The Case Against Nuclear Power: Health Effects of Low-Level Radiation
by Hattie Nestel - 07/19/2007
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  There are many generally accepted reasons why nuclear power is not the answer to our global warming problems. Serious impediments to nuclear power include: costs/lengths of constructing nuclear reactors, no solution to safeguarding/securing the waste, environmental justice issues around uranium mining and storage, rapidly dwindling supply of uranium (accompanied by exorbitant price increases) necessary to fuel reactors, fossil fuels used during entire nuclear fuel cycle, risks of catastrophic accidents and terrorist attacks. The issue that gets less publicity is the dangerous and direct link of nuclear power to nuclear weapons proliferation, but even so, it occasionally does get mentioned. (see Insurmountable Risks: The Danger of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Climate Change –by Brice Smith, IEER press, 2006).

  However, the issue of the health effects from low-level radiation produced at every stage of the nuclear cycle is the issue I believe least recognized and most dangerous for the long-term. Mining, milling, enriching and transporting uranium to create nuclear fuel along with the routine and accidental radioactive releases at nuclear power plants create unacceptable risks to all life, now and for thousands of generations yet unborn. The health consequences of these emissions have been studied for decades.

  Hermann Muller’s work in 1927 with the Drosophila fruit fly demonstrated that ionizing radiation affects not only the biological organism which is exposed but also the seed within the body from which the future generations are formed. In 1943 Muller received a Nobel prize for his work on the genetic effects of radiation. Muller’s 1964 study, “Radiation and Heredity” clearly spelled out the genetic effects of ionizing radiation on the human species. He predicted the gradual reduction of the survival ability of the human species as the exposure to ionizing radiation increased.

  Dr. Rosalie Bertell, a cancer research scientist, goes into great detail about the dangers of low-level radiation. Emphasizing the dangers of genetic defects from low-level radiation exposure she states, “ These defects in genetic make-up …leads to termination of the family line through eventual infertility and/or death prior to reproductive age. On a large scale, such a process leads to selective genocide of families or species suicide.” She further warns, “Our present path is headed toward species death.” Of radiation she writes, “The bullets are invisible, the dying long and painful, and the wounds are carried by the children and grandchildren. ” Dr. Rosalie Bertell, along with Dr. Alice Stewart who also did groundbreaking work on health consequences of exposures to low-level radiation, won the right Livelihood Award in 1986, called the Alternative Nobel.

  Linus Pauling, winner of the 1954 Nobel Prize in chemistry also warned of the effects of radioactive elements to the health of humans. He stated, “Each added amount of radiation causes damage to the health of human beings all over the world and causes damage to the pool of human germ plasm such as to lead to an increase in the number of seriously defective children that will be born in future generations. “ His work led eleven thousand scientists from forty-eight countries to call for an end to nuclear testing. Pauling’s work was influential in establishing the 1963 moratorium on testing.

  When then President John F. Kennedy signed the 1963 test ban treaty he stated, “…the number of children and grandchildren with cancer in their bones, with leukemia in their blood, or with poison in their lungs (due to radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing) might seem statistically small to some, in comparison with natural healthy hazards. But this is not a natural health hazard…and it is not a statistical issue. The loss of even one human life, or the malformation of even one baby…who may be born long after we are gone…should be of concern to us all. Our children and grandchildren are not merely statistics toward which we can be indifferent.”

  Dr. Alice Stewart is another important scientist whose works are little known both here and in her native country of Great Britain. Born in 1906, Dr. Stewart became a medical doctor and epidemiologist long before epidemiology was recognized as an important part of medicine. Dr. Alice Stewart who was head of the Department of Preventative Medicine at Oxford University became aware of a sharp rise in leukemia among young children in England in 1955. She discovered that the number of children dying of leukemia had risen 50% in only a few years. Her extensive study involved individual interviews with mothers of all 1694 children throughout England and Wales that had died of cancer between 1953 and 1955. She determined that babies born to mothers who had a series of maternal X-rays of the pelvic region during pregnancy were twice as likely to develop leukemia or cancer as babies of mothers who had not been X-rayed. These diagnostic X-rays exposed the patient to extremely low doses of radiation. Her work was called the Oxford Study and was published in the British Medical Journal. As a result of her studies, she warned, “And cancer is not the worst of it. Even more dangerous than cancer is the threat to future generations. That’s what you really need to be afraid of. It’s the genetic damage, the possibility of sowing bad seeds into the gene pool from which future generations are drawn. There will be a buildup of defective genes into the population. It won’t be noticed until it is too late. Then we’ll never root it out. It will be totally irrevocable.”

  Dr. Brian MacMahon of the School of Public Health at Harvard University undertook his own study of relationship between X-rays and childhood cancer. His published study in 1962 fully confirmed the findings of Dr. Stewart. He also concluded that the risk of cancer from X-rays increased with the number of X-rays taken. This important finding implied that there was not significant healing of damage caused by X-rays and that the cancer-causing effects of radiation were cumulative.

  Other researchers have since verified these findings and have shown the number of mutations to be in direct ratio to the amount of radiation received by the reproductive organs.

  Dr. Thomas Mancuso, a professor of occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh, a physician who holds a graduate degree in public health was commissioned by the Atomic Energy Commission to study the “biological effects, if any, of low-level ionizing radiation among workers employed in atomic energy facilities”. Dr. Mancuso, a foremost occupational epidemiogist was put in charge of the study at the Hanford nuclear weapons project in the state of Washington. Working on the Manhattan Project, Hanford produced the plutonium for the bombs dropped in the Trinity test and Nagasaki. Noone thought the study of the health of Hanford workers would turn up anything because the official story at that time was that radiation at low doses was negligible. It was expected that Mancuso’s study would find that nuclear work was safe.

