Lucky you! Especially if you’re old, you’re going to be exempt for the next few months from others’ claims on your time. You’re expected to stay at home alone now to avoid Covid-19, and that’s an excellent opportunity to improve your game as an activist. You won’t be out there in your car, spewing greenhouse gas around as you waste your time shopping.
Old people are the best activists in the world if they don’t get distracted. Now you’ll have only the TV to distract you, so to take advantage of these months, you should limit yourself to watching two hours per day. You’re going to spend most of your time on the phone and computer, saving the world from something awful.
But first you must pick your issue. Pandemic prevention is normally an excellent project, but at present it is over-subscribed. Everybody is focused on it, so you need something different but just as important. I suggest that you work on preventing radioactive contamination. That’s what I’m doing, and I’d love to include you in the campaign.
The best activism consists of one-on-one conversations. First you learn some facts about a particular global threat (I’ll share the key facts below) and then you call others and get them to worry about it too. It helps if you have a big social network. Fortunately, many of your friends will also be staying at home now and maybe you can recruit them to our cause.
Here’s all you need to know to get started. You have probably never heard about most of the radioactive accidents that have harmed people, so let’s note first the health effects of uranium mining — including on the indigenous people whose land has been mined for that ore. Three generations of Dene people in Northern Saskatchewan have lived with the effects of uranium mining. And about 26 percent of Navajo women and children now carry elevated levels of uranium in their bodies.
And the trouble continues beyond the mining phase. The authorities usually try to keep disasters secret, but I printed out Wikipedia’s list of nuclear power accidents, categorized by country. It required 19 pages, single-spaced.
Many other disasters still have not been acknowledged, but you probably did hear about some of the big ones, especially the atmospheric atomic tests and the bombings in Japan. The blasts produced fallout, both local and worldwide, that continued for decades.
You may also have heard about the Marshallese, and the people of Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan — a region the size of Wales where most Soviet nuclear tests were conducted. And the inhabitants of Mayak, near Chelyabinsk, Russia, where the Soviet fissile material was processed. In 1957, well before the explosions at Chernobyl and Fukushima, Mayak was the site of the Kyshtym explosion, which exposed 470,000 people to radiation.1 Recently Trisha Pritikin has revealed the lingering health effects on the workers at Mayak’s American counterpart, the plutonium plant at Hanford, Washington, and the Nevada test site.2
You may have wondered: How many people were killed by the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters? Those questions will probably never be answered in ways that everyone will accept. The United Nations estimated that only 50 deaths can be directly attributed to the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl, Ukraine, and the IAEA predicted that about 4,000 deaths overall.
But those figures are shocking under-estimates. Approximately 600,000 “liquidators” (firefighters, engineers, military troops, police, miners, cleaners and medical personnel) were sent into the Chernobyl area immediately and were officially granted special entitlements to health care and other benefits. Researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences claimed that actually 830,000 persons had participated in the clean-up, of whom about 15% had died by 2005. That could add between 112,000 and 125,000 to the list of deaths.3 By 2012, only 5.5 percent of the liquidators were still healthy. The region’s death rate reached 17.5 deaths per 1,000 people — primarily from cancer and cardiovascular diseases. (Compare that to the European Union’s current death rate — 10.2 per thousand.) By 2008, of the liquidators in Belarus, 40,049 were registered as having cancer.
But most of the victims of Chernobyl were not liquidators but the population of people, plants, and animals living under the plume of radiation fallout. Kate Brown wrote that in Moscow “at least 40,000 people were hospitalised in the summer after the accident, many of them women and children.” Viktor Sushko, deputy director general of the National Research Centre for Radiation Medicine in Kiev, Ukraine, estimates that five million citizens of the former USSR, including three million in Ukraine, have suffered as a result of Chernobyl.4
Western Europe has not escaped entirely. Kate Brown adds that, recently, people in the European Union have been eating radioactive blueberries from Belarus. She herself went berry-picking in the woods with the local people and watched radioactive batches that failed inspection being mixed in with less contaminated berries, for export to Western Europe.5
I cannot review the whole array of ongoing risks from Chernobyl, but one strange danger involves radioactive forest fires. Because of radiation, the vegetation around Chernobyl is not decaying in the normal way but is piling up in widening forests. Wildfires occur more often now, with the increase of global warming; over 600 wildfires occurred in the Mayak region in just one season. When that happens, the radioactive smoke is blown away and falls again in distant places, contaminating additional areas.6
Alison Katz, who was employed at the World Health Organization for 18 years, led a campaign for a decade afterward, accusing the WHO of complicity with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is obligated to promote “peaceful” nuclear technology, and which therefore is motivated to hide its harmful aspects. Katz claimed that nine million Chernobyl survivors live in a contaminated area, eating the local radioactive food.
