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"Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl," Some Comments.

by NNadir Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 08:49:08 AM EST

My task at DKos - should you be unfamiliar with me - is to talk about nuclear energy, the truths and the myths surrounding it, and the role I think it should play in the desperate fight against climate change.   I make my arguments mostly in a technical way, but I try, within the limits of my abilities, to inject enough humor, human history, personal history, and analysis to make the subject fun, even though there is nothing very funny about climate change.    My goal in all of this is to give my party the best chance it can possibly have, as now we control at least part of the government, at governing wisely.    To me it is an inescapable fact that climate change must be ameliorated, though I very much doubt at this point that it can be arrested.   My oft stated view is that nuclear energy is simply the most powerful tool we have in this fight, the best tested and therefore the most essential.


Former nuclear opponents who have suddenly reversed themselves are now becoming legion I guess, and are often vilified in the anti-nuclear industry as "traitors" or apostates for switching sides.   Of course such name calling treats the issue if the case for and against nuclear power were a matter of loyalty and faith rather than a case in which one should apply analysis and reason.  

I am amused by this because it's more than 20 years since my own switch from anti-nuclear to pronuclear.   I am a tacky and graceless man, and it's rather odd to think that I have been a trend setter in some way, that I was, actually, ahead of my time.  

The precipitating event in my personal experience that changed my mind about nuclear power was Chernobyl.   When I first learned of the burning reactor, I thought the situation was going to prove irretrievable and that it was likely to rank among the great disasters of all time, possibly on the order of the introduction of the plague bacillus into medieval Europe.   Of course, Chernobyl was not the end of the world in any way, and though much remains unknown about situation there, the zone is hardly a lifeless desert.

Last night I read a flawed but certainly worthwhile book that in many places steals my thunder.   It is written by Mary Mycio and it is entitled "Wormwood Forest:  A Natural History of Chernobyl."

Ms. Mycio is a Ukrainian-American who grew up in Northern New York State, pursued a degree in biology, a subject she clearly loves, went to law school, and as a result  began a legal career.   She had been a lawyer for only a few weeks when the Chernobyl reactor exploded.   Obsessed with information about the situation, she snuck into the libraries of our national laboratories and obsessively analyzed all she knew about the reactor accident in her parent's native country, leaving her new career behind almost before it had even begun.  So powerful was the pull of the issue that over a decade ago she moved to Kiev, becoming a journalist reporting on the Ukraine for the Los Angeles Times reporting on Ukrainian issues.   This book is the result of her travels in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

In her preface she remarks that her own attitudes are "ambiguously" pronuclear after starting out having traveled from the position of being an "adamant opponent of nuclear energy."

Then Ms. Mycio takes us on a personal tour of the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion zone, stopping along the way to explain interesting tidbits of Ukrainian history, culture, mythology.   She briefly pauses to dismiss, with personal knowledge, the famous Internet Fraud, Elena who claimed to have ridden a motorcycle around the exclusion zone and made a presentation on a web page that was supposed to stun the world, presumably inspiring humanity to ban nuclear power.   (Elena, it turns out, was part of one of the many tour groups that traverse the area, and lugged around a helmet and asked other members of the tour to photograph her holding the helmet.)  Unlike Elena's, Ms. Mycio's tales - including poking her hands in the muddy radioactive loam - are too rich with detail to ring false.

Using often exhilirating prose that can be quite compelling as nature writing, Ms. Mycio then proceeds to write about a period of weeks, in which she tours the exclusion zone, examining every thing from the radiomorphological changes symmetry of duck weed colonies , to a wonderful description of the 6 meter long catfish that live in the failed reactor's cooling ponds. (No, they are not mutants.)   Her description of the exclusion zone's two herds of Przewalski's horses - a nearly extinct species of horse that was once no longer found in the wild but for a while only existed in zoos - alone makes this book reading.  (The horses were stocked to the exclusion zone, tellingly, because the best habitat for them proved to be one of the most radioactive places on earth.)  Equally compelling is her encounter with one of Chernobyl's wolves. (When their numbers grew high enough the wolves killed off the feral dogs - abandoned pets - and wolf/dog hybrids), the majesty of the Chernobyl elk, the bison, and above all the birds, black storks and golden eagles and even the mosquitos.

