After World War II, the United States began years of above-ground atomic weapons testing. Many of the detonations occurred at the Nevada Test Site, upwind from Utah, which during the 1950s received significant amounts of radioactive fallout.
Two generations later, in 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown occurred in Japan.
Both events spread radioactive material over many miles and over population centers. Neither event resulted in any measurable health effects from that radiation.
But the response to the Fukushima event was disastrous because of the irrational and misinformed fear of radiation. That fear, not radiation, killed at least 1,600 people and destroyed the lives of at least 200,000 people. That fear seriously harmed the entire economy of Japan, stopped fishing industry and other agriculture in that area and, overnight, reversed all of that country’s progress in addressing climate change.
The Utah tests spread 2 to 3 times the radiation that Fukushima spread, over the people of Utah, particularly St. George. Like at Fukushima, no one was hurt, there were never any increase in cancer rates, and no one died as a result. The economy and the peoples’ lives in Utah were unaffected.
Why was there such a different result?
The answer was obvious to the famous radiobiologist Dr. Antone Brooks. In their recent article for the International Journal of Radiation Biology, “Cost of fear and radiation protection actions: Washington County, Utah and Fukushima, Japan”, Brooks and co-author Bruce Church compared the effects of radioactive fallout from 1953 atomic bomb testing in Washington County, Utah, to that of the Fukushima accident.
Even after receiving much higher radiation doses than those in Japan, the city of St. George, Utah, asked the people to simply shelter in place for awhile. No other actions were taken, although people washed off their cars right afterwards. There were no health effects. Cancer rates in Washington County have always been among the lowest in Utah, which has the lowest cancer rates in the entire United States.
But in Japan, about 160,000 people were hastily and carelessly evacuated and 1,600 quickly died from that forced evacuation alone. The rest had their lives pretty much destroyed. The rest of Japan was harmed economically and their health adversely affected from the ramp up of coal as a result of unnecessarily shutting down all of their nuclear plants.
The Fukushima response is one of the greatest bureaucratic, regulatory and administrative failures in history in which science was trumped by fear.
Many of us in the nuclear field understand that the fear of nuclear is one of the oldest conspiracy theories in modern times, unknowingly perpetrated by being blindly cemented into the world’s administrative controls over nuclear beginning in the 1950s. Often, such nonsense doesn’t hurt a lot of people, but lately we are beginning to understand how widespread purposeful misinformation can wreak havoc on a democratic society.
Brooks and Church, both of whom grew up in Washington County, determined radiation exposures and doses resulting from the Nevada nuclear weapons tests from published reports, papers, and historical records. Recent publications were used to define the doses following Fukushima (see their paper for methodology).
The maximum dose rate in St. George was 3.5 mSv/h (19 May 1953), while Fukushima was about 1–10 mSv/h at the main gate on March 11, 2011 (Urabe et al. 2014) and 0.045 mSv/h four days later (15 March 2011 ∼ 25 miles downwind) (Ishikawa et al. 2015).
The authors chose not to include internally deposited radioactive materials in the dose calculations since they depend on many models and assumptions. However, if the dose from internal emitters had been included, the doses in Southern Utah would have been much higher than Fukushima, because of the extensive contamination in Utah with 90Sr, 144Ce-144Pr, 137Cs, 131I, as well as several alpha emitters like 239Pu, 241Am along with other short-lived radionuclides most of which were not present at Fukushima.
Ishikawa et al. (2015) found that the individual doses to 423,394 residents for the first four months had a the following distribution: 62.0%, under 1 mSv; 94.0%, under 2 mSv; 99.4%, under 3 mSv. These are pretty small doses, around or below background, and have never been shown to have any health effects on humans or animals. In both cases, the exposures were protracted, and it is well established that protracted radiation exposure decreases the risk of cancer (NRC 2006).
For comparison, the doses from Computed Tomography (CT) scans range from 20 mSv for a Chest CT, to a high of almost 100 mSv for full body CT scans. There are over 90 million CT scans per year in the United States with no increased adverse health effects. However, an individual chooses to have a CT scan, but has no say or choice in receiving the exposure and dose from a nuclear reactor accident or an atomic bomb test, so they are perceived as more frightening.
So why did Japan over-react and cause more harm to their citizens than the Fukushima radiation could ever do, while Utah did not?
Because since the 1950s, the world has adopted an unscientific set of models and regulations based on an incorrect idea put forward called the Linear No-Threshold dose hypothesis which was not based on science. LNT implies that all radiation is harmful, even at very low doses, which is not correct. LNT generated and amplified the fear of any radiation to amazing levels in the minds of citizens and their leaders.
Utah in 1953 was not infected with the LNT ideology and took appropriate actions actually based on science.
Since the start of the atomic age, extensive studies on both the early and late effects of radiation have been conducted on almost every type of animal, including humans, and at every level of biological organization, from molecules to cells to individual organs to whole organisms, in order to see the influence of dose and dose rate on radiation induced biological changes.
The development of modern molecular and cellular biology, combined with new technology, made it possible to measure biological responses in the low dose and dose rate region that were not possible in the past. The application of these techniques to low doses and dose-rates by the Department of Energy Low Dose Radiation Research Program is summarized by Brooks 2018. Similar approaches have been used in the European Union, Korea and Japan.
All of this research demonstrated the need for the “hit” theory to be replaced by more of a “systems approach”, with bystander effects, cell/cell, and cell/tissue communication playing a major role in the biological response to radiation. The data taken, as a whole, demonstrated that the biological responses and the mechanisms of action following exposure for low doses are very different from the responses to high doses.
Many of the low dose responses seem to be protective and result in less biological damage than is observed in the controls. High dose responses activate a different set of genes and activate different proteins and metabolic pathways (Dauer et al. 2010) suggesting unique mechanisms of action as a function of both dose and dose rate.
These observations do not support the use of LNT as being scientifically accurate, so LNT should not be used for risk assessment or making judgments on actions to be taken following accidents, or other events where populations exposed to low doses delivered at low dose rates may result in drastic unwarranted actions like evacuation. The United Nations agrees.
Radiation is a very good cell killer, which is why we use it at high doses in cancer therapy. But fear, and the biological consequences and the regulatory actions triggered by that fear, generated from LNT, of low doses of radiation remain the major biological damage induced by low dose and dose rate radiation exposures (Waltar et al. 2016).
So, it is no wonder that Japan failed, and continues to fail, while Utah did just fine.