She cited research showing that “there has been a significant rise in all types of cancer causing thousands of deaths, an increase in infant and perinatal mortality, a large number of spontaneous abortions, a growing number of deformities and genetic anomalies, disturbance and retardation of mental development, neuropsychological illness, blindness, and diseases of the respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, urogenital and endocrine systems.”7
Over 450,000 children in Ukraine have been receiving health care for the genetic effects of Chernobyl, incurred by their parents when they were children. Such effects can be passed on from generation to generation.
Yet the WHO blames most of the illnesses that the sick people attribute to radioactivity as stress. Its final report in 2004 stated that situational stress had created strong negative attitudes and exaggerated fears about exposure to radiation. Officially, the organization still attributes only 50 deaths to Chernobyl.
As in other disasters, the official reports about the Fukushima disaster (especially by the Japanese government) have under-estimated the harm.
Indeed, no one was killed outright by the reactor explosions, unlike the immediate outcome of most other radioactive accidents and, indeed, more people were promptly evacuated than was the case in Chernobyl.
However, Fukushima-Daiichi’s three reactor meltdowns emitted huge amounts of radioactivity — possibly two to four times as much cesium-137 as the reactor catastrophe at Chernobyl8 — and by 2018, the cases of thyroid cancer diagnosed in Fukushima children had risen to 152 in 590,000. (The previous rate had been no higher than three cases per million.)
The exclusion zone around the Fukushima-Daiichi plants is still contaminated, with radiation levels there as much as 100 times higher than the international limit for public exposure.9
Nevertheless, the Japanese government has been virtually forcing evacuees to return to the homes they had fled. Officially, the increase of cancers is not being attributed to the disaster. But is the official story just a transparent cover-up?
Not many politicians are as brazen as Donald Trump, who doesn’t even try to make his lies seem plausible. Most dishonest people in power prefer to keep us from complaining by devising elaborate rationales for their deceptions. In fact, their stories can sound so convincing that it’s hard to decide which ones are true — but that’s our job as activists: Find the facts and tell them to others. In this respect, scientists are our allies. They hardly ever cheat or lie; it would defeat the purpose of their work.
But scientists do make mistakes sometimes, and the public can’t always decide when to believe them. Lately there’s a populist backlash against science, as when ignorant people deny climate science altogether. On the other hand, it is equally foolish to regard scientists as infallible — though, as John Downer and M.V. Ramana have pointed out,10 engineering does seem almost infallible. Bridges and skyscrapers hardly ever fall. Engineers design things that reliably work. And because we have so much confidence in bridge and airplane engineers, we may readily assume that a proposed nuclear reactor will also perform perfectly, even though 75 years of experience (and my 19-page list of tragic failures) suggest otherwise. Downer and Ramana caution us, “Reactor safety is an unusual class of engineering problem, and experts cannot speak to it with the same authority that they speak to most other engineering variables. It is important that publics, policymakers and bureaucracies recognize this difference in the way they engage with bodies like the NRC and the claims they wield.”
The “NRC” mentioned here refers to the United States’ own agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is supposed to approve all proposals for new reactors as well as monitor their safety permanently. As in other countries, the members of this commission are appointed by politicians and are supposed to protect the safety and wellbeing of the public but also the prosperity of the nuclear industry itself, which exerts enormous political and economic pressures. Even if the commissioners try to be guided strictly by objective, scientific facts, they are lobbied constantly by that industry. Because safety measures cost money, the nuclear power companies pressure the commissioners to relax their vigilance and overlook real risks.
Gregory Jaczko was the chairman of the NRC during Obama’s first term. In his book, Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator,11 he recounts the numerous intimidations that he experienced and the difficulty he faced in objectively assessing nuclear dangers. In fact, eventually he concluded that it is impossible to maintain safety, if only because no regulatory agent can withstand those political pressures. By the time he was eased out of his job, he had become a frank opponent of using nuclear power itself. In a video of his book launch, he said,
“Every day almost you see a new story, a new op ed, a new something talking about how we’re not going to solve the problem of climate change without nuclear reactors. When I see those things, I scratch my head and say: Are they talking about the same industry that I’m familiar with? Because I don’t see how nuclear power plants are going to solve that problem. They’re not cheap enough. They have problems of accidents. They’re not reliable enough—and it’s an industry that’s been around a long time.”
Here Jaczko is referring to the first objection that every anti-nuclear contamination activist encounters in a conversation. Probably every sensible person in the world would eagerly replace all nuclear reactors with renewable energy if we did not have the climate to worry about. So, if you’re going to spend your self-isolation period persuading your friends to fight nuclear contamination, you need to prepare for this part of the conversation, which is really tricky.
Do we really need nuclear power in order to reduce global warming? Well, mostly no, but it depends. Renewables such as solar and wind are increasing fast and are cheaper than either nuclear or fossil fuel energy, but at night or when there’s no wind, both of these sources stop producing. We must produce extra power with them and store it for the periods when they are not generating electricity. There are many different types of energy storage, but all of them cost and not all are equally available everywhere. I live in Ontario, which could easily buy hydro-electric power from Quebec and shut down our ageing nuclear reactors, but not every region has such options. In fact, the answer to the question will vary from one place to another. Clearly, we cannot shut down all the reactors in the world within the next five or ten years, but new solutions are emerging all the time, and each region has its own possibilities, and they are increasing. Those areas that cannot now do without their existing reactors will soon be able to do so. No new reactors are being built in North America or Europe and many are being shut down, but some new ones are going up in Asia. Each area requires a different analysis.