Despite the vast perfusion of flora and fauna living in the zone, Ms. Mycio wants to know that all is not right.   She describes the mechanism by which many birds fail to breed because of the accumulation of strontium-90 in their egg shells, even as other birds, rare and important birds, shrug the matter off.   (Birders are apparently well represented among Chernobyl ecotourists these days apparently.)   She can talk at length about the radiocontamination of the great rutting boars, and the rise and fall of the rodent population in balance with predators, and many other things about the exclusion zone that have surprised her, just as they surprised me, just as they surprised the world.   She even does the obvious well, explaining why there are no fanciful mutants in the exclusion zone.

She speaks in personal detail of the people of Chernobyl, those who live there now - in defiance of regulation - and carefully analyzes the noise about reinhabiting the place - something on which she focuses a jaunticed eye.  Her evocation of Belaruian and Ukrainian bureaucracy, legal enforcement, even the quality of the guard houses at the edges of the exclusion zone are priceless.   You really get a feel, even a sense of smell, about what it is like to bounce around in the bitter cold in an old Soviet era jeep loaded with cans of gasoline.

She also gives a wonderful view of all the information here that is being lost simply through studied neglect of an enormous opportunity to test issues that can be addressed in no other place.

Now some mild criticism:

First of all this is a "nuclear exceptionalist book."   The Ukraine is not so much a nuclear disaster as it is an energy disaster.   To repeat my pet peeve, in no place does she refer to the tragedy of coal in the Ukraine, its enormous health and environmental cost that has been ravaging the Ukraine for the last two decades.   This is not a scientific objection per se, but I think the coal matter in the Ukraine, a tragedy every bit as bad as Chernobyl, merits mention.   Maybe Ms. Mycio doesn't agree.    Certainly a discussion of coal vs. nuclear is a big issue, and in fact, Ukraine has come down a nation with plans for a nuclear future.   But discussing coal doesn't sell books.

Scientifically, especially where biology is concerned, she is usually pretty strong, although she does make some mistakes.  

I'll touch on some scientific errors that do crop up.   The Oklo natural reactors did not operate 1.7 "million" years ago, but about 1.8 billion years ago.   It is oxymoronic to call uranium a transuranium element.   Ms Mycio claims that water in the sarcophagus raises criticality issues - and maybe it does - but by examination of Oklo - naturally occurring reactors that operated cyclically (with a period of about 6 hours) for hundreds of thousands of years, suggest that any criticality events in the future might be self-regulating.   (For all we know they have been on going, though probably not, since the water isn't clearly mixing with the fuel and there's a hell of a lot of boron dumped on the reactor.)   Also she asserts with no evidence that the probability of reactor failure is 1 in every 30 years because the Chernobyl reactor failed 30 years after the start of commercial nuclear power.   This is nonsense.   The Chernobyl reactor was a rare design being operated deliberately outside of the approved parameters for use.   It is glib, in fact, wrong, to say Chernobyl was typical in any way.   The incidence of failed reactors is going down and does not remain constant.   This makes sense because failures are experience.   No one will ever again build an RBMK reactor, but some built before the Chernobyl explosion have continued to operate without failing.   (RBMK reactors are being phased out.)

She really would have been much better to have not continuously shifted units, from Beq to curies, to rem, to Gray to Sieverts and back from sentence to sentence.    I understand what she is trying to say, but many readers may end up hopelessly confused.   There is a real need for conversion factors and above all context.   To most general readers it makes a difference if one says thirty seven thousand Becquerels or one microcurie but in any case it is best to be consistent.   The names evoke different responses, of course, but she should settle on one or the other.

Some tables would have helped and above all, since she refers to "isobaric" contamination maps, cities etc:  The book needs maps or at least directions to web sites that feature them.   During her reporting, she also probably should have worn, at the very least, a film badge, if not something more sophisticated, so she could accurately relate her own exposure.   This would have said volumes about her subject.

