For another terrific article by Geoff, related to Fukushima and radiation risk read: Cancer deaths in Japan will be from alcohol and ciggies.
Measuring our monsters in the midday sun
The first rule of Horror Films 101 is “Don’t reveal your monster too soon”. Fear is all about suggestion. Hints. Things that go bump in the night. Letting vague connections swell in the imagination. Chernobyl. Fukushima. The hint of a fin caught in the corner of your eye. The Serpent’s Egg is an Ingmar Bergman film from the late 1970s which knew all the tricks. There were sounds in that film more chilling than blood and guts. Violence was suggested rather than displayed, and you heard it ooze through the movie like it did the historical events in the back story … the rise toward Nazism in Germany in the 1920s.
Once your monster is front and center on screen, anti-climax is tough to avoid. Just two workers were killed in the initial explosion at Chernobyl.
The head within the head was a deft stroke in the design of the Alien monster. Even when the monster is confronted face to face, the inner head lurks like Russian dolls meeting Pandora’s box. In the 12 months after the Chernobyl explosion, 28 front line workers died. Over the next 20 years another 19 died from acute radiation sickness suffered in 1986.
Once you have established the genre of your film, you can carry the audience with just the occasional hint of forthcoming carnage. The second Aliens film had plenty to work with. A monster that gestates inside its victim with no outward sign is an excellent starting point. Worse than any cancer, this is a lump which bites. Blind panic can then be induced without requiring heavy handed symptoms or writhing agony. Of around 4000 thyroid cases in children after Chernobyl, 98.8 percent were successfully treated. The cancers are common knowledge, the treatment success is a fact on the brink of extinction.
There is, however, only so much you can get away with before your monster has to take centre stage. Even if only for the final 10 minutes. If you want your audience to line up and pay for the sequel, then you need to deliver. How many films lack an ending? How many books just fizzle?
It’s time to get the Chernobyl monster out of the shadows and place it out in the midday sun.
Chernobyl, the site of the famous 1986 reactor explosion, is in the Ukraine, the homeland of one Trofim Lysenko. While the USSR has always had world class physicists and mathematicians, Lysenko was a nutcase who came to prominence in the late 1920s and held back Soviet life sciences until the 1970s and beyond. Particularly in the Ukraine. Long after the rest of the world understood the nature and importance of DNA and chromosomes, many Russian life scientists either believed, like Lysenko, that they were irrelevant or were too frightened to say otherwise. Who cares about radiation damage to an irrelevant biological artifact like DNA? Lysenko’s dodgy theories about the origin of viruses meant that hospitals were scrupulously clean, but hyperdermic needles were reused.
The primitive state of Russian life sciences hampered both treatment and studies of those affected by Chernobyl. But eventually collaborative projects were set up and the work was done. There were studies into child health, cardiovascular health, solid cancers, blood cancers. You name it, it has now been studied. The World Health Organisation released a 20-year summary of the work in 2006 [pdf]. I’ve mentioned the thyroid cancers in children already.
Despite the Lysenko curse, the Soviet medical system had some definite strengths and its collapse with the breakup of the USSR compounded already significant difficulties. Any impacts from Chernobyl were tiny compared to the large increase in child mortality and declining life expectancy across the region in the 1990s. Across the main areas effected, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, the collapse of the Soviet health system saw infant mortality pretty much double and life expectancy drop by perhaps 6 years during a decade. One little fact says it all … by 1999 some 80 percent of Russian men were alcoholic and drinking on average 3 litres of vodka every week.
Combine this public health catastrophe with a massive movement of people and the task of detecting small long term radiation impacts is diabolical. According to the WHO report, among the 200,000 emergency workers who received an average dose of 100 milli Sieverts, there was an increase of 5 percent over normal cancer death rates. Instead of 41,500 cancers, they expect 43,500. During the first 10 years, there were 150. Ukraine has 48 million people and had 143,000 cases of cancer in 2008. The WHO estimates that during the first 10 years after Chernobyl, there were, including the 150 in the emergency workers, 405 additional cancers attributable to radiation from the accident. These are, of course, in addition to the thyroid cases.
