Ernest J. Sternglass, Ph.D.
Dr. Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy
Dear Dr. Chu,
I am writing to you to make you aware of a little-known tragic mistake that was made by the medical community and physicists like myself during the early years of the Cold War that has been playing a major role in the enormous rise of the incidence chronic diseases such as cancer and diabetes, and thus the cost of healthcare in our nation. The mistake was to assume that the radiation exposure to the public due to the small amount of fallout from distant nuclear weapons tests or the operation of nuclear reactors would have no significant adverse effect on human health.
This assumption was based on our experience with a half-century of studies that showed no detectable increase in cancer rates for individuals given one or two diagnostic X-rays. What was not understood at the time was that the radioactive elements created in the fission of uranium did not just produce a small increase in the external dose as received from the natural background sources. Instead, the particles and gases produced in the fission process released into the environment would lead to vastly greater radiation damage than from diagnostic X-rays or the gamma rays in background sources because the radioactive fission products and uranium oxides were inhaled and ingested with the milk, the drinking water and the rest of the diet, concentrating in critical organs of the body.
Thus, the radioactive Iodine-131 seeks out the thyroid and damages the production of key growth hormones as well as thyroid cancer, Strontium-90 concentrates in bone where it irradiates the bone-marrow, causing leukemia in newly forming red blood cells as well as damage to crucial white cells of the immune system that fight cancer cells and bacteria. Cesium-137 collects in soft tissue organs such as the breast and the reproductive organs of males and females, leading to various types of cancer in the individuals and their children as well as in later generations.
The mistake was compounded by the fact that in the early 1950’s when bomb tests began on a large scale in Nevada, it was not known that the adverse effect of radiation is tens to hundreds of times more serious for the developing infant in the mother’s womb and young children than for the adults studied following medical X-ray exposures. Nor was it discovered until the early 1970’s that protracted radiation exposures as from long-lived fission products accumulating in the body, is much greater than from the same total dose received in a short X-ray exposure.
As a result of this lack of knowledge at the time, government officials were able to reassure a concerned public that the small levels of nuclear fallout from the Nevada tests would produce no adverse effects, and point out the potential benefits of the peaceful atom. Thus, in the mid-1950’s, President Eisenhower was able to declare that dirty coal power plants could be replaced by “ clean nuclear energy too cheap to meter.”
Thus, a program of building a large number of nuclear plants was begun which were permitted to discharge small amounts of fission products comparable with the levels of fallout from atmospheric weapons testing. This was also the time the Cold War had begun and thousands of nuclear weapons were produced and tested as a necessary deterrent to keep the large armies of the Soviet Union from overrunning all of Europe. Therefore, when it was discovered in the 1960’s that small amounts of fission products produced much greater damage than had been expected, and not only leukemia and other forms of cancer but also premature births, low birth-weight and infant mortality, it was kept secret by our government for fear that it would endanger the deterrent value of the nuclear arsenal.
Moreover, when a rise in healthcare costs began with the start of large-scale atmospheric weapons testing that increased sharply with the construction of some one hundred nuclear plants beginning in the 1950’s, this was blamed on the inefficiency of the system and the greed of the drug companies, and not on the large rise of releases from the nuclear plants built near the large cities, contaminating the milk produced in the nearby dairies.
The details of this story can be found in my book “Secret Fallout” that can be downloaded free from the Radiation and Public Health web-site www.radiation. org as well as a list of some two dozen papers published in scientific journals and five books published by members of RPHP.
Fortunately, the recent rapid development of alternative energy makes it possible to see an end to this tragedy, since it is possible to convert the aging nuclear plants to operate with natural gas. This can be done at a small fraction of the cost of new power stations until the alternative solar, wind, geothermal and hydro sources can take their place, as demonstrated by the case of the Fort St. Vrain nuclear plant near Denver, Colorado, now using natural gas.
If our nation that built the first reactors and nuclear weapons were to announce the goal of phasing out nuclear fission reactors that also produce the plutonium and tritium needed for nuclear weapons while developing nuclear fusion power and other non-polluting sources of energy, it will also make it easier to achieve the stated goal of President Obama of a world free from nuclear weapons.
Thus it is possible to look forward to a world free from the danger of the annihilation of human life by nuclear weapons using enriched uranium or plutonium that is only produced in nuclear fission reactors, together with the highly toxic nuclear wastes that remain deadly for thousands of years.