But these and a few other quibbles are trivial mostly.  

Her evocation of why strontium may become more available than it has been, her discussion of river polders, her explanation of the expected rise over the next several decades in Americium are, if incomplete, well done.   Again, the biology discussions are excellent.   The description of the sarcophagus, its problems and plans to replace it are informative.

Ms. Mycio takes to task both side of the nuclear debate, anti-nuclear and pro-nuclear - I passionately, and she, reluctantly, are the latter  - suggesting that neither side has a full measure of the ambiguities of the zone.   She suggests that the nuclear industry, in particular, should fund needed studies there.   She is furious that none of the profits on the operations of the unexploded Chernobyl reactors which operated until in 2000 until closing under international pressure, were used to fund basic research into the consequences of the accident at the failed reactor.

I would like to see Chernobyl research funded because I want clear answers to the many questions Ms. Mycio raises.   The information so obtained would clearly define the limits of the external cost of nuclear energy even if Chernobyl is in fact, atypical.   However the mechanism through which I would like to see all such studies funded is through an international effort to fund all facets of energy and environmental research through a tax based on external costs.    I note that such a tax would be a boon to the nuclear industry and would almost immediately drive most fossil fuels out of existence.   There'd almost certainly be enough money to follow every single Przewalski's horse residing in the exclusion zone.

This book needs more attention.

If you really want to understand Chernobyl, you need to read this book.

Wormwood Forest, by Mary Mycio, is published by Joseph Henry Press, copyright 2005.  

Wormwood Forest.

Display:
by NNadir on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 08:52:18 AM EST
Thank you!
by olivia on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 12:10:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You know that in countries without nuclear, every MWh of wind power is less coal (or gas) being burned. I do not question your push for nuclear at all, but it would be nice if you could acknowledge that wind can be a significant part of the solution.

It will never be the sole solution, and I have never claimed it will be. But it is a real part of the solution. and in terms of PR, nuclear will probably be a lot more palatable if it is presented as being used to "a bare minimum" after renewables have been pushed as much as possible.

As you point out, that will still leave a major role for nuclear, but it's a much smarter position to take in public ("filling the gap" rather than "the only realistic solution"). Think about it!

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 09:31:53 AM EST
Especially when you start looking at alternative financial solutions using renewables....

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson
by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 09:36:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
as well as uranium being a limited resource just like anything else we dig up out of the ground.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 02:09:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
20 % aint peanuts, and more importantly only Denmark is there yet. The potential for more wind power is vast.

The only problem is that over-the-top hallelujah about it make people believe that they don't need either nuclear or coal (or gas). And then it is always easier from a political point of view to go with gas instead of nuclear.

Not that I am saying that you are promoting wind over the top like it is the solution instead of a part of the solution.

But doing that is very usual within the "environmental" movement.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 04:23:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And, of course, that nuclear power is a relatively slow to augment option ... saying "go" now means that it will be a decade or so before new power is being produced.

Hansen/others clearly state that we don't have the decade to wait before changing our ways.

Need to pursue renewable/lower GHG options aggressively -- especially like wind, ocean that have potential for fast moving from conception to operation. Need to be pursuing (aggressively) negawatts.

Need a holistic strategy ... and can't be talking about specific silver bullets in isolation from that totality.

Blogging regularly at Get Energy Smart. NOW!!!

by a siegel (siegeadATgmailIGNORETHISdotPLEASEcom) on Mon Mar 12th, 2007 at 09:55:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Energy crisis in 1973, "GO!" in 1974. At that time France almost completely lacked competence in the vital industrial fields of uranium enrichment and heavy boiler work needed for a massive rollout of PWR's. Considering all, it was pretty swift, and it could be done again.


What takes time is energy "reviews" and political bickering.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Mon Mar 12th, 2007 at 11:42:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think we are all aware that there are a thousand solutions: from ditching tungsten lamps, restricting plasma screens, and changing habits up to wind farms, wave farms and nuclear power. There is no one solution - but we can chip away from all directions. And everything helps.


