Radiation Risks — how low can one get? Peter Bunyard
Serious evidence has come to light that 'safe' doses of radiation can cause high rates of cancer. Thousands of people have been exposed yet the Nuclear Industry seems intent on suppressing the information .. .
Since the days when Madame Curie walked around with samples of radium i n her pockets and radiographers used their x-ray machines without the protection of a lead screen, physicists, physicians, biologists and engineers have learned increasingly to respect the power of radiation to induce cancers and bring about genetic mutation. By the late 1920s the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), together with various government agencies, had come into existence to review what was then known about radiation and to draw up guidelines by which both workers and the public would be protected. The Commission's task was complicated by the long interval — the latency period — between the radiation dose and the manifestation of cancer; genetic effects could only be guessed at from the few animal experiments that had been done. Nevertheless the Commission boldly suggested permissible radiation doses of up to seventy-three rems a year for those such as radiographers whose occupations involved working with radiation. By 1936, the IRCP had reduced its recommended permissable doses for occupational persons to fifty rems, then to twenty-five i n 1948, fifteen i n 1954 and to five rems i n 1958. There the level has stuck, and the inference is that enough is now known about radiation effects to warrant no further drop. Indeed the various New Ecologist No.5 Sept/October 1978
atomic energy bodies, including the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) — now incorporated into the Department of Energy — and the UK Atomic Energy Authority, have persisted i n their claim that there have been no fatalities caused by radiation i n the civilian use of atomic energy for electricity generation .
What i f these claims are wrong? What i f there have i n fact been fatalities actually brought about by radiation in the civil atomic energy programme? What i f the levels deemed safe by august authorities like the ICRP are out by a factor of ten or even twenty? Evidence is now emerging that radiation is far more effective i n bringing about biological harm than could ever be inferred from such traumatic events as Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and i t raises considerable doubts about the longterm future of nuclear power.
Dr. Alice Stewart and her colleague, statistician George Kneale, have been working on American data with Thomas Mancuso from the Department of Industrial Environmental Health Sciences i n the University of Pittsburgh. According to them, the cancer risk from the currently permissable dose of 5 rads per annum may not be 1 i n 2000, but 1 i n 250 — the equivalent of smoking forty cigarettes a day. Their discoveries have embarrassed both the US Department of Energy and in the UK the National Radiol-
ogical Protection Board (NRPB) which takes its cue from the ICRP. I n the US Mancuso has had his grant prematurely brought to an end; i n the UK Stewart and Kneale have landed themselves i n a bitter controversy about their results. They were both at the Windscale Inquiry, yet i n his report Justice Parker dismissed their evidence simply because the NRPB experts disagreed with it . Luckily these reverses have not prevented Mancuso and his British colleagues from continuing their work. The new evidence they have collected has served both to tighten the argument and to confirm the validity of their original findings. They have no doubts left that low dose radiation is an effective agent for inducing cancer and for bringing about genetic change i n the human population.
The Windscale Inquiry concerned British Nuclear Fuel's (BNFL) proposed thermal oxide reprocessing plant — THORP — which has now been given the go-ahead by parliament. I n his Windscale Report, Mr . Justice Parker acknowledged that a ten-fold increase i n the known effectiveness of radiation to induce cancer, let alone to bring about genetic mutation, would 'seriously affect the whole picture'. Not that Parker was seriously contending that nuclear power would have to go by the board; i n the best of legal traditions, he set out to discredit Stewart so that all her arguments would tumble with