Nuclear Exaggeration: Is Atomic Radiation as Dangerous as We Thought?

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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.

The explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (pictured) were devastating. The resulting radiation illnesses, though, weren't as bad as expected.
DPA

The explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (pictured) were devastating. The resulting radiation illnesses, though, weren't as bad as expected.

Wearing mosquito helmets on their heads and radiation dosimeters on their belts, Clemens Woda and his three Russian colleagues drive past a bored-looking guard leaning nonchalantly against a meter-high fence. The truck moves past a yellow warning sign reading "radioactivity" and into the restricted zone. Inside, the streets and fields show the effects of years of abandonment and are overgrown with tall reeds. The area hugging the swampy banks of the Techa River has been unpopulated for decades.

The group reaches Metlino, a ghost town that was evacuated in 1956. A weather-beaten grain silo protrudes into the sky. The scientists take soil samples and, wearing rubber boots, wade through the mud over to a Russian Orthodox church in a depressing state of disrepair. One of them climbs the bell tower, hammers at the wall and slides a brick into his bag. The brick will be used as evidence.

Woda, who works for the GSF Research Center for Health and the Environment, located in the town of Neuherberg near Munich -- Europe's largest radiation protection institute -- is currently involved in an exciting investigation. As part of the EU's "SOUL" (Southern Urals Radiation Risk Research) project, Woda and his team are exploring the region where the Soviets once manufactured the explosive material for their first atomic bomb.

The Siberian factory was called Mayak ("beacon"). Workers from the gulags laid railroad track and built a "closed city" for 17,000 people, cooling towers and a radiochemical plant. The first nuclear reactor went online in 1948 and was soon producing weapons-grade plutonium for Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The giant weapons laboratory did not appear on any map.

A consensus in the West has been reached about what happened next. Soviet nuclear scientists stand accused of having irradiated the environment and of otherwise poisoning the surrounding area. The result, it is said, has been thousands of cancer deaths and myriads of deformed children. Indeed, this autumn, Mayak (of which not a single historic photo exists to this day) celebrated a gruesome anniversary. In the fall of 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. "In the winter," says the eyewitness, "I would have terrible headaches and nosebleeds, and I almost went blind."

The consequences of the 1957 nuclear accident in Siberia were "far more serious" than Chernobyl, the German television network ARD recently reported. "Most of the pupils in my class died of cancer," says Gulchara Ismagilova, who was 11 at the time.

But what really happened? That's what the team of Bavarian physicists have traveled to Siberia to find out, and that's why they are taking soil samples and packing bricks into their bags. They are also looking at other important pieces of evidence from the secret nuclear complex. "The employees there were examined with a dosimeter, sometimes once a week, and required to provide urine samples," says GSF researcher Peter Jacob. The results of the tests were documented in more than 7,000 health records encased in gray cardboard folders. "An invaluable archive," says Jacob.

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. The samples are then sent to Germany; 200 teeth are already on file. Once analyzed by the GSF's state-of-the-art laboratories, the scientists will have radiation profiles for each person who worked at the nuclear plant. The project receives €6.8 million in grant money from the EU.

Despite this wealth of material, the task is a difficult one. Mistrust of the operators of Mayak runs deep. According to environment organization Greenpeace, 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," a Greenpeace report says.

As deeply disturbing as these claims are, the tests in no way bear them out. Indeed, a number of project groups at the GSF center near Munich are doing their best to determine just how many people fell victim to the radiation pollution at Mayak. Their conclusions? The horrors of Mayak are much less extensive than believed.

There is no doubt that the workers at this plant east of the Ural Mountains performed dangerous work. Enveloped in a permanent atmosphere of fear -- with intelligence agents in black coats constantly hurrying through the hallways -- about 150 men would lift the warm, spent fuel elements from the reactors and carry them to the radiochemical plant.

