This article is the third of a four-part series covering the May 4 press conference held at Rissho Kosei-Kai Buddhist Center of New York. Panelists discussed radiological health concerns that prevail one year after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster that occurred on March 11, 2011.
In part one of this series, Horiaki Koide candidly criticized the way in which the Japanese government is handling the continuing nuclear crisis in Fukushima. In part two, Dr. Junro Fuse and Dr. Ken Nakayama argued that the Japanese medical community is not recognizing the seriousness of internal exposure to radiation and that the Japanese government needs more stringent regulations on food safety.
In this installment, we hear from Dr. Andy Kanter, MD, MPH, President of the Board of Directors of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the director of Health Information Systems/Medical Informatics for the Millennium Villages Project for the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and an Assistant Professor for Clinical Biomedical Informatics and Clinical Epidemiology at Columbia University.
Physicians for Social Responsibility, one of the sponsors of the press conference on May 4, was formed in 1961 and addresses the medical issues resulting from nuclear weapons, climate change, and toxic degradation. As a member of PSR, Dr. Kanter has studied radioactive plume projections from nuclear reactor accident scenarios and other public health effects of nuclear radiation. At the Fukushima press conference, he gave a detailed analysis of the dispersion of radiation in post-nuclear accident scenarios worldwide and puts the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster into local perspective.
“At the one-year anniversary of this terrible accident, Physicians for Social Responsibility released a report about the Fukushima accident – still dangerously unprepared,” says Dr. Kanter. “The amount of education that has permeated the public about these issues has not been sufficient, and we have been trying to advocate with Japanese colleagues to make this information more public.”
The first issue that Dr. Kanter addressed is that he considers the area around Fukushima that is considered the exclusion zone to be too small.
“The ten-mile exclusion zone that we are currently dictated for the evacuations around nuclear reactors in case of accidents by our regulatory commission has clearly proven to be insufficient,” says Dr. Kanter.
This exclusion zone does not indicate the range of radioactive contamination, Dr. Kanter argues. Referring to the hot spots that Dr. Junro Fuse discussed during his presentation, Dr. Kanter says, “that radiation has traveled far beyond just the areas of what we are seeing.”
To drive home this point, Dr. Kanter compared the amount of radiation released as a result of the Fukushima accident to that of the Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine in 1986.
“Around 6,000 square miles around the Chernobyl plant is a permanent exclusion zone for the general population,” says Dr. Kanter. “There are many areas outside the evacuation zone within Fukushima that have the same levels of contamination . . . There’s another area up to 600 kilometers away from the Chernobyl accident where the land also has to be permanently excluded because of the contamination. So these types of hot spots that you are seeing in Tokyo and around outside Fukushima are not unusual. So again, the notion that there can be a small exclusion zone around a nuclear power plant is clearly insufficient to protect the public health.”
In a US study based on a nuclear reactor outside of Chicago, Dr. Kanter says the amount of radiation released as a result of an accident would reach beyond a 50-mile radius and could expose 200 thousand people to enough radiation to make them sick. It’s possible that thousands would die.
The same scenario “would’ve happened in Japan if, by chance, the wind had been blowing the other way,” says Dr. Kanter. “This was an extremely fortunate situation where the vast majority of the radiation was released over the ocean.”
The direction of the wind may have kept radiation levels over land somewhat lower, the situation as a whole, of course, is not fortunate. The radiation released over the Pacific still poses a threat to the environment.
“There continues to be the release of radioactive material into the ocean, not only from the steam and continued exposure from the reactor cores and fuel pools, but the millions of gallons of water that are continuously being thrown on top of those reactors that are now outside of their containment needs to go somewhere,” explains Dr. Kanter. “And we’re constantly hearing reports about that leaking back into the ocean in groundwater. They are unable to keep up with this storage of water, and we can anticipate that for many, many years, we are going to be generating huge numbers of gallons of water. And this has to be kept out of the environment.”
