Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.
Kerala is a state on the South Western coast of India; about a third the size of Tasmania or just slightly bigger than Hawaii. It’s been on my radar ever since it featured in an inspirational segment of David Attenborough’s 2009 “How many people can live on planet earth” documentary (35:16).
With 33 million people in an area half the size of Tasmania, you can imagine it’s rather crowded. Some official methods of forest counting nevertheless claim that 44 percent of Kerala is still covered in forest of some kind or another, but scientific studies put the figure much lower at about 21 percent of the country having forests with a crown density higher than 40 percent and another 5 percent with a crown density between 10 and 40 percent. The statistical discrepancy brings to mind Australia’s little Kyoto trick of defining a forest as an area with trees over 2 metres in height and a crown cover of 20 percent or more.
Kerala is experiencing many developing country problems; for example, it is heavily dependent on a couple of million of its population working in the Gulf states and sending back cash. This helps it to import food with its area dedicated to rice halving in recent times as cash crops like rubber and coconut take over. Kerala’s chicken consumption is also increasing and now triple the Indian average. While it’s still just 15 grams a day, chickens are net food consumers, not producers. The bottom line is that Kerala’s remaning forests are under threat from all manner of activities, both legal and illegal.
But the inspirational part is that Kerala has been educating its girls and reaping the rewards; families are now small and the population is stable. Kerala’s life expectancy at birth is 74; the highest of any state in India. It also has the highest literacy rate of 93 percent. Kerala’s Human Development Index of 0.854 is similar to that of Australia in 1980. This is a spectacular achievement considering that Kerala’s installed electrical capacity is about 2700 MW plus another 266 MW from the Kudankulam nuclear plant across the border in Tamil Nadu. So if it’s all running, she can generate about the same power as the South Australian peak demand, which services just 1.6 million people. In 2001, 77 percent of households cooked with wood, LPG was next with 18 percent. Down at the bottom is electricity at just 0.1 percent along with an assortment of kerosene, coal, biogas, crop residues and cow dung. Cooking smoke is a potent killer of young children in India. In 2010, Kerala had the lowest mortality rate for children under 5, but that still meant 16 deaths per 1000 births. More electricity would help, but there still needs to be a cultural shift. Rice is a staple in Kerala and the preferred method of preparation is parboiling, a fascinating ancient process which improves the nutrient profile but lengthens the cooking process. More cooking means more energy and wood fires have a cultural significance that will be tough to shift. I haven’t worked out where the firewood comes from but Kerala uses about 8 million tonnes of it for rice cooking alone. This is more than all the wood and paper products Australia produces from its 2 million hectares of plantations.
Kerala’s been on the radar of the World Health Organisation for over half a century ago and the reasons have nothing to do with population or rice or wood cooking fires or dodgy forest data. Kerala has a very high rate of background radiation due to sands containing thorium. The level ranges from about 70 percent above the global average to about 30 times the global average. For thousands of years, some of the population of Kerala have been living bathed in radiation at more than triple the level which will get you compulsorily thrown out of your home (evacuation) in Japan. The Japanese have set the maximum annual radiation level at 20 milli Sieverts per year around Fukushima while some parts of Kerala have had a level of 70 milliSieverts per year … for ever.
Scientists have been looking for radiation impacts on Keralites (people from Kerala) for decades. In 1990 a modern cancer registry was established and in 2009 a study reported on the cancer incidence in some 69,958 people followed for an average of over a decade. Radiation dose estimates were made by measuring indoor and outdoor radiation exposure and time spent in and out of doors. They haven’t just been bathing in radioactivity for thousands of years, Keralites have been eating it. An early 1970 study found that people in Kerala were eating about 10 times more radioactivity than people in the US or UK, including alpha particle emitters (from fish).
The cancer incidence rate overall in Kerala is much the same as the overall rate in India; which is about 1/2 that of Japan and less than 1/3rd of the rate in Australia. Some 95 new cancers per 100,000 people per year compared to 323 per 100,000 per year in Australia (age standardised).
