Health Effects and the Nuclear Age
Making the Connections
After the Manhattan Project successfully developed the first atomic bombs, the US engaged in the large scale production of nuclear weapons in various, secret 'atomic cities', or massive nuclear complexes in Oakridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington State. The bomb project was a public unknown, a classified government secret. As scientists and workers continued to use and manufacture elements such as plutonium to develop the bomb, there ensued a certain fear that not enough was known about these new radioactive elements, and the biological hazards that they might present.
In the 1940's, the US government began a regime of human radiological testing that remained secret well into the 1990's. Ordinary citizens were unwittingly injected with plutonium in public hospitals of San Francisco and New York State. Prisoners in Oregon underwent testicular radiation experiments. Workers at Hanford were fed radioactive fish, while at Los Alamos the chosen fare was small spheres of uranium-235 and manganese-54. These and other such procedures were carried out in a deeply clandestine manner, in order to better discover the health effects of radiation on biological systems. Surprisingly, not a lot was learned. The experiments had varying effects and no overall report was produced from decades of secret human tests. However, evidence today clearly suggests that exposure to radiation impacts human health and the well being of all life.
Populations and individuals around the world have been affected by the increase of radioactive materials in the global ecosystem. Cancers, birth defects, genetic damage, lowered immunity to diseases: these are only some of the potential effects of nuclear testing, uranium mining, radioactive waste burial and all the phases of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy production.
The United States government has finally acknowledged the link between nuclear weapons production facilities and elevated levels of at least 22 kinds of cancers in workers. Compensation for those who have been adversely affected is the focus of current negotiations.
These negotiations are the result of an admission from Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, in January 2000, that the health of nuclear weapons workers may have suffered due to exposure to radiation. He stated that:
"This is the first time that the government is acknowledging that people got cancer from radiation exposure in the plants….In the past, the role of government was to take a hike, and I think that was wrong."
It is not only the worker population that has experienced the maligning effects of nuclear technology. Accidents at civilian nuclear power facilities have leaked cancerous and mutagenic isotopes into the environment for more than 50 years. Nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have spread radiation across Europe and North America. Due to the long-lived nature of the radioactive contaminants from these two occurrences, the effects continue to be felt. In the contaminated regions around Chernobyl, for example, there has been a sharp increase in thyroid cancer, severe mental retardation due to prenatal exposure, and genetic damage in human, animal and plant life.
The most recent nuclear accident in Japan at the Toki-mura uranium facility has raised the specter of radiation poisoning for urban populations. The unfortunate criticality event also highlighted a lax approach to health and safety practice, which, with recent indictments against British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) appears to be endemic in the international nuclear fraternity. BNFL is presently under review by the UK Nuclear Installations Inspectorate for falsifying safety checks of MOX fuel it cleared to ship to Japan. The falsification was revealed after the plutonium fuel arrived in Japan from the UK, a sea going journey of approximately 20,000 miles. It later emerged that BNFL had also falsified safety checks for fuel elements sent to Germany and Switzerland over the last three years.
It is now clear that: health problems can be linked to radiation exposure; nuclear accidents have prolonged effects on human health and ecological integrity; and health and safety regulations within nuclear facilities across the globe are not being applied with the rigor that is an essential requirement for long-lived radioactive materials.
Facts and Figures
- Over the past 60 years, the standards set for occupational exposure has dropped from 30 rems per year in 1934 to 5 rems per year in 1987. These changes in the exposure limits were dramatically altered, as the health effects of radiation became further understood.
- Single radiation doses of over about 1 gray can cause radiation sickness. Acute effects include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, sometimes accompanied by malaise, fever, and hemorrhage. The victim may die in a few hours, days or weeks. Other acute effects can include sterility and radiation burns, depending on the absorbed dose and the rate of the exposure.
- For radiation doses less than about 1 sievert, stochastic, or random, effects are of the greatest concern. Cancer and inheritable genetic damage may appear many years or decades after exposure. Estimates of the magnitude of low-dose radiation effects have tended to rise over the years, but remain the subject of controversy. That Chernobyl is giving rise to a new range of deformations and that cancer in the United States is becoming an epidemic, provides new opportunities to assess the health risks of routine exposure from leaks in commercial power plants, nuclear weapons production facilities, uranium mines and test sites.
- The largest source of radioactive waste threatening human health and genomes is the tailings resulting from uranium mining. These mines are often in indigenous communities with lower than adequate public health monitoring and medical facilities.
- Approximately 2,051 nuclear weapons were detonated in the pursuit of 'security' between 1945 - 1995, an average of one every 9 days during a 50 year period. The 423 above ground tests are estimated to have put 11-13 million curies of strontium-90, 17-21 million curies of cesium-137, 10 million curies of carbon-14 and 225,000 curies of plutonium into the environment.
- The US National Cancer Institute released a report in 1997 revealing that iodine-131 from nuclear testing was found in every single county of the United States.
- Temporary sterility in men can occur with a single absorbed dose, of about 0.15 grays, to the testis. In children, the threshold for congenital (existing at or dating from birth) malformation and other developmental abnormalities has been estimated to be 0.25 grays of radiation exposure up to 28 days of gestation.
- The dose at which half the exposed population would die in 60 days without medical treatment is called the LD50 dose (LD for lethal dose, and 50 for 50 percent). It is about 4 seiverts for adults.
What you can do
Become a member of, or provide financial support for, national and international
anti-nuclear organizations. Contact:
Women’s International League for Peace and Freeedom
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War
Nuclear Information and Resource Service
Nuclear Control Institute
Plutonium Free Future
North European Nuclear Information Group
World Information Service on Energy
Support your local anti-nuclear activists, either by becoming involved in actions,
letter writing campaigns, lobbying state and federal representatives or by
providing monetary support.
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
Socio Ecological Union (Russian language site)
Become a government watchdog.
In the US contact: U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Environmental Management
Or find equivalent organization in your country of residence
Subscribe to the following newsletters/journals to be kept up to date on nuclear
issues concerning the production of nuclear power, the manufacture of nuclear
weapons and nuclear waste 'clean-up'.
IEER/Science and Democratic Action
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
References Cited/Further Reading
Makhijani, Arjun, Howard Hu, Katherine Yih, editors. Nuclear Wastelands: a Global Guide to Nuclear Weapons Production and Its Health and Environmental Effects (written in association with the Special Commission of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1995.
Permanent People’s Tribunal International Medical Commission on Chernobyl. Chernobyl: Environmental, Health and Human Rights Implications. Vienna, Austria, 12-15 April 1996.
Shapiro, Jacob (editor). Radiation Protection: A Guide for Scientists and Physicians. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Wald, Matthew L. ‘US Acknowledges Radiation Killed Weapons Workers’. New York Times. 29 January 2000.
Welsome, Eileen. The Plutonium Files New York: Dial Press, 1999.