When this type of accident happens in someone else’s backyard, it’s easy for us to ask, “Why doesn’t everyone just leave?” Even for able-bodied people, relocating is not an easy proposition, but consider the thousands of people in hospitals, some in serious condition. Dr. Kanter mentioned that primary responders and doctors might not be able to into an evacuation zone due to infrastructure problems or for fear of radiation exposure.
“We’re not going to get in this country the American physicians to suddenly go back and risk their lives to go back into these environments to treat these patients in most cases,” says Dr. Kanter. “So many of the primary responders would not be available.” And by “many,” he means 20 thousand physicians.
So how does this affect us in the US and, specifically, in New York? How can we apply what happened on March 11, 2011, in relative terms? Consider what would happen in the event of a nuclear disaster scenario much closer to home: The Indian Point nuclear plant in Buchanan, New York.
“We are within 50 miles of the Indian Point reactor,” says Dr. Kanter. “Approximately one-third of the population of the United States actually lives within 50 miles of the reactor. The director of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended during the Fukushima accident that any Americans who live within 50 miles should leave. That same recommendation has not yet been made here in the United States by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But if we did that, . . . it’s really hard to imagine that this area of 17 million people falls within that circle around the Indian Point reactor. Now we know that should the Indian Point reactor suffer a Fukushima-like scenario that there would be tens of thousands of people killed, probably be somewhere between 100 thousand to half a million people dying of cancer, and the economic cost – as you can imagine if that happens in New York City – would be in the trillions of dollars. The planning around and preparation for evacuations around the nuclear power plant are insufficient. Clearly in this situation – and the Indian Point power plant is up for relicensing at this point – poses a grave risk to 17 million people.”
Citing the latest issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Dr. Kanter speaks about the conflict surrounding low-dose radiation, which Drs. Fuse and Nakayama addressed earlier in the press conference. “It was clear that the most accepted policy about radiation is that there is no safe dose,” says Dr. Kanter. “ . . . The radiation that occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was short bursts, primarily gamma radiation, that was done to the outside of the body . . . Most of the exposure caused by low-dose radiation from reactor accidents are internal, where they continue to irradiate the surrounding tissue until it is excreted by the body or until that radioactive material ends its life.”
In another example of internal exposure, Dr. Kanter referred to the Techa River in the former Soviet Union, which was contaminated by radioactive waste from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, exposing approximately 30 thousand people through the water supply.
“I think that what we have to recognize here is that radiation – no matter where you get it – is harmful,” says Dr. Kanter. “We take risks all the time for medical reasons to which we expose ourselves to radiation. We do that because we think that the benefit of that radiation outweighs whatever risk it might pose. Yet we do not x-ray children or pregnant women because they are the most susceptible. So even in that situation x-rays are not outweighed. Yet we’re willing to allow women and children to remain in these areas where they’re being exposed to the equivalent of continual x-rays.”
But it’s not simply x-rays for medical testing or scanners in airports that have exposed all of us small doses of radiation. “Because of nuclear testing, because of nuclear reactor accidents, we have put enough background radiation into the environment – this also includes the naturally occurring ones that come from the planet itself – but in 40 years most people are exposed to this .1 sieverts (the maximum acceptable yearly dose) already. So every little bit above that means increased risk,” says Dr. Kanter.
Supporting his fellow doctors on the panel, Dr. Kanter agrees that Japan needs to have a better monitoring system for the food and water supply. He also feels that the limit of 20 millisieverts of exposure to radiation imposed for children is much too low.
“If we take the numbers . . . that children are two to three times more at risk to exposure to radiation,” says Kanter, “and if they’re out there being exposed to 20 millisieverts on a continual basis for, say, a period of two years, that we’re talking about a large number of excess cancers in children, which is clearly not acceptable.”
Part 4 of the series will introduce you to representatives of two of the sponsors of the press conference: Kazko Kawai of Voices of Lively Spring and Mari Inoue of Human Rights Now.