However, there are policies about which all parts of the world can agree now—ways in which the existing nuclear industry can be made safer. Not safe – only somewhat safer! For example, Frank von Hippel is campaigning to outlaw the re-processing of nuclear waste material.12 That is a chemical procedure for separating plutonium out from other fissile material after it has been removed from a nuclear power plant. It is dangerous because there are plenty of people around the world who want to build nuclear bombs but who cannot do so because they cannot obtain the necessary fissile material.
By creating additional stockpiles of plutonium, we give them the opportunities they are seeking. So a world-wide campaign to stop nuclear contamination might properly include a demand for the outlawing of reprocessing. There are other safety measure too that regulators such as Gregory Jaczko can describe that should be adopted worldwide.
Although there are researchers and civil society organizations in many countries that address their local concerns about nuclear contamination, there is no world-wide network of activists. We need such a network, and it should be easy to create one. All we need is to invite individuals and NGOs to join, and provide a space where they can easily share their concerns and proposed solutions.
Peace Magazine is the sponsor of Project Save the World, which covers several other global threats besides war. We have a website, tosavetheworld.ca, where we have set up a page for the use of a new global network. Every individual or organization in the world who wishes to discuss radioactive contamination is invited to participate—starting now. It’s free—our contribution toward the preservation of humankind. We invite you to go there and post your thoughts or articles that you have read elsewhere.
As soon as this current coronavirus crisis subsides, we will organize a world-wide videoconference for all the groups that have joined this new network. Dr. Richard Denton, the North American co-chair of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, will be the moderator of this online network. So please, immediately visit tosavetheworld.ca/stop-nuclear-contamination and begin your new career as an activist in the new network, “Stop Nuclear Contamination.” Good wishes!
Metta Spencer is editor of Peace and founder of Project Save the World.
1 Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters. (New York: Oxford U. Press, 2012) pp 231-38.
2 Trisha T. Pritikin, The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices from the Fight for Atomic Justice (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2020)
3 Alexey B. Nesterenko, Vassily B. Nesterenko, Alexey V. Yablokov, Annals of the New York Academy of Science, Chapter 2, Consequences of the Chernobyl Catastrophe for Public Health. Nov. 2009. Correspondence address: Yablokov@ecopolicy.ru .
4 Richard Gray, “The True Toll of the Chernobyl Disaster,” www.bbc.com/future/article/20190725-will-we-ever-know-chernobyls-true-death-toll 25 July, 2019.
5 Kate Brown, Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. Kindle Edition, 2019.
6 Rachel Nuwer, “Forests Around Chernobyl Aren’t Decaying Properly” Smithsonian Magazine, 14 March 2014. www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/forests-around-chernobyl-arent-decaying-properly-180950075 . See also Judy Pasternak, “Thinking the Unthinkable: Fires in Russia Fan Nuclear Fears,” American Security Project, 11 August 2010. www.americansecurityproject.org/thinking-the-unthinkable-fires-in-russia-fan-nuclear-fears
7 Robert Hunziker, “Hidden Radiation Secrets of the World Health Organization,” Counterpunch, May 2, 2017. www.counterpunch.org/2017/05/02/hidden-radiation-secrets-of-the-world-health-organization . Hunziker cites Alison Katz, who refers to Alex Rosen’s article, “Effects of the Chernobyl catastrophe: literature review”, January 2006.
8 John Laforge, “Move Over Chernobyl, Fukushima is Now Officially the Worst Nuclear Power Disaster in History” Counterpunch, April 27, 2018. www.counterpunch.org/2018/04/27/move-over-chernobyl-fukushima-is-now-officially-the-worst-nuclear-power-disaster-in-history
9 Greenpeace International, “Fukushima radiation risks to last into next century,” 1 Mar. 2018. www.greenpeace.org/international/press-release/15062/greenpeace-investigation-shows-fukushima-radiation-risks-to-last-into-next-century
10 John Downer and M.V. Ramana, “Empires Built on Sand: On the Fundamental Implausibility of Reactor Safety Assessments and the Implications for Nuclear Regulation.” The University of British Columbia School of Public Policy, Feb. 2020. sppga.ubc.ca/news/empires-built-on-sand-on-the-fundamental-implausibility-of-reactor-safety-assessments-and-the-implications-for-nuclear-regulation
11 Gregory B. Jaczko, Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2019).
12 Frank von Hippel, Masafumi Takubo, and Jungmin Kang, Plutonium: How Nuclear Power’s Dream Fuel Became a Nightmare. (Singapore: Springer Nature, 2020).