You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 12:19:18 PM EST
Using often exhilirating prose that can be quite compelling as nature writing, Ms. Mycio then proceeds to write about a period of weeks, in which she tours the exclusion zone, examining every thing from the radiomorphological changes symmetry of duck weed colonies , to a wonderful description of the 6 meter long catfish that live in the failed reactor's cooling ponds. (No, they are not mutants.)

A six-metre-long catfish?  Surely not, I thought.  That's a huge fish!

So I did a quick google and found this:

Fishers in northern Thailand netted this huge catfish in the Mekong River on May 1. Nearly nine feet long (2.7 meters) and as big as a grizzly bear, the behemoth tipped the scales at 646 pounds (293 kilograms). Experts say the fish, which belongs to the species known as the Mekong giant catfish, may be the largest freshwater fish ever recorded.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/06/photogalleries/giantcatfish/

Imagine the six-metre beastie!

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 01:59:49 PM EST
That's huge, but a 6 meter fish would be about twice the length and 8 times the mass.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.
by technopolitical on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 04:05:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
...swimming slowly below the surface...in the failed reactor's cooling ponds...

It's the beginning of a novel, no doubt about it.

(I'm assuming it should be 6 ft., but that's still almost 2 metres of...fish.  Swimming slowly through the murky waters...of the failed reactor's cooling ponds...and then it started: the howling.  Wolves!  My lord, I thought.  Why did I come here?  What drove me to stare at things that shouldn't be?

Well, I knew the answer: Edik.  But...he had become a fish--so huge, I knew I had to be hallucinating.  But there he was, swimming below the surface.

And how did I know it was Edik?

Well...like all fish, this one comes with a...tale...

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 04:16:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That sounds somewhat on the large size. Here's the world-record catfish (and world-record freshwater fish), per MSNBC:



Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 04:00:37 PM EST
Ooops. I should always scan threads, especially before posting a picture.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.
by technopolitical on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 04:06:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Okay.  What is the fish saying?

My suggestion:

(To the man on the right)

"Up a bit, up a bit, up a bit..."

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 04:19:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I haven't read the book, but I see problems just from your review.
  1. The author is not a scientist. She may be slightly self taught, but she seems to have been trained in law.
  2. "Mutant" effects from radiation exposure are quite subtle as the results of the bombs in Japan have shown. Usually what shows up is statistical changes in cancer rates. This has happened in both cases.
  3. Many species are "resistant" to radiation, but the period of study is too short to know what the long-range effects may be. Actual radiation disease takes a fairly high dose over a short period.
  4. Discussions of safe storage of waste have never been resolved.

As to whether nuclear energy is a "good idea", this seems to be irrelevant. The forces to expand nuclear energy are gathering so much strength that they probably won't be stopped. As the usage increases the probability of accidents will increase and the plants will be sited closer to population centers so the effects of any accident will be larger.

When the next accident happens (say in 20 or 30 years) the world will have become too dependent on nuclear power that dropping it at that point will cause a major disruption. The accidents don't have to be at the plant they can (and have) occurred at the enrichment plants or during transport of fuel or even at storage facilities.

The panic over greenhouse gases is likely to allow for shortcuts in the building of new plants and other corner cutting in the entire process. This is just human nature and the desire for a quick buck, there is no reason to expect that people will act more responsibly in the case of nuclear power.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 04:17:34 PM EST
Re: numbers 1 and 2.

In 1987, I started my research on leaf bugs in the fallout areas from the Chernobyl accident in Sweden and the southern part of Switzerland. The reason to do this work was my worrying about the welfare of the insects in these areas as well as the observation, that no biologist had started any investigation into this question - yes at the time it was considered that low level radiation from Chernobyl was not able to damage insect or plant life in any way - thus no study was necessary in the eyes of scientists. The publication of my findings, documented with painted pictures, were therefore highly reproached by the scientific world.