The difficulties of accurately determining the impact of Chernobyl are considerably worse than I can possibly detail in this little piece. If you want more, you can start with Laurie Garrett’s Betrayal of Trust. But perhaps Chernobyl isn’t the real monster but merely it’s offspring. The real monster of the anti-nuclear movement lurks even deeper in our psyche. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. For these events there is better data.
Dropping deeper into the abyss
It has been 66 years since atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Some 198,000 people died in the blast and from subsequent acute radiation effects. The health of approximately 212,100 of the survivors was subsequently followed, beginning in 1947. People receiving a dose of up to 1 Sievert (1,000 milli-Sieverts) suffered a median loss of life of around 2 months. Those receiving more than a Sievert lost a median of 2.6 years of life. So far, there has been no radiation health effects measured in the children of survivors of the blasts.
Some people regard these bombings as the most hideous acts of deliberate violence in human history. Unfortunately, they have some competition.
The firebombing of 67 Japanese cities in the months prior to the atomic bombings killed twice as many people and will have caused a further ocean of injuries that people lived with for decades. Is the fear of cancer worse than a crippled leg which hurts 24×7 and forces you to take expensive pain relief which at best just takes the edge off? The Japanese delivered similar levels of death to the people of the puppet state of Manchukuo prior to and during the war. But their methods were even more barbaric. Both events are worse than anything the planet’s nuclear arsenels have ever delivered.
Further down the scale of sophisticated weaponry we come to the humble machete which killed more people in Rwanda in 1994 than even those firebombing squadrons over Japan. The Rwandan massacres are only the third biggest such event since 1950. Do you remember the biggest two? Anti-nuclear activists have done a great job. Everybody has a conditioned Pavlovian reaction when Chernobyl or Hiroshima is mentioned, but non-nuclear events involving greater suffering are quickly consigned to a category of tragic horrors which are as unstoppable as earthquakes.
The slasher genre
There is one horror genre which deserves mention before moving on … the slasher. Blood and gore is in your face from the first reel. Caldicott. Some teens find such flicks amusing. Plutonium contamination from nuclear weapons testing has been reported in Japan with possible contamination from Fukushima making the headlines a few days back. Surely the World War II bombings must have had a long lasting contamination impact, after all Caldicott claimed during a debate with George Monbiot that Chernobyl’s impacts will live on for “generations and generations” and have been covered up by a World Health Organisation conspiracy.
In case you believe Caldicott’s conspiracy theory, you need to expand the scale of the conspiracy to include not just the WHO people involved in Chernobyl studies, but all of the agencies around the world who contribute data to the world’s cancer registries. Age standardised cancer incidence in bombed and plutonium polluted Japan is about 200 cases per 100,000 people per annum. The rate in the US is 300. So either US medicos exagerated their rates as part of the coverup, or the Japanese understated theirs. Who knows. What about clean green Australia? It’s cancer rate is even higher at 313. And in Ukraine itself? What is the cancer rate in filthy dirty Chernobyl contaminated Ukraine? Have a guess … I’m using the latest publically available data from 2008. Higher or lower than Australia? It’s 191, lower even than Japan. You need to use age standardised figures to compare countries, particularly because the life expectancy in Ukraine is 68, about 10 years less than the US. Whatever is killing Ukrainians, it isn’t radiation induced cancers.
While it is clear that the suffering of the Rwandan massacres dwarfs anything even remotely possible from Chernobyl, the planet is experiencing the beginnings of a climate shift that will make even the Rwandan massacres look small. There’s really only two kinds of disaster which have ever regularly caused more than a million deaths. Famine and disease. Influenza kills between 250,000 and 500,000 mainly elderly people every year but killed 40 million of all ages in 1918. The recent swine flu pandemic killed just 3330 frequently young healthy people and was judged by many in the media as a beat-up. Probably the same journalists who thought swine flu was over-hyped are out there whipping up fear and panic over Fukushima with its current, and probably future, body count of zero.
Apart from disease, famines have always been big killers. More than a few have killed over a million people. None of the deaths in such events are easy. The current global food system is already stretched to breaking point. Increasingly, factory farmed pigs and chickens eat vast amounts of human quality food supplemented with vitamins and minerals and they easily outbid the world’s poor for grain. All it takes is simultaneous bad weather events in a few places to cause price spikes, grain shortages, hunger, undernourishment and death on a scale that eclipses the worst that human violence has dished up. As late as the middle of last century, while America was watching Leave it to Beaver, 15 million Chinese starved to death. 15 million is the official number, the truth is likely much higher.
