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Can nuclear power ever be safe?

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Sadie Robinson takes issue with those who have recently converted to the nuclear cause
Issue 2247
Can nuclear power ever be safe?

The disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan has underlined the danger of nuclear power. Authorities in Japan have now officially ranked the crisis on the same level as the Chernobyl disaster.

Not surprisingly, the nuclear industry is on a mission to rebrand nuclear power as safe. What is surprising is that some environmentalists, such as George Monbiot, are lining up with them.

In a recent Guardian article, Monbiot claimed that anti-nuclear campaigners have made “wild” assertions about the dangers of radiation that have no scientific backing.

In fact there is an abundance of scientific research showing significant links between radiation exposure and cancers, Down’s syndrome, kidney and liver damage, and other serious diseases.

Some of the clearest evidence comes from survivors of the atomic bombs the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan at the end of the Second World War.

One 2005 report summarised research into links between radiation exposure and serious disease (1). It concluded, “The main finding from follow-up studies in Japan is that radiation increases the risk for most types of cancers, basically in proportion to radiation dose.”

A wide-ranging report, the BEIR study, published in 2006 (2) detailed the increase in cancers in survivors.


This is one of the studies that Monbiot cited as showing that there was little evidence that radiation caused birth defects. For some reason, he omitted to say what it concluded about radiation and cancer.

It found “excess cancers”—those above the level expected in the general population—among people who had been exposed even to low levels of radiation.

But for foetuses, excess cancers were found after even lower doses.

And there doesn’t have to be a nuclear bomb or a radiation leak for diseases to emerge.

Living near nuclear plants is linked to a rise in illness.

So, research in Scotland showed there was a large rise in incidences of leukaemia in children living near a nuclear reprocessing plant compared to children of the same age living in the area before the facility began operating. (3).

Similar findings have been shown in France and Germany (4).

One study published in 1995 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found evidence of a link between radiation and Down’s syndrome in children (5).

It found that women in the Fylde area of Lancashire, north west England, were more likely to give birth to children with Down’s syndrome during periods of high radioactive fallout from nuclear testing.

They also found that a surge in Down’s syndrome cases followed a fire in 1957 at the nearby Windscale nuclear plant, now renamed Sellafield.

The researchers described a “highly significant association” between radiation exposure and Down’s syndrome.

They also pointed to the impact of radiation over time, adding, “It seems that the total dose you’ve had in your life is much more important than any individual dose.”

Links between low doses of radiation received by foetuses and childhood cancer have also been found (6) and (7).

One report argued that their findings provided “direct evidence against the existence of a threshold dose below which no excess risk arises” (6).

The BEIR 2006 study agreed, saying, “A comprehensive review of the biology data led the committee to conclude that the risk would continue in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold and that the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans.” (8).

It went on to argue that man-made forms of radiation could cause cancer: “Calculations in this report suggest that approximately one cancer per 100 people could result from a single exposure to 0.1 Sv of low-LET radiation above background.”

Background radiation is constantly present in the environment and comes largely from natural sources.

There is a debate about whether a “safe” dose of radiation exists. But this study, along with many others, argues that very small doses of radiation, including background radiation, may be linked to changes in cells and illnesses.


Children of nuclear workers have are at an increased risk of developing cancers (9).

Workers mining uranium, and people living around uranium mines, have developed a range of cancers and diseases—so much so that states have accepted the need to compensate them. The workers are exposed to radon, which is produced as uranium decays.

The US conducted nearly 200 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests between 1945 and 1962. This relied upon tens of thousands of workers mining and processing uranium ore.

The US passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) in 1990 (10) to offer “an apology and monetary compensation to individuals who contracted certain cancers and other serious diseases following their exposure to radiation.”

But it was largely about money—the litigation that workers and their families would have taken otherwise would have cost far more.

A number of studies have shown uranium miners to have an increased risk of lung cancer and leukaemia (11).

Research has also found increases in kidney disease and diabetes for people living close to mines (12).

This is bad enough. But when disaster strikes, as it so often has, the horrific potential impact of radiation on health is exposed.

Much research into the impact of radiation is inconclusive, often because of the small number of people sampled. This is compounded by the fact that the nuclear industry and nuclear lobbyists fund and carry out research—with a vested interest in playing down the risk that radiation poses.


And many researchers stress that they cannot prove that radiation causes cancer, they can only show a significant link between the two.

But there is also growing consensus that low doses of radiation can’t be assumed to be harmless and that there is no “safe” dose of radiation.

George Monbiot may say there is no proof that radiation causes illness and deformity. But there is evidence that exposure is linked to those illnesses and deformities. And there is certainly no proof that low doses are safe.

The nuclear industry claims the risks are low. But why should we take any risks? A risk of developing cancer, however “low”, is not acceptable.

It can seem preposterous that environmentalists like Monbiot are vigorously campaigning for nuclear power. But there is a logic to his position.

Monbiot doesn’t think that we can meet our energy needs by a combination of green, renewable energy sources and increased energy efficiency. And he believes that any sort of radical change will be very difficult to win.

Because he accepts these limits, he has become an advocate for one of the system’s worst aspects. Socialists have a different vision. We are fighting for a world that is sustainable and run by ordinary people.

1. Assessment of the Scientific Information for the Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program, 2005. Download the report in brief and a summary here:

2. Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation, BEIR VII Phase 2, 2006. Read the whole report here:

3. Childhood Leukemia in Northern Scotland, Haesman et al, 1986, published in the Lancet v 1:266.

4. See Case-control study on childhood cancer in the vicinity of nuclear power plants in Germany 1980-2003, 2008, European Journal of Cancer v 44, issue 2. Read the report here, login required: See also The incidence of childhood leukaemia around the La Hague nuclear waste reprocessing plant (France): a survey for the years 1978-1998, 2001, Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. Read the report here, login required:

5. Down’s Syndrome: prevalence and ionising radiation in an area of north west England 1957-91, Dr John Bound et al, 1995, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. Read the report here, login required although free logins are available:

6. Cancer risks attributable to low doses of ionizing radiation: assessing what we really know, Brenner et al, 2003, National Academy of Sciences. Read the full report here:

7. Malignant disease in childhood and diagnostic irradiation in utero, Alice Stewart et al, 1956, the Lancet. Research shows that women who received x-rays during their pregnancy were 40 percent more likely to give birth to children who developed cancer.

A study published in the British Medical Journal this year, Early life exposure to diagnostic radiation and ultrasound scans and risk of childhood cancer: case-control study, found small increases in childhood cancer linked to radiation but they were not statistically significant.

However, the report concluded that “all of the findings indicate possible risks of cancer from radiation at doses lower than those associated with commonly used procedures such as computed tomography scans” and recommended “cautious use” of radiation imaging procedures for pregnant women. Read the report here:

8. Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation: BEIR VII Phase 2, 2006 (see above)

9. For example, see Childhood Cancer and Paternal Exposure to Ionizing Radiation: Preliminary Findings from the Oxford Survey of Childhood Cancers, Sorahan et al, 1993, American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Read the abstract here:

10. See RECA website for history and developments of the law:

11. A study on Czech uranium miners can be read here plus references to other studies finding similar results:

12. See here for summaries of research on uranium and health, including Dr Johnnye Lewis on increased likelihood of kidney disease and diabetes among people living close to abandoned uranium mines:

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