In 1988 I started my research in areas near nuclear power plants in Switzerland. My findings consternated me such, that I had to publish my results again documented with painted pictures. The reproaches of the scientific world became even louder and more aggressive. I thought that by showing the malformations on insects, I could convince not only the public but also scientists, to at least reconsider their own research or to study these facts themselves. In the meantime I have continued with my work in the environs of the reprocessing plant Sellafield UK, the Chernobyl plant, as well as areas affected by the Three Mile Island accident plant in the USA and Krummel nuclear power plant in Germany. Although it seems that while some people are becoming more aware of the dangers of nuclear power like the recent atomic bomb tests in the South Pacific as well as Nevada, USA there are other new dangers like the HAARP Project in Alaska, USA which is equally frightening. Albeit we believe to have everything under control, we don't take enough consideration that with our way of polluting we are not only causing daily the extinction of plants and animals, but are also changing the genetic structures with artificial radiation created by nuclear testing and power plants and also with mutagenic chemical substances.

We have the habit of only looking at what we perceive to be progress in our society, and refuse to investigate the shadow-side of this same progress. In my work, I took on the task of showing what we do not want to see. What is not studied is considered not to be. I deliberately banned my own fantasy from my paintings. What I find in mutated flies, created in research laboratories - or in fallout areas of Chernobyl or on leaf bugs near nuclear power plants outstrips anything that might come from our imagination. In our laboratories we are producing the raw models of what we are doing on a vast scale in vivo. But what we do to animals and plants, we finally do to ourselves and the human beings who will follow us for generations.

It is utterly urgent that we stop giving all the power to the experts. Everyone must start again to become knowing ones, and to make decisions for a wholesome life. We cannot leave it to others to decide our future. I hope that my paintings can help to look at and perceive what is going on before our very eyes.

http://www.mule.u-net.co.uk/hesse/hessebody.html

...for the record, I agree with Jerome in re:

First, conservation
Then, smart energy use
Then, renewables
Then, nuclear
Then, gas, coal, oil

...with investment in that order.

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 04:33:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
How do you assert that the "genetic malformations" in question have resulted from Sellafield, Swedish contamination zones etc, and then say that the scientific world has failed to appreciate your findings.

Mutations are found all throughout the world and apparently have been found for all time, since all species evolve.

I would be the first to acknowledge that good science is often not published, but often bad science is not published as well, often for reason.

by NNadir on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 05:56:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
[Cornelia] Hesse-Honegger, 49, paints insects that she believes have been deformed by radioactivity. As an illustrator at Zurich University's Zoological Institute, she grew increasingly concerned about the mutations she observed in routine genetic studies in the lab. Then, in April 1986, came Chernobyl.

"I worried about the effect on insects," says Hesse-Honegger. "The scientists pooh-poohed any danger. I decided to see for myself." Near Chernobyl's restricted zone, and in high-fallout areas in Sweden and Switzerland, she found bugs with deformities on their bodies, wings, feelers, limbs, and eyes.

She has since gathered misshapen insects from around England's Sellafield nuclear plant and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. "Normally," says Hesse-Honegger, "about 1 percent [of insects] may be born damaged." But at Three Mile Island, for instance, she found that the number was as high as 15 percent to 20 percent.

Scientists, meanwhile, remain skeptical--with some exceptions. Says Joan Davis, a water protection specialist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, "Maybe low-level radiation is playing havoc with life. Numbers alone don't seem to move us, [but] pictures leave behind a loud and clear signal that something is desperately wrong."

http://www.motherjones.com/news/outfront/1994/03/guinard.html

I'm not making an argument here.  I remembered a programme about an artist who painted deformed insects.  The programme was The Truth About Art, presented by Waldemar Januszczak.

http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/individual/227541?view=credit

In it he met the artist Cornelia Hesse-Honegger in a field near Sellafield (Windscale.)  Cornelia Hesse-Honegger was staring intently at the grass...looking for bugs.  Your description of Mary Mycio hunting intently around Chernobyl reminded me of this and what with the six metre catfish and the wolves I was...reminded of...Cornelia...also hunting, but for smaller animals.