The climate change monster is the real deal. It isn’t CGI. It doesn’t shrink in your estimation when exposed to bright light. It is quietly looming in the shadows as the gap between the food supply and the hungry is flunctuating around a rising trend line which regularly leaves a billion people undernourished.
Resourcing the future
The Rwandan massacres were not really genocides in quite the same sense as The Holocaust. They were first and foremost land grabs. A resource war. Too many people living on too little land. Ubiquitous energy won’t guarantee no more resource wars, but it will be a good start. Ubiquitous energy can relieve at least some resource shortages and ubiquitous clean energy is necessary (but not sufficient) to prevent dangerous climate change. Once you turn a nuclear reactor on, it stays on 24×7. You can use off-peak nuclear power for desalination, for recharging the electric vehicles that will come in handy when oil runs short, for making fertiliser and much more. Try doing that with a solar thermal power station. The much hyped Andasol I solar thermal power station is a 50 mega-watt unit, even a modest nuke is 20 times bigger. Andasol I has a tank of molten salt at 400 degrees centigrade to act as a battery after sun down. The salt battery for a 50 mega-watt unit is 14 meters high and 38 meters in diameter. Scale it up 20 times and you have half a million tonnes of 400 degree salt. Now try to leverage your power plant for desalination or other major off peak power and you might need a million and a half tonnes and many days your battery just won’t get charged anyway.
Am I promising the mythical energy too cheap to meter that early nuclear proponents offered. Not at all. But there are good reasons that nuclear power can be mass produced and scaled up far more efficiently than the diffuse renewable alternatives like wind and solar thermal.
Engineering and toys
What we know about nuclear power technology is that it can be reliably deployed and generating many terrawatt hours of electricity in as little as a decade in any country regardless of local climatic conditions. This has happened in countries as different as Switzerland, Sweden, Japan, Germany, and the US.
This means that the technology can be modularised, mass produced, and can replace fossil fuels. Newer designs are better and safer. We need the newer designs because they can run on the waste from old reactors that so worries nuclear critics. There is enough waste to power the planet for hundreds of years. And I mean all the planet, not just in my backyard.
These new designs will allow us to shut uranium mines.
No renewable other than hydro has ever come close to achieving large-scale energy production. The high growth rates so often cited for renewables are misleading. It’s easy to double in size when you are tiny. Denmark’s famous wind farms can’t even power a country of 5.4 million people, let alone handle the needs of a billion people in India or 150 million Nigerians. We are comparing bicycles and trucks here. I commute by bicycle every working day of the year, but would I lash 10,000 bicycles together to transport a thousand tonnes of grain from silo to mill? This is just plain silly. And if you want to talk safety, then consider the tide of industrial accidents with more people walking around on rooves putting up solar panels. Australia, for one, can’t even install ceiling insulation without an incommensurate number of deaths.
The planet has two vast challenges over the next 50 to 100 years. The first is poverty and the other first is climate change. They are intimately connected. During the last 3 weeks while the media was focussed on an event that hasn’t killed a single person, 31,500 Indian children between the ages of 1 and 5 have died of respiratory disease because their families still cook with wood or cattle dung. A similar number of Japanese will have been diagnosed with cancer. All 60,000 families will feel this personal tragedy immensely despite these events being missed by the 6.30 news.
Affordable power isn’t just a hip pocket electoral issue in developing countries, it’s a matter of life and death. Likewise, the reforestation of the planet isn’t just some middle-class greenie issue, it too is a matter of life and death. The mining of timber for cooking and of forests for land to run cattle are both incompatible with effective action on the two big issues.
Should the Indian Government stop its quest for affordable nuclear power because of a few thousand cancers over a few decades from Chernobyl? Or because nobody died and nobody got sick at Three Mile Island? Or because 3 people got radiation burns and a few more might get cancer during the next 3 decades in Japan? Over 615,000 people get a cancer diagnosis in Japan each year. Each is a personal tragedy but to let the risk of a few more drive energy policy at a global level is selfish, stupid, cruel and irrational.