Sunday, May 31, 2015

Controversy Surrounding Biological and Environmental Effects of low-level Nuclear Radiation

           I am enrolled in a freshman seminar this quarter titled, “Nuclear Futures: Understanding Global Energy Choices in a Post-Fukushima World.” We met once this past week, and we are going on all-day excursion to the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant on Tuesday, in Avila Beach near San Luis Obispo (the only nuclear power plant in California). Before our first meeting, we were instructed to watch a few debates between “experts” for and against nuclear power as a reasonable energy alternative. The debates were extremely polarized, and there was one key aspect that sparked my interest. There were massive disagreements about the adverse health effects of “low levels” of nuclear radiation, like the levels of radiation that surround Chernobyl today. I think it’s especially interesting to understand more about the potential adverse health effects from nuclear disasters, because we have a nuclear power plant essentially in our backyard.
            A lengthy report on the catastrophic health and environmental effects of the Chernobyl disaster was published by the New York Academy of Sciences in 2012, and it is quite controversial amidst the nuclear debate. The main controversy surrounds the danger of “low levels” of radiation. According to this report and other anti-nuclear advocates, inhaling such small amounts as one millionth of a gram of plutonium can be devastating. It kills most cells surrounding the area, because it’s an alpha emitter. The surrounding cells that survive mutate, their regulatory genes are destroyed, and years later the exposure can cause all sorts of cancers. This report attributes enormous cancer rates in the regions surrounding Chernobyl to the 1986 disaster, due to the massive incubation time of internal emitters (2 to 60 years). However, nuclear advocates cite the study as an outlier paper and just another fear-mongering fallacy. I think it’s really interesting to try to delve beneath the polarization to the actual scientific truth surrounding this issue. It’s hard to attribute such massive cancer rates to one disaster, because there are so many other factors that can contribute, but the study still seems quite legitimate.
This NY Times article is a good example of the arguments against such studies like the NY Academy of Sciences report:

This is the link to the massive NY Academy of Sciences report on Chernobyl:

A shorter more concise overview of biological and environmental effects of Chernobyl radiation is linked below.

This overview is really interesting and pertains to a lot of topics we’ve covered in CS 20 and CS 30, especially the ecological effects of nuclear radiation. The ecological and evolutionary implications of Chernobyl radiation is a very under-studied issue, but there are all sorts of fascinating evolutionary and ecological questions to be asked about the consequences of low-level radiation on surrounding ecosystems and populations.

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