I don't know any of the facts of the case, and you have a mission to argue for as much nuclear power as possible as soon as possible.  Okay.  But...well...you reminded me of a counter-story regarding animals and the results of nuclear leakage...so I thought I'd add it, what with the six metre catfish...bizarre animals came to mind...


Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sat Mar 10th, 2007 at 06:39:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Go out into any specified plot in nature and start looking for deformities and you will find them.

You will find them thousands of miles from any nuclear facility and you will find them next door to one.

Spontaneous mutations are always arising.  They do not arise at a faster rate in parts of the world that are higher in natural background radiation, like parts of Brazil, India, Iran, and China.

The artist you describe set out with an agenda, not an open mind.

If she had also examined insects, etc. around a coal-fired plant and a chemical plant and then in wilderness preserves far from industry and done a comparison study, her results might be considered more scientific.

In the Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors that have been studied since the 1940s and followed up and reported on periodically by the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, the cancer rate is about 3% higher than in the control population.  The rate of birth defects among the children and grandchildren of this population is the same as the control population.

by Plan9 on Sun Mar 11th, 2007 at 12:48:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Do you have some links from scientists who have done such research?  No snark, I don't have an agenda (beyond thinking that the more renewable--from the sun [wind, solar, wave]--energy the better.)  Maybe she did have an agenda.  Well, yes, of course.

As an illustrator at Zurich University's Zoological Institute, she grew increasingly concerned about the mutations she observed in routine genetic studies in the lab.

So let's say this clouded her judgement.  Maybe she should have visited more sites, not just nuclear.  (Though your point about chemical etc. plants would, I think, only add to her case--as far as I understand, it's genetic damage caused by industrial waste that bothers her, not just nuclear.)  

The thing is, one of her points was that other scientists weren't/aren't studying this, and she wanted to highlight the issue, so any links to where scientists have done the kind of comparative research you describe, would be much appreciated.

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sun Mar 11th, 2007 at 01:26:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
(On insect populations, I mean.)

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.
by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sun Mar 11th, 2007 at 01:27:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The effects of radiation on organisms of all kinds are very well documented.  There is a large body of peer-reviewed literature on the subject.

Perhaps this link will help you get started:
http://www.hps.org/publicinformation/ate/cat25.html

It's from the Health Physics Society.  Health physicists are usually radiobiologists who specialize in measuring radiation health effects.

Usually laypeople do not distinguish between low-dose and high dose exposure.

Everyone in the field of radiobiology agrees that the effects of low-dose radiation are extremely hard to detect.  I don't know about Swiss nuclear plants, but the estimated exposure from an American nuclear plant is .0009 millirem.  The average global exposure from natural background radiation is around 240 millirem.  So it is extremely hard to identify a single case of cancer or a mutation as being definitely caused by radiation exposure.  The only way you can tell is epidemiologically. You need a large population, like the atomic bomb survivors, and you compare their rates of ailments known to be caused by radiation exposure with those of a control population.

A lot of studies have been done of the Chernobyl area on humans and other species.  See the report of the Chernobyl Forum--a group of 11 different international agencies (WHO, etc.).  The humans who were exposed to radioactive material from the reactor accident do not exhibit higher rates of leukemia than the rest of the population, although this had been expected.  The 2,000-plus cases of thyroid cancer are attributed to radio-iodine uptake from the reactor emissions.  This could have been avoided if the Soviets had distributed potassium iodide.  In Poland, where that was done, there is no increase in thyroid cancer.  Fortunately it is a very treatable cancer.  In fact, it is treated by irradiating the thyroid.  Today the Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl has an average background radiation lower than that of parts of Spain, France, Finland, Brazil, Iran, China, and the US.  This is because the land is naturally low in uranium, radium, and thorium ore.

Nuclear medicine exposes millions of people annually to diagnostic and therapeutic radiation, sometimes very high doses to kill tumors.  Many studies have been done of the effects of these dosages.  The people I know who have undergone such treatments are happy to have had their lives extended.

by Plan9 on Sun Mar 11th, 2007 at 02:09:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for the link, but that relates only to humans.  I'm assuming that it isn't possible to say "Animal X repsonds in way Y, therefore animal Z will also respond in way Y"...(cockroaches come to mind, as do bactrian camels.)

