I was talking with an old friend, just passing the time of day, and he asked me if I knew what had happened in the area around Chernobyl.
“No.” I said, “But let me guess. It’s a lush, green, paradise for wildlife.”
“Ahhh, you’ve heard about it before.”
“Nope. Just a lucky guess.”
But since we actually, you know, atom-bombed Bikini and Eniwetok (boy, did we ever) and wildlife has successfully staged a comeback there (tourism too!), I had to figure a powerplant disaster would be at least as manageable.
Besides, we had just been talking about Petr Beckmann, an irascible pro-nuclear professor of engineering from, of all places, the University of Colorado at Boulder. Context is key.
Getting back to Chernobyl, Texas Tech has been sending expeditions into the exclusion zone surrounding the power plant and one of their researchers had this to say…

During recent visits to Chernobyl, we experienced numerous sightings of moose, roe deer, Russian wild boar, foxes, river otter, and rabbits within the 10-km exclusion zone. We observed none of those taxa except for a single rabbit outside the 30-km zone, although the time and extent of search in each region is comparable. The top carnivores, wolves and eagles, as well as the endangered black stork are more abundant in the 30-km zone than outside the area. Trapping of small rodents in the most radioactive area within the 10-km zone has yielded greater success rates than in uncontaminated areas. Diversity of flowers and other plants in the highly radioactive regions is impressive and equals that observed in protected habitats outside the zone.

In reality, radioactivity at the level associated with the Chernobyl meltdown does have discernible, negative impacts on plant and animal life. However, the benefit of excluding humans from this highly contaminated ecosystem appears to outweigh significantly any negative cost associated with Chornobyl radiation.

He’s not kidding about those negative impacts. Check out these photos of the “Red Forest”. But I practically cut my teeth on “after the bomb” horror novels. Where are all the mutants?

Clearly, our data document a vibrant ecosystem in the most radioactive areas at Chornobyl that in many ways is what we expect from a park dedicated to conservation. Less well documented are possible costs to the species living in this highly radioactive environment. Some of the small mammals living in this environment are experiencing doses from internally deposited 137cesium and 90strontium in excess of 10 rads/d and an external dose at least half that high…

…it cannot be said that radiation is good for wildlife. Instead, the elimination of human activities such as farming, ranching, hunting and logging are the greatest benefit, and it can be said that the world’s worst nuclear power plant disaster is not as destructive to wildlife populations as are normal human activities.

Even where the levels of radiation are highest, wildlife abounds. In the summertime, beautiful fields of colorful flowers mask the underlying radiation that can be detected with sophisticated Geiger counters. Scientific findings on the effects of living in the environment have been mixed, but most studies suggest that even the extraordinary amounts released by the Chernobyl accident do not negatively affect the abundance and health of native wildlife. There are no monsters at Chernobyl!

These conclusions are in agreement with extensive studies on the survivors of Hiroshima/Nagasaki that did not document an elevated mutation rate in their children. Forty years post exposure, Hiroshima/Nagasaki survivors may have a slight elevation in some types of cancer. However, this increase is hundreds of times lower than the typical effects of cigarette smoking.

Make no mistake about it; too much radiation over a short time kills people, animals and plants. But too much heat or water also can kill. People die in house fires and drown in lakes…Studies show that mice exposed to a small chronic dose of radiation live longer than mice that were not exposed. This effect is referred to as hormesis.

Now, that is really interesting. Some of you may remember that story out of Taiwan last year, about the irradiated apartment dwellers?

In Taipai and other areas of Taiwan, 1700 apartment units were built using steel contaminated with Cobalt-60, exposing 10,000 occupants for 16 years to an average, according to preliminary estimates, of 4.8 rem in the first year and 33 rem in total. From national Taiwan statistics, 173 cancers and 4.5 leukemias would be expected from natural sources, and according to linear-no threshold theory, there should have been 30 additional leukemias. However a total of only five cancers and one leukemia have occurred among these people.

To be sure, there were a few jaundiced eyes in the house.

“There are several flaws in the Taiwan study,” said Peter Burns, director of environmental and radiation health.[For the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency.]

“A proper epidemiological study would compare the exposed population to a similar population, not the Taiwan average, as cancer rates can vary markedly in any society,” Dr Burns said.

Further, “because the exposure has only recently stopped, cancer rates would be expected to increase over the next 20 to 30 years, so that a long-term follow-up is required to be sure that the rates have not increased.”

I wouldn’t discount his side of the argument automatically, but there have been some thought provoking findings trickling in from elsewhere.

In 1957, there was an explosion in an incredibly mismanaged radioactive waste storage facility at the U.S.S.R. Mayak nuclear weapons complex in the Eastern Urals of Siberia, causing large radiation exposures to people in nearby villages. A follow-up on 7852 of these villagers found that the rate of subsequent cancer mortality was much lower among these than among unexposed villagers.

A $10 million study was conducted of shipyard workers involved in servicing U.S. Navy nuclear-propelled ships, comparing those who were and were not occupationally exposed to radiation; the former group had exposures above 0.5cSv (0.5 rem) and average exposures of 5 cSv, while the latter group had exposures below 0.5 cSv. The cancer mortality rate for the exposed was only 85% of that for the unexposed, a difference of more than 4 standard deviations.

Stimulation of the immune system by low level radiation is being used on an experimental basis for medical treatment of non-Hodgkins lymphoma with total body and half body irradiation. This radiation was administered to one group of patients…but not to an otherwise similar ?control? group, before both groups were given similar other standard treatments… In one such study, after 9 years, 50% of the control group, but only 16% of the irradiated group had died. In a 25 year old study with different standard treatment, 4-year survival was 70% for the irradiated group versus 40% for the controls. In another study in that time period with a more advanced chemotherapy, 4-year survival was 74% for the irradiated group versus 52% for the control group.

Several studies have reported that workers who inhaled plutonium, resulting in sizable radiation exposures to their lungs, have lower lung cancer mortality rates than those not so-exposed. Contrary to media-generated impressions, there is no record of cancer deaths resulting from human exposure to plutonium.

So, I guess we can conclude (tentatively) that radiation, while still horrible and damaging above a certain threshold, might not be as bad as we thought. Go enjoy an X-ray, every day. Puts me in mind of “The Road to Wellville“.
I’m all for innovative medicine. But not as an early adopter. Looking back to the dawn of radiation therapy we find the sad case of…

…Eben Byers, a millionaire steel tycoon, strapping sportsman and U.S. amateur golf champion whose physician urged him to take Radithor. Byers was so convinced it gave him “zip” that he often drank a few of the 2.2-ounce bottles daily.

He consumed close to 1,400 bottles at $1.00 each between 1928 and 1930 before dying in 1932 of radium poisoning at the age of 51. By then he had not only lost his zip but most of his teeth from bone decay, his body was covered with abscesses and he weighed 92 pounds. The Wall Street Journal’s headline “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off” was essentially the death knell for such radium products.

What, no volunteers? At least try the Fiesta Ware!