Like asbestos and tobacco, we know nuclear radiation is a long-term silent killer.
For many years, the asbestos and tobacco industries spent huge amounts of money denying the truth about the health effects of their products. In the end, their lies were exposed. Now the nuclear industry is trying to do the same.
Yesterday marked two years since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
As in the early days of the asbestos and tobacco industries, since the disaster there have been numerous studies of dubious credibility which suggested the health effects in Japan were negligible and there was therefore little cause for concern – despite the fact that the area struck by the earthquake and tsunami had pretty much become a ghost town.
For those who chose to stay in the exclusion zone, it is now evident the medical and environmental consequences of doing so have been profound.
There is a growing body of scientific evidence pointing to disturbing medium and long-term effects on humans, animals and plants in Japan, caused by the reactor meltdowns, and the release of large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere and the sea.
These include mutations and abnormalities observed in birds, insects and plants in the exclusion zones of Fukushima similar to those found after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986.
Scientists have documented an unprecedented increase in thyroid abnormalities, including cancer, in children living in the Fukushima prefecture.
There has been huge, continuing radioactive contamination of the Pacific Ocean (sea floor and fish), and of dangerously large areas, including Tokyo; and contamination of food harvested in Fukushima and beyond.
The truth is that the Fukushima accident is a global public health issue whose implications must be considered by all nations, including Australia. After all, it was our uranium that fuelled at least five of the six reactors.
The truth is the Fukushima accident is not over and will never end. The radioactive fallout, which remains toxic for hundreds to thousands of years and covers large swathes of Japan, will never be “cleaned up”.
It will contaminate food, humans and animals forever.
Despite Tokyo Electric Power Company’s assertions, the three reactors which experienced total meltdowns will almost certainly never be disassembled or decommissioned, not least because of the enormous amount of radiation they will continue to emit.
Furthermore, if building four, which was severely damaged in the original earthquake, should collapse, the massive cooling pool on its roof containing 100 tonnes of extremely radioactive waste could fall to the ground and lose its cooling water.
The radioactive rods would spontaneously ignite, releasing further massive amounts of radiation. This building, it is estimated, will take up to two years to repair.
It is crucial to understand that our senses – taste, smell, hearing and sight – cannot detect the biomedical effects of radiation. But we know that radioactive waste from the accident is being released into the biosphere, and is then absorbed by humans, animals and plants.
It then becomes what is known as internal emitters, which make their way into specific organs: radioactive iodine to the thyroid; caesium to muscle, heart and endocrine organs; strontium 90 to bones and teeth; and plutonium, the most toxic, to bones, liver, lung, testicles and the foetus.
There they silently irradiate surrounding cells over many years, causing mutations of the regulatory genes that control cell division. Years later one of these cells can begin dividing uncontrollably, producing a cancer that can spread throughout the body.
That is why the long-term incidence of cancer, since Fukushima, will almost certainly be considerable, although at present the number of cases is small.
In other words, these cancers – like mesothelioma after exposure to asbestos – will take years to develop.
For the sake of global public health it is imperative that we shine the light of scientific scrutiny on Fukushima – just as we did at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
Helen Caldicott is a physician and author.