Monday 20 November 2017

Even non-nuclear Ireland is not safe

The idea that we in this country are safe from nuclear accidents seems naive, writes John Crown

THE potential health consequences of a meltdown occurring in the Fukushima nuclear plant are causing widespread concern in Japan and internationally. Parallels are being drawn with the Chernobyl accident of 1986, which remains the worst civilian nuclear accident of all time.

The disaster is also rekindling the debate about nuclear energy.

In assessing the threat level posed by Fukushima, it should be instructive to analyse what the health consequences of Chernobyl actually were. I say "should be" advisedly, because there is still some controversy about this matter. Let us go through the facts.

It is generally acknowledged that the most apocalyptic of the Chernobyl scenarios have not, thankfully, come true and that the health consequences were less severe than many feared.

The most directly affected were the brave firemen and technicians who extinguished the fires to contain the radiation. They suffered terribly, and most died slow deaths from acute massive radiation poisoning, which causes failure of the bone marrow, infection and bleeding. Their heroism saved many from radiation exposure.

There is also agreement that there was a dramatic increase in thyroid cancer in children in the region. Thankfully, most of these cancers are cured.

The incidence rates of other thyroid conditions were also increased.

The evidence that Chernobyl had other major health consequences is less well substantiated.

Were other, more deadly types of cancer also increased? A blue-chip study which included various UN groups and the International Atomic Energy Agency suggested that there would be total of 4,000 extra cancer deaths in the region caused by the disaster, with the majority of these occurring in the "liquidators", the workers who were directly involved in the clean-up. This study suggested a very low-risk for the general population.

A study commissioned by Greenpeace reached different conclusions, and warned that many hundreds of thousands of extra cancer deaths could be expected in Europe.

We all remember the horrifying pictures of deformed children that were attributed to Chernobyl radiation. The data to date suggest that the incidence of such birth defects is little if any increased. Readers should note that 2-3 per cent of random pregnancies result in the birth of children with serious malformations, and that such malformations are the leading cause of infant death in the West.

One of the concerns is that some of the radioactive substances released in reactor accidents, such as caesium, remain radioactive for a long time. The effects of such prolonged radiation are unknown.

The idea that we in Ireland are safe from the effects of nuclear accidents if we don't build stations here seems naive. Wylfa nuclear power plant in Anglesey in Wales is closer to Dublin than is Carrick-on-Shannon. But we are likely to face a terrible energy crisis this century, as fossil fuels are finite resources.

Meanwhile, our hearts should go out to the victims of the Japanese earthquake and tidal wave. Let us hope that nuclear meltdown doesn't add to their woes.

John Crown is running as an Independent candidate for Seanad Eireann. Professor Crown is a consultant oncologist.

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