Chocolates, bananas, ionising radiation and a nuclear waste dump

This article first appeared on Independent Australia

On the matter of ionising radiation and health, Noel Wauchope rebuts five misleading speakers at the Nuclear Citizens’ Jury hearings on Australia’s nuclear waste importation plan.

IN TWO DAYS of 25 Citizens’ Jury sessions in Adelaide (on 25-26 June), about nuclear waste importing, there was minimal coverage of the question of ionising radiation and health.

What little there was, was skimpy, superficial and downright deceptive, in 209 pages of transcripts.

There was not one mention of the world’s authoritative bodies on the subject — The World Health Organisation, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission or any of the reports on biological effects of ionising radiation.

There was no explanation of the “linear no threshold” (LNT) theory on ionising radiation and health, despite the fact that this theory is the one accepted by all the national and international health bodies, including the Ionising Radiation Safety Institute of Australia who, on this topic, quote the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA).

The LNT theory holds that the long term, biological damage caused by ionising radiation – essentially the cancer risk –increases directly as the radiation dose increases. There is no safe lower level of ionising radiation.

Instead of explaining this basic concept in radiation protection, the slight coverage on radiation and health given to the Jury, was done in a trivial manner as the following examples (listed in the transcript report) illustrate.

First Speaker

Greg Ward, Chief of Staff, Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, was asked the following question by a juror (p 28):

“Why didn’t the commission report to us the effect of radioactivity in these two [Hiroshima and Nagasaki] populations?”

Greg Ward

That’s just one example … There are lots of studies being undertaken … to look at it from other angles as well … I would have to say that there’s a cloudy area, and that’s largely around the impact of low doses of radiation on humans … You’ve got others who would argue that actually small amounts of radiation actually has a beneficial effect on your immune systems, but there’s certainly no — I would have to say there’s no universal agreement at this point.


But there IS universal agreement on the Linear No Threshold theory, as explained by the health bodies named above.

Second Speaker

Chad Jacobi, Counsel Assisting, Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission (p. 31):

Chad Jacobi

the effects that we’re looking at, they are what are known as stochastic effects, they deal with lower doses where you need to do epidemiological studies in order to determine the relationship between radiation and a particular consequence … outstanding evidence, from Geraldine Thomas … She gave excellent evidence on this topic and her evidence is very interesting.  


Mr Jacobi did not go on to explain any of this evidence, so the jurors were left in the dark here.

However, Professor Geraldine Thomas of the Imperial College London, cited by Jacobi, is well known as a speaker promoting the message that ionising radiation is nothing to worry about. She pops up wherever the nuclear lobby is doing a soft sell and in particular, downplays the health effects of radiation on all species as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. She also claimed (at an international conference on radiation research in Warsaw in 2011):

Following Fukushima I doubt that there’ll be any rise in thyroid cancers in Japan.

Thomas’ views are greatly contested. Screening has shown an abnormal rise in thyroid cancers in Fukushima. Professor Timothy Mousseau has studied the Chernobyl and Fukushima situations extensively, finding ill effects of radiation — including genetic damage and increased mutation rates in many species.

Third Speaker

Nigel McBride, Chief Executive Business SA — the state’s peak business and employer group. Mr McBride had a lot to say — some snatches (p 88):

Nigel McBride

Maralinga atomic experiments … British atomic tests are not linked to this discussion; they’ve got nothing to do with it very subtle way of linking two completely unrelated issues to bring fear and emotion … 60,000 people work directly in the UK nuclear industry and in 60 years there has not been one fatality. Neither has there been a fatality in Canada, France, Germany, India and even the U.S. … Five and a half thousand people we understand die from some level of obesity yet we don’t ban sugar and sugary drinks … education over hysteria.


On Maralinga, from Keith Thomas, Chief Executive of the South Australian Native Title Services (p 97):

Keith Thomas

For Aboriginal people the past really does shape the present and the future. Significant events like happened at Maralinga very much become a part of that … that’s affected people all the way to the present as there’s people dying young, which shouldn’t be happening … Aboriginal people — “We don’t want that stuff here because we’ve seen what it does to people.”

On nuclear workers’ fatalities:

An investigation in the U.S. last year, revealed at least 33,480 American nuclear workers died as a result of their radiation exposure. International Agency for Research on Cancer, World Health Organisation also reported on nuclear workers’ leukaemia.