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. The subjects in this study were farmers who lived downstream from the nuclear reactors, in 41 small towns and villages along the Techa River. From 1949 to 1951, waste material from the plutonium production -- a bubbling toxic soup -- was simply poured into the river untreated. As a result, highly radioactive elements such as cesium 137 and strontium 90 were deposited in the river's sediments. The riverbanks became radioactive.

Atomic Dangers or Doomsday Folklore?

A report warning of the dangers was sent to Moscow in 1951. A series of X-ray tests was conducted, and police officers were assigned to guard the river. "We could only see the river through barbed wire or from a small wooden bridge," says a former resident. By 1960, 22 villages had been evacuated.

A Soviet technician checks a child for radiation near Kiev in Ukraine following the Chernobyl disaster.
AP

A Soviet technician checks a child for radiation near Kiev in Ukraine following the Chernobyl disaster.

From the standpoint of Russian citizens' groups, which are currently suing for compensation in the courts, these official steps were half-hearted. In their view, the plant management committed "atomic genocide" against the ethnic Tatars living in the area.

But as the analyses show, even this accusation is exaggerated. The US National Cancer Institute (NCI) studied 29,873 people who lived along the Techa between 1950 and 1960. According to the NCI scientists, only 46 deaths came about due to radiation exposure.

The German researchers now know why the death rate was relatively low. Although the Techa was abused as a nuclear waste dump, the abuse was not as severe as the rumor-mongers would have us believe. "The Techa farmer most heavily exposed to the radiation received a dose of only 0.45 Gray," explains Jacob. By comparison, a lethal dose of radiation, which causes fever, changes in the composition of the blood, irreparable damage to the body and death within two weeks, is 6 Gray.

The findings hardly jive with the popular image of the atom as evil incarnate. Nightmarish scenarios of lingering illness and birth defects on an apocalyptic scale populate nightmares. In West Germany, the moral and political self-image of an entire generation arose from its battle against radiation, from "no nukes" protest marches to facing off against police water cannons at the Brokdorf nuclear power plant to sit-ins in front of Castor rail containers of reprocessed nuclear waste.

This hard-line stance was partly rooted in history. On Aug. 6, 1945, a US bomber dropped an atomic bomb code-named Little Boy over Hiroshima. The bomb detonated at an altitude of 600 meters (about 2,000 feet), directly above the center of the city and the resulting fireball, generating temperatures in excess of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, swept away all of downtown Hiroshima, killing 140,000 people. Three days later, a second atom bomb was dropped over Nagasaki, killing 70,000.

The more recent meltdown at the reactor in Chernobyl in 1986 reminded the world of the dangers of the atom. The incident was referred to as "nuclear genocide," and the press wrote of "forests stained red" and of deformed insects. The public was bombarded with images of Soviet cleanup crews wearing protective suits, bald-headed children with cancer and the members of cement crews who lost their lives in an attempt to seal off the cracked reactor with a concrete plug. Fifteen years after the reactor accident, the German newsmagazine Focus concluded that Chernobyl was responsible for "500,000" deaths.

The Sellafield nuclear plant in England was the site of a devastating fire in 1957.
AFP

The Sellafield nuclear plant in England was the site of a devastating fire in 1957.

Was all this just doomsday folklore? There is no doubt that large sections of the countryside were contaminated by the accident in the Ukraine. In the ensuing decades, up to 4,000 cleanup workers and residents of the more highly contaminated areas died of the long-term consequences of radiation exposure. But the six-figure death counts that opponents of nuclear power once cited are simply nonsense. In most cases, they were derived from vague "extrapolations" based on the hearsay reported by Russian dissidents. But such horror stories have remained part of the nuclear narrative to this day.

In fact, contemporaries who reported on the Chernobyl incident should have known better. Even in the 1980s, radiobiologists and radiation physicists considered the media's doomsday reports to be exaggerated.