So, to be specific:

Could you link me to literature which has measured genetic mutations in insects around various sites--including nuclear (and chemical etc...) against a control group of some kind?  Cornelia Hesse-Honegger's interest was in insects, and she was trying to highlight (if I've understood correctly) that such comparative research wasn't being undertaken.  Her pictures were to highlight this, I think, and to show what her (biased, non-scientific, partial...etc...) resarch had discovered, which was (she claims in the mother jones quote above) a raised (from 3% to 15%) incidence of mutations around nuclear sites.

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sun Mar 11th, 2007 at 03:45:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Insects like cockroaches can withstand doses of radiation three times greater than the level that would kill a human. In the 1960s when concerns about an all-out nuclear war ran high, biologists liked to say that insects and grass would survive, but we would not.

The subject is very big, but here are some links that might get you started:

http://www.lowdose.energy.gov/99meeting/abstracts/joiner.html

insect radiation resistance
http://www.madsci.org/posts/archives/2003-12/1072227809.Zo.r.html

http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=384122

Also, even though you are interested in insect welfare vis-a-vis nuclear plants, you should know that the National Institutes of Health National Cancer Institute did a study of populations living around nuclear facilities and found that they did not have higher rates of cancer than populations who did not live near nuclear facilities.
http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/nuclear-facilities

by Plan9 on Sun Mar 11th, 2007 at 05:00:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Deinococcus Radiodurans.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Mar 11th, 2007 at 05:05:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, D. Radiodurans takes the cake (or takes the yellowcake).  But rg was interested in the welfare of insects near nuclear plants.
by Plan9 on Sun Mar 11th, 2007 at 10:16:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for the links (and to Migeru for his link)...but...

My question wasn't about whether insects could survive greater levels of radiation than humans.  It was about whether there are any studies out there that you know of that debunk Cornelia Hesse-Honegger's contentions re: genetic mutations (rather than death) in insect populations around nuclear sites (and chemical etc...) against control groups.

The reason I asked is that both you and NNadir replied to my post with the comment that genetic mutation is natural and so there was no news here...Cornelia Hesse-Honegger was saying (if I've understood her) that the rates of mutation were much higher around nuclear sites than one would expect.  As she worked in a lab dealing with genetic mutations...ach...

If her...field notes...have been disproven (by research)...I'd like a link to a page about it...is all.

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sun Mar 11th, 2007 at 05:59:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Usually laypeople do not distinguish between low-dose and high dose exposure.

And well they SHOULD!  

You don't say this, but radiation damage does not fall off as expected with decreasing dosage--and certainly not linearly!    

This has been a medical surprise.  While standards for high level dosage were got in hand early, through the course of the 20th century low levels standards had to be revised upward several times.  

Low level radiation is MORE dangerous than it "ought" to be!  

Also, for many chemical poisons, there is a threshold below which you either recover without lingering effects, or don't take damage.  Below such a threshold you really are safe.  

Radiation is not like that.  You ALWAYS take damage, in the form of a chance of lethal cancer, illness, mutation or the like.  

In the proper sense of the word, there is NO safe dosage.

(Not even Earth background is safe, though at least it  IS several ORDERS of magnitude lower than the exposures you contemplate.)

And that is another thing about the nuke industry--the only valid comparison is with Earth background.  Above that, you are talking excess cancers, illness, &c.  And yes you can ask, well, how many, indeed that is what you should ask, because every single one above background is a death caused by deliberate human action.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Wed Mar 14th, 2007 at 02:04:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
of ProgressiveHistorians, a community site dedicated to the intersection of history and politics, I would be honored if you would cross-post this excellent diary there.

The Crolian Progressive: as great an adventure as ever I heard of...
by Nonpartisan on Sun Mar 11th, 2007 at 12:43:22 AM EST


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