Fourth Speaker

Jason Kuchel, Chief Executive South Australian Chamber of Mines and Energy. At last, the fun part about bananas and chocolate. He provided these to jurors, as some sort of evidence of the benignness of ionising radiation (p 117):

Jason Kuchel

I took the opportunity during the break to put some bananas and some chocolates on the tables … you will get to see the point of that as we go through. … [the risks of] getting an x-ray, flying in a plane or even eating a bananaAt the Onkalo waste repository in Finland, the worst case radiation dose if someone were to stand on top of the facility for a whole year and there was a defective package, the equivalent radiation would be equal to eating one bite of a banana.  

As the facility is not yet accepting radioactive waste, all that hardly matters. And that was all from Mr Kuchel.

Fifth Speaker

Associate Professor Michael Penniment, Director Royal Adelaide Hospital, went on at length about the present storage of radioactive materials in hospitals and so on in Adelaide. He took a long time to go near the question of health effects of low level radiation but he finally got to talking about radioactive sources (p 124):

Michael Penniment

It may be that you may not want to avoid them anyway … I got the banana association straight up. I didn’t get the Lindt one [the reference is to the Lindt chocolate factory, which is quite near a nuclear power plant]; I didn’t see that coming. But certainly there’s some radioactive potassium.

You can decrease your risk by doing a few things: you can live in a wooden house, that will take per cent house; if you live in a tent, that will take 20 per cent off; if you live in the open, that will take 50 per cent off.  (He goes on to elaborate the benefits of radiation in treating cancer).  And that’s it — end of his presentation.

However, later in the Q and A section, Penniment did return to that subject ( p.132):

I saw an article by … David Webb … in the follow-up to Chernobyl … there were 28 deaths, and those were the radiation workers that were sent in to clean up the initial spill … And then there was something of the order of 1500 people that died from suicide because of their concerns about radiation, which he described as really the fallacy of radiation, that those people were so worried, and beyond that nobody has died form that incident.

There’s even data that suggests, and it’s reassuring to me, there was data from the British Radiology Association a number of years ago that low level exposure that’s above what we’ve set as the community limit actually may have an improvement in health in terms of what’s called radiation hormesis. The study of radiation workers in the 50s and 60s where controls aren’t as tight as 30 they are now suggests that it may actually have a very low level exposure to radiation but above what we would deem safe might actually have an improvement in health.


On Chernobyl deaths:

Professor Penniment has taken his information from the World Nuclear News. As well as the sources noted above, eminent Russian scientists have put the death toll at 985,000. The most recent study TORCH-2016, an independent scientific evaluation of the health-related effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, explains the difficulty in getting an accurate estimate but suggests a conservative estimate of 30,000.

On nuclear workers’ health: 

As explained above, in rebutting Nigel McBride.

On radioactivity of bananas:  

Bananas, brazil nuts and some other foods contain radioactive potassium-40 — but in extremely low doses. Potassium-40 in bananas has a specific activity of 71 ten millionths of a curie per gram. Compare that to the 88 curies per gram for Cesium-137. This is like comparing a stick of dynamite to an atomic bomb. Our bodies manage the ingested Potassium 40, so that after eating bananas, the excess is quickly excreted and the body’s Potassium-40 level remains unchanged.

The radioactive isotopes that come from nuclear fission (such as strontium -90, cesium -137 and iodine 131) were unknown in nature before atomic fission: our bodies are not adapted to them. And as well as being far more radioactive that Potassium -40, they can accumulate in the body.

I had hoped for something sensible to come out of these Citizens’ Juries. That doesn’t look like happening if the juries continue to be fed this kind of nonsense.

“A baby that has no head is a baby that has no head.”

“A baby that has no head is a baby that has no head.” –   a different approach to the question of radiation and birth deformities,   How do you find out if low levels of  ionising radiation cause birth defects and genetic abnormalities?  by Noel Wauchope,  23/10/12

The usual approach is to look at causes – at radiation as a cause. Scientists measure radiation levels in an area, and study or predict health results.  Studies on small animal life in Chernobyl and Fukushima, have indicated genetic damage due to radiation.

