This week, as the United States disclosed that radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster had been found in Idaho rainwater, a nuclear watchdog is calling for more stringent monitoring of milk and water in the U.S.
The group, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), suggested that U.S. government monitoring was critical because, by its calculations, contamination from the accident is reaching a very high level, on par with Chernobyl, the worst nuclear disaster ever.
“Total releases of radioactive iodine-131 and cesium-137 from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi reactors in Japan now appear to rival Chernobyl,” IEER stated in a press release.
On March 22, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency detected rainwater in Boise, Idaho with radiation levels at 242 picocuries per liter.
The Seattle Times, which first reported the rainwater contamination, stated: “The levels of iodine-131 in water samples from Richland and Boise — about 0.2 picocuries per liter — are so small the EPA estimates that even an infant would have to drink nearly 7,000 liters to receive a dose of radiation equivalent to a day's worth of normal background radiation. Iodine-131 can be harmful in higher amounts, particularly to babies and young children, because it concentrates in the thyroid gland and can lead to cancer later in life.”
IEER indicated that this contamination was “about 80 times the U.S. drinking water standard if the level persisted for a prolonged time.” Much of the iodine-131 would dissipate before it reached drinking water from wells or from municipal supplies.
The institute concurred that the risk from drinking the Boise water contamination “would be low.” Nonetheless, its president suggested that the discovery should be a wakeup call. He said government sampling of milk is limited, uncoordinated and insufficient to determine any risk from consumption.
“We must ensure that fallout is not rising to levels that could repeat even a small part of the tragedy associated with atmospheric nuclear weapons testing in Nevada during the 1950s and 1960s," said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, IEER's president.
Milk can become contaminated through cows grazing on pastureland where radiation-laden rain has fallen. Many cattle in the U.S., however, are fed grain, which would pose a lower risk. The main near-term health threat comes mainly from Iodine-131, which has a half life of about eight days, meaning that it degrades quickly, essentially disappearing within a few months. Because grain is stored and shipped after harvest, any radionuclides would have more time to dissipate.
The institute also criticized officials for distorting science to reassure the public about radiation exposure. For instance, it pointed out that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s website states: “In general, a yearly dose of 620 millirem from all radiation sources has not been shown to cause humans any harm.”
That contradicts the current reigning scientific theory. While the effects of low-dose radiation are not well understood, researchers believe that background contamination claims a significant death toll. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that exposure to radioactive radon — which is emitted by natural uranium commonly found in rock and soil — causes over 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year.
Further, based on formulas from the National Academies of Science, IEER calculates that an annual 620 millirem dose results in 200,000 cancers each year, half of them fatal. In addition to radon, background radiation comes from cosmic rays, food, cigarettes, X-rays, CT scans and many other sources.
"It is lamentable that the U.S. government is not speaking with a coherent, science-based voice on the risks of radiation," said Dr. Makhijani. "There is no safe level of radiation exposure in the sense of zero risk. Period. This has been repeatedly concluded by official studies, most recently a 2006 study done by the National Academies. Yet there is no shortage of unfortunate official statements on radiation that may seek to placate the public about 'safe' levels of radiation, but actually undermine confidence."