. What level of uncertainty was that? I asked. Two orders of magnitude, he replied. All this is on videotape. Valentin also said that since he was no longer working for ICRP he could say that ICRP and the UN agencies on radiation protection (UNSCEAR) had been wrong in not addressing the concerns of those who pointed to the huge increases in illness and cancer after Chernobyl as evidence that the effects of exposure to internal radionuclides was much more serious than had been modelled on the basis of Absorbed Dose.
There is now overwhelming evidence that this is so. Apart from the Chernobyl effects (which were also found in northern Sweden by Martin Tondel in 2004, so don’t feel safe in Finland) there is the question of the dreadful damage caused by exposures to Uranium weapons in Iraq and the Balkans, another situation where the defence is based on the concept of Absorbed Dose. This is not Science, it is mumbo jumbo. You cannot compare the health effect of the decay of a radionuclide like Uranium or Strontium exploding whilst attached to a DNA molecule on a chromosome inside the cell to the average level of ionisation in the body of a Japanese A-Bomb survivor irradiated at some enormous dose level where half the inhabitants were killed.
Radioactive Baltic Sea
Since the splitting of the atom, huge quantities of novel substances have appeared on earth that were never here throughout evolution: Strontium-90, Caesium-137, Iodine-131, Plutonium-239. In addition, humans have refined substances like Uranium which were better left locked up in high dilution in the rocks. These technologically enhanced materials are now everywhere, floating in the air and in the sea, fetching up on the coasts of contaminated oceans. They are certainly inside you! And nowhere is there greater radioactive contamination than in the Baltic Sea. Because the Baltic is effectively closed, all the radioactive material that fell into it stays there. All the material from atmospheric weapons tests, from Chernobyl, from all the discharges of all the nuclear plants along the Baltic, Russian, Swedish coasts and of course, the plants in Finland. Like a dirty bathtub, all this stuff swirls around and the material fetches up on the edge, on the coast. It’s a historical radioactive waste dump, and all you have to do to see this is look at the HELCOM measurements. The silt contains 1000Bq/kg of Caesium-137 alone to say nothing of all the other radionuclides which are more difficult to measure and have been ignored. It is a disgrace that such a beautiful magical area has been so defiled with poison. And it is a bigger disgrace that people like Dr Laaksonen who are paid to protect the public can try to justify such a process with specious arguments about natural background radiation. It will visit dreadful revenge on the people who live near the coast, inhale the poisoned air and eat the radioactively contaminated sea food. In 1998-2000 my group, Green Audit, examined cancer in the coastal population of north and mid Wales, an area which is contaminated by the discharges from the nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield. The study was funded by the Irish Government in connection with a court case against Sellafield (which eventually collapsed). At that time we believed that the Irish Sea was the most contaminated sea in Europe. Using data supplied to us for small areas by the Wales cancer registry for 1974-1990, a huge database, we were able to show that those living very close to the coast, inside about 1km, suffered a 40% excess of all cancers. These increases were spread across most cancer types and sites, and were particularly high in children for leukemia and brain tumours. The lawyers did not want us to publish these results although we did present them at some conferences and when the case collapsed in 2005 the litigants and I took the decision to include all the results and the methodology in my book Wolves of Water. The route of exposure which explained the results was inhalation of contaminated sediment and sea water brought into the air by a well-described scientific phenomenon called sea-to-land transfer. The material was measured in the air, in the soil and in sheep faeces, with a trend with distance from the sea exactly mirroring the cancer rates. So anyone who wants to can go and look. But the period of the study 1974-1990 covered the major releases from Sellafield and at this time the sediment concentrations of Cesium-137 in areas where the effects were greatest were not more than 60Bq/kg. The HELCOM and some STUK results show very much greater levels in the Baltic some 50 times this, and so we might expect similar but perhaps greater cancer effects in coastal populations of the Baltic. And we intend to go and look. The European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR) has opened a Baltic Sea Regional Office in Stockholm (email@example.com) and we are making applications for support for a study of cancer and radiation near the Baltic Sea. A pilot study for some representative years for Sweden is already under way.
The Finnish nuclear plants release radioactivity to the environment. There is no argument about that: releases are recorded in local documentation, in national documentation and in the UN documentation. This radioactivity will add to that nuclear waste that has already been dumped in the Baltic, and will add to the health burden that this material has had and will have on the people who are exposed to it and their descendants.
What fraction of the cancer increases can be placed at the door of the Finnish reactors? Well it will increase as you get close to the reactors and where their material ends up on the coast. J-F Viel’s study of child leukaemia at La Hague identified playing at the seaside as the main risk factor for the children, but also eating seafood. But there is a more serious side; Finland had been pursuaded to become a leader in the resurgence of nuclear power, and because of this other nuclear plants will be built elsewhere. Sweden is currently ‘solving’ the waste problem by building a huge and insane radioactive waste repository under the Baltic Sea at Forsmark (with massive opposition from the people). What is it about you Scandinavians: have you had your common sense removed? You were once an icon of all that is sensible, honest and good in the world. How can you poison your beautiful region? How is it you listen to the nonsense spouted by your government officials? To those who bribe them to solve the problem of the public opposition nuclear power development after Chernobyl. Shame!
For those who are interested in following up these arguments, there is a new report by the European Committee on Radiation Risk being published in April ECRR2010, The Health Effects of Exposure to Low Doses of Ionizing Radiation which reviews the ICRP model and develops an alternative risk model, one which predicts and explains the observations. Look at http://www.euradom.org
Chris Busby has degrees in Physical Chemistry and Chemical Physics and is currently Visiting Professor at the University of Ulster, as well as Guest Researcher at the Federal Research Centre, Julius Kuhn Institute in Braunschweig, Germany. He is Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk and Scientific Advisor to the Low Level Radiation Campaign www.llrc.org which he helped found in 1995. Previously he was a member of the UK Department of Health Committee Examining Radiation Risk from Internal Emitters (CERRIE) and he sat on the UK Ministry of Defence Depleted Uranium Oversight Board
Prof. Chris Busby is Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk.