Mistrust of the operators of Mayak runs deep. According to environment organization Greenpeace, 272,000 people were harmed at the facility and in the surrounding area. Even in the town of Muslyumovo, 80 kilometers (50 miles) away, "one in two adults are infertile, and one in three infants are born with deformities," a Greenpeace report says.(Emphasis mine) Sorry, but Greenpeace is the last source I trust when it comes to a fair and balanced evaluation of the hazards of nuclear power.
As deeply disturbing as these claims are, the tests in no way bear them out. Indeed, a number of project groups at the GSF center near Munich are doing their best to determine just how many people fell victim to the radiation pollution at Mayak. Their conclusions? The horrors of Mayak are much less extensive than believed.
The basic notion here is that the Stalin-era USSR did things the way they usually did in the grand "workers' paradise": they made people do hazardous, even deadly, work with no health and safety precautions whatsoever:
...about 150 men would lift the warm, spent fuel elements from the reactors and carry them to the radiochemical plant.Scary stuff! Just reading that is enough to give me the jibblies. But:
There, in a long brick building, workers, including many women, sat in a dimly lit environment and placed the encrusted rods into nitric acid, triggering a process that allowed them to remove the weapons-grade plutonium. While the same work was performed with remote-controlled robotic arms in the West, the Soviet workers were not even given masks to wear. There was nothing to stop plutonium gases from entering their lungs.
...yet the amount of health damage sustained by these workers was astonishingly low. The GSF study has examined 6,293 men who worked at the chemical plant between 1948 and 1972. "So far 301 have died of lung cancer," says Jacob. "But only 100 cases were caused by radiation. The others were attributed to cigarettes."(Emphasis mine, again.) Cigarettes are worse for you than plutonium gas! WTF!
And here is how the "glorious workers' paradise" dealt with the effluent from the processing facility:
From 1949 to 1951, waste material from the plutonium production -- a bubbling toxic soup -- was simply poured into the river untreated. As a result, highly radioactive elements such as cesium 137 and strontium 90 were deposited in the river's sediments. The riverbanks became radioactive.(Emphasis--oh, you know.)
...as the analyses show, even this accusation is exaggerated. The US National Cancer Institute (NCI) studied 29,873 people who lived along the Techa between 1950 and 1960. According to the NCI scientists, only 46 deaths came about due to radiation exposure.
This isn't some right-wing publication or nuclear power industry rag; this is Der Spiegel talking about this.
As for me, I am thrilled to pieces to learn that radiation is not as dangerous as we think it is. It's good to know. I'm not happy that we know this because the USSR cared so little about the well-being of its citizens that it basically poured radioactive toxic waste into an open sewer, but that's all you can expect of a totalitarian communist dictatorship; at least their callousness had some positive effect on the advancement of science.
That said, I'm still all for the level of safety we demand from our nuclear power industry. I want that safety margin.
The fact is, we live in a radioactive world. There is uranium and its decay products throughout the soil of the planet. The yellowish clay that's about 3-5 feet under the topsoil here in Illinois, for example, gets its color from chromium and uranium oxides. The radon gas that everyone is so worried about is a decay product of uranium. The average person living at or about sea level can reasonably expect to receive an annual dose of 100 millirem of radiation every year. If that person flies a lot, it'll be more. If he's a miner or works in a coal power plant, it'll be more. If he works in Union Station in New York City it'll be more. (Yes, granite is radioactive, too.) The higher in the atmosphere you go, the less shielding you get; you absorb more cosmic radiation. If you go down in the ground a lot, you receive more radiation because you're surrounded by soil and rocks which are emitting radiation.
Not to mention the fact that 0.0000000001% of the carbon in and on Earth is Carbon 14, which is radioactive. (Yeah, that's right: you are radioactive! Flee in terror!)
So I don't find it all that surprising that humans are more resilient to radiation than we thought. I'm glad we're paranoid about it, but apparently we can handle larger chronic doses than we thought we could.
This must be why there have only been about 60 fatalities from Chernobyl; although that was one mother of a radiation source, only the people who got really close to it were seriously affected by it. (And don't even talk to me about Three Mile Island. If you camped atop the containment vessel of the malfunctioning reactor for the duration of the "crisis" you might have received as much as 1,500 millirem of radiation exposure. In the early 1980s Robert Heinlein said: "Amout of radiation exposure I received while undergoing catheterization for an angiogram: 25,000 millirem. I feel fine.")
The problem with radiation is that you don't know when you're being exposed to it. Unless you had a geiger counter handy, someone could give you a strong gamma source and you wouldn't know it until you started showing signs of radiation sickness.
That's really the issue; all exposure is cumulative and unless you always wear a dosimeter you'll never know how much exposure you're getting. This is why we treat any radiation exposure as a serious issue and take great, great pains to limit it.
As for the article in Spiegel, it's a fascinating read.