  Hearing of Dr. Stewarts work in the Oxford Study, Dr. Mancuso brought her to Hanford, Washington to look at the data of workers health records that had been involved in plutonium production for the Manhattan project. Dr. Stewart and her statistician George Kneale determined that people were twenty times more sensitive to radiation induced cancer than anyone had previously thought. They found a definite relationship between low levels of radiation and the development of certain types of cancer in spite of the fact that all workers employed at Hanford were specifically selected for their excellent health. They discovered three kinds of cancers among the workers: lung cancer, pancreatic cancer and cancers of blood-forming tissues, particularly Myeloma. The shock of the research was that cancers were occurring at well below the radiation exposure levels of the official limit of five rads per year. This meant that the current standards for nuclear safety might be twenty times too high.

  Dr. Karl Morgan, a physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, near Knoxville, Tennessee,saw that Dr. Stewart’s work challenged the universally accepted “threshold hypothesis” that claimed there was a threshold below which radiation was safe. He stated, “Her data was so far ahead of their time that few scientists accepted them at first. However, as she collected more and more data it has become evident that there is no safe level of radiation.“

  “Were we to reduce the maximum permissible exposure by a factor of ten, I seriously doubt that many of our present nuclear power plants would find it feasible to continue in operation.” stated Dr. Morgan. Furthermore, to admit that standards had been too lax would open a floodgate to compensation claims being made not only by radiation workers but by hundreds of thousands of veterans and downwinders. There were powerful incentives to keep the researchers away from the data.

  Finding a cancer effect from workers with radiation doses only a fraction above background level were alarming for the atomic energy industry as well as to the general public. Stewart, Kneale and Mancuso were now demonstrating on a control population of nuclear workers that dose fractionation produces more effects over longer periods of time that makes it more dangerous. Each effect increases the chance of a mutation. Low dose exposure may injure the cells, rather than kill them. The surviving mutated cell can cause cancer or birth defects. Now both the Oxford Study and the Hanford Study challenged the linear extrapolation from high to low dose saying that there’s NO threshold beneath which radiation is safe.

  Karl Morgan, as chairman of the International Commission on Radiation Protection, wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1987 that he thought the current radiation risk had been underestimated by a factor of ten. Morgan had previously supported rapid expansion of the nuclear industry and his assertion caused a great alarm throughout the industry. Alice herself was shaken by her findings. “It came to me all of a sudden that what we were going to say would shock the world.”

  However, there were powerful incentives to keep the researchers away from the data. Mancuso’s funding was cut off and he was ordered not to publish his findings. He was denied further access to the workers’ data. After twelve years and $5.2 million, the Energy Research and Development Administration (formerly the Atomic Energy Commission) removed Mancuso from the study. In 1977 he was ordered to give up his files or have them seized. When he refused to yield the data, ERDA asked the University of Pittsburgh vice chancellor to intervene. Fortunately the university refused. Practically everyone who sided with Mancuso and Stewart were subjected to character assassination or lost their funding.

  After the Mancuso, Stewart, Kneale reports the Department of Energy would only allow studies of workers health records to be performed by labs under direct contract with the DOE. The data of workers health became the virtual monopoly of a small group of government sponsored scientists and were unavailable to the larger scientific community.

  Dr. John Gofman, director of radiobiological studies at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories was a brilliant nuclear chemist who had discovered a way of separating plutonium from uranium that had provided the Manhattan Project with plutonium for its bombs. In 1969 his findings corroborated with Stewarts’. He concluded that there was no basis for the AEC’s claim that there was a so-called safe threshold of radiation and that the cancer risk from radiation was roughly twenty times worse than previously thought. This meant that the hazard to future generations in the form of genetic damage had been underestimated even more seriously. His staff and budget were slashed, his work censored and he became known as the enemy within. Gofman resigned from Livermore in 1972, calling Livermore a “scientific whorehouse”.

  He later founded the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility. “…we now know that nuclear plants release radioactivity and kill a certain number of people. Nuclear power, which begins its random murder of citizens of the United States, even before the nuclear plant goes into operation, is obviously an infringement of our Constitutional rights. Even if there were no Constitutional violation, nuclear power is a violation of natural rights and justice…. Scientists who support these nuclear plants-knowing the effects of radiation-don’t deserve trials for experimentation; they deserve trials for murder”.


No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth by Rosalie Bertell 1985, The Women’s Press

Nuclear Power is Not the Answer by Helen Caldicott 2006, The New Press

Irreverent, Illustrated View of Nuclear Power by John W. Gofman, 1979, Committee for Nuclear Responsibility

The Woman Who Knew Too Much: Alice Stewart and the Secrets of Radiation by Gayle Green –forward by Helen Caldicott, 1999 The University of Michigan Press

Insurmountable Risks: The Dangers of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Warming 2006 by Brice Smith, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research

Secret Fallout :Low-Level Radiation from Hiroshima to Three Mile Island by Ernest Sternglass, forward by Dr. George Wald, 1981, McGraw Hill Books

Nuclear Power: Myth and Reality, The Risks and Prospects of Nuclear Power by Heinrich Boll Foundation 2006


Citizens Awareness


The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research –


Nuclear Information Resource

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