And their suspicions have become a virtual certainty today. Groups of researchers have set up shop at all of the sites of nuclear accidents or major nuclear contamination. They work at Hanford (where the United States began producing plutonium in 1944), they conduct studies in the English town of Sellafield (where a contaminated cloud escaped from the chimney in 1957), and they study the fates of former East German uranium mineworkers in the states of Saxony and Thuringia. New mortality rates have now been compiled for all of these groups of individuals at risk. Surprisingly, the highest mortality rates were found among the East German mineworkers.

In Hiroshima, on the other hand, radioactivity claimed surprisingly few human lives. Experts now know exactly what happened in the first hours, days and weeks after the devastating atomic explosion. Almost all of Hiroshima's 140,000 victims died quickly. Either they were crushed immediately by the shock wave, or they died within the next few days of acute burns.

But the notorious radiation sickness -- a gradual ailment that leads to certain death for anyone exposed to radiation levels of 6 Gray or higher -- was rare. The reason is that Little Boy simply did not produce enough radioactivity. But what about the long-term consequences? Didn't the radiation work like a time bomb in the body?

To answer these questions, the Japanese and the Americans launched a giant epidemiological study after the war. The study included all residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who had survived the atomic explosion within a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) radius. Investigators questioned the residents to obtain their precise locations when the bomb exploded, and used this information to calculate a personal radiation dose for each resident. Data was collected for 86,572 people.

Today, 60 years later, the study's results are clear. More than 700 people eventually died as a result of radiation received from the atomic attack:

  • 87 died of leukemia;

  • 440 died of tumors;

  • and 250 died of radiation-induced heart attacks.

  • In addition, 30 fetuses developed mental disabilities after they were born.

Such statistics have attracted little notice so far. The numbers cited in schoolbooks are much higher. According to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, 105,000 people died of the "long-term consequences of radiation."

Miners in an East German uranium mine were heavily exposed to radon.
DPA

Miners in an East German uranium mine were heavily exposed to radon.

"For commendable reasons, many critics have greatly exaggerated the health risks of radioactivity," says Albrecht Kellerer, a Munich radiation biologist. "But contrary to widespread opinion, the number of victims is by no means in the tens of thousands."

Especially surprising, though, is that the stories of birth defects in newborns are also pure fantasy. The press has repeatedly embellished photos of a destroyed Hiroshima with those of deformed children, children without eyes or with three arms. In reality, there hasn't been a single study that provides evidence of an elevated rate of birth defects.

A final attempt to establish a connection is currently underway in Japan. The study includes 3,600 people who were unborn fetuses in their mothers' wombs on that horrific day in August 1945. But it too has failed to furnish any evidence of elevated chromosomal abnormality.

In Germany, where nuclear fears have coalesced with the fear of dying forests and mad cow disease into a general psychosis of threat, the degree of concern over nuclear radiation remains high. To this day, some are so fearful about the long-term effects of fallout from Chernobyl that they refuse to eat mushrooms from Bavaria. Even 20 years ago such behavior would not have made sense.

Officially 47 people -- members of the emergency rescue crews -- died in Chernobyl from exposure to lethal doses of radiation. This is serious enough. "But overall the amount of radiation that escaped was simply too low to claim large numbers of victims," explains Kellerer.

The iodine 131 that escaped from the reactor did end up causing severe health problems in Ukraine. It settled on meadows in the form of a fine dust, passing through the food chain, from grass to cows to milk, and eventually accumulating in the thyroid glands of children. About 4,000 children were afflicted with cancer. Less well-known, however, is the fact that only nine of those 4,000 died -- thyroid cancers are often easy to operate on.

"Chernobyl was certainly a catastrophe," says GSF spokesman Heinz-Jörg Haury. "But it was also distorted and exaggerated."

Still, there is no doubt that radiation poisoning remains ominous and highly dangerous. It is also still something of a puzzle to researchers. Stalin's old weapons plant at Mayak is, in that sense, a goldmine for researchers. It is the equivalent of a laboratory containing thousands of well-documented cases.

"Russian doctors have accumulated a huge store of knowledge in Mayak," explains Haury, "which is why everyone wants to go to Siberia now."

Plans are already underway for the next expedition.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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