Cancer experts know a great deal about the drivers of these huge differences and radiation isn’t on the list.
The Kerala study has several advantages over other studies of low dose radiation. They are dealing with a mainly rural population which is less likely to be exposed to other carcinogens which could complicate the analysis. They are also dealing with a genuinely low rate of radiation exposure. This mirrors what would be the case in Fukushima if the Government hadn’t forcibly moved people. Most radiation protection standards derive from studies of atomic bomb victims who got whatever dose they got in a very short time. They may have got a dose which fits the definition of low (less than 100 millisieverts), but at an extremely rapid rate. Getting bombed just isn’t like living in a slightly elevated radiation field. In Kerala people are getting a low rate for a long time.
With very high radiation delivery rates, such as occur with an atomic weapon, it is obvious that DNA repair capacity can be overwhelmed. I need to mention here, that atomic weapons don’t primarily kill with radiation, they kill in exactly the same way as other bombs; with a shock wave, flying debris and fire. Radiation can certainly kill people outside the lethal area of the blast, but the dose required is huge. As you get further away from the blast center, people can get 100 milliSieverts or even thousands, but getting such a dose in such a situation is nothing like getting it over a one or ten year period; just as a single 1 or 10 hour exposure to summer sun is very different from getting the same amount in very tiny increments over a month. Despite the clear methodological problems, data from the atomic bomb victims dominates radiation protection standards, primarily because, for many years, it was the only data.
The Kerala data clearly contradicts the assumptions behind all of those radiation safety standards. People getting a dose of 500 mSv should show a measurable rise in cancer rates. They did when the dose was delivered quickly as with the atomic blasts. They don’t at Kerala.
So the Kerala data confirms what is obvious from a modern understanding of DNA repair. Namely that radiation damage isn’t cumulative at normal background dose rates and also that it isn’t cumulative at even 30 times normal dose rates. Meaning that 70 milliSieverts a year for a lifetime does nothing. The very concepts of “annual dose” or “cumulative dose” are simply misleading in such a situation. The best available evidence is that an annual exposure to 100 milliSieverts results in an actual dose of zero because it is below a person’s capacity for perfect repair. When experts discuss these matters they always distinguish exposure, measured in Grays, from dose, measured in Sieverts, but they don’t take account of delivery rate or DNA repair because the power and mechanisms of DNA repair were unknown at the time and by the people formulating the theories and standards. It’s high time they got their house in order. The suffering caused by clearly obsolete science has been and continues to be immense.
Researchers in 2012 from MIT confirmed that radiation damage isn’t cumulative at even 400 times background rates for six months. But they did this work in mice, and while mice are more prone to cancer than people, meaning the results should hold for people, mice aren’t people and extrapolation both of species and time introduces uncertainty. The Kerala data is substantial and unequivocal and backs a recent judgement by UK radiation expert Malcolm Grimston that the Fukushima evacuation was, and still is, “stark raving mad”.
When the Japanese Government recently lifted the throwing-out-of-home orders on Minamisoma City in Fukushima Prefecture, because they estimated that the annual radiation level had dropped to 20 milliSieverts per year, city officials reckoned that 80 percent of residents will not return because of radiation fear.
Perhaps the Japanese should have looked at what’s been happening at Kerala for thousands of years before deciding on their 20 milliSievert limit; nothing.
The implication is clear. Nuclear accidents are no different from other industrial accidents. There is a clear need to worry about genuinely dangerous short lived radioactive isotopes just like we worry about flames and dense smoke from other accidents or natural calamities like bush fires. But we don’t need to waste time, energy and money cleaning up levels of radioactive contamination that don’t do anything. Sandblasting trees, roofs, driveways and especially putting valuable topsoil in black plastic bags, like they have been doing in Japan since 2011, makes as much sense as sending the army out into the bush to sandblast blackened tree trunks after a bush fire.