Many reports have described birth defects linking them to radiation affected areas – Fallujah in Iraq, Chernobyl  2010 Paul Zimmerman ,  2009 Video and article

But, as the nuclear lobby loves to remind us  – link is not  a proof  And  the World Health Organisation has remained silent on these matters. Why? Since 1959, an agreement signed between WHO and the International Atomic Energy Agency, and then a number of additional legal texts, prohibit WHO from intervening in research into health effects of  nuclear accidents.

What about studying consequences rather than causes?  Studying birth abnormalities in places where they occur more often than is normal? The Omni-Net Ukraine Birth Defects Prevention Program, came up with this different approach, reported in July 2012. Measuring radiation is difficult, and can produce ambiguous results.  But measuring babies with malformations is a concrete matter. Facts are facts here As Dr Vladimir Wertelecki says “ a baby that has no head is a baby that has no head.”


The program started in 2000, conducting a 10 year study on 5 provinces of the Ukraine – measuring and monitoring all newborn babies. The study, led by Dr  Wertelecki, was done in co-operation with Ukraine health authorities.  This was a descriptive epidemiological study. It could prove only a difference between geographical areas. It cannot  prove the cause of difference.

Within 2-3 years it was obvious that the rates of spina bifida and other defects of the nervous system, were many times greater than expected, particularly in one province.  A few years later an excess of conjoined twins (“Siamese twins”) was found. They found other nervous system problems, mainly microcephaly (tiny head) ..  After 10 years of study they published a report showing an excess of frequency of anomalies of nervous system and of these conjoined twins.

This was found especially in the northern half of the province – an area that is a unique ecology niche – mainly wetlands. And this area also has a unique population, an ethnic group living there since recorded history. They live in small villages, very isolated, and they rely completely on local foods.

These foods are all radioactive. The soil there is such that plants absorb many times more radioactivity. People there are absorbing much higher levels of radiation. – 20 times more than there would be in soil 50 km. away.

Dr Wertelecki reminds us that there are many causes of birth abnormalities. One well recognised cause is foetal alcohol syndrome, due to alcoholism in the mother.   However, the program did in fact research this question.  6 universities joined it in a  very well funded and thorough study of pregnant women. It showed that in this Northern area, alcohol use among pregnant women is statistically less than in the Ukraine in general. . Alcohol does not explain the birth abnormalities. Radiation is the obvious major cause.


Little research has been done on the causes of this in humans. Studies on non human species show that foetuses in first three months are about 1000 times more vulnerable to environmental effects.

Dr Wertelecki’s team focused on teratogenesis – changes caused by environmental interference to a developing foetus, a foetus with with normal genes.  This must be distinguished from gene mutations, inherited from parents and the two processes have different effects.  The genetic, inherited defects are most likely to cause mental disability. But with the teratogenic abnormalities, the baby, if it survives, most often is of normal intelligence.

This process can begin very early, before the ovum has been implanted in the wall of the womb –  before the woman knows that she is pregnant. That very early “line” of the embryo can split. In this case – the result is – twins.  This split can be incomplete – resulting in conjoined twins, (“Siamese twins”).  A  fetiform teratoma is a sort of failed Siamese twin,  a monster like mass, containing a mixture of tissues.

Abnormalities that are started at a little later stage of pregnancy include spina bifida, ( opening in lower back  body wall), opening in front body wall with  heart on the exterior,  anencephaly (absence of head or of most of the skull and brain)

Later effects  –  anophthalmia , (missing eyeball) , microphthalmia (tiny eye)


Exposure to radiation has 3 types of effects.:

1.    acute or Immmediate effects – burns, radiation sickness

2.    teratogenesis – impacts rapidly developing tissue – as an external interference factor

3.    delayed – cancers, genetic changes.  Genetic changes have  long range effects –  before birth and later – even into the next generation chromosomes  affected – in egg or sperm – resulting in a hereditary chromosome problem.


This Ukraine province study concentrated on the second effect – teratogenesis. However, remember that in this area, there is a unique population. This isolated ethnic group stay within the area. So, here we have a third generation exposed to radiation since before their conception. This is because for some young women, say 16 years old in 1986, even if they were not pregnant, their oocytes absorbed radiation.

Later, in pregnancy, their foetus would be exposed to that radiation. Those babies, now teenagers, will in turn, have their babies exposed to  the radiation affected chromosomes.

So here, this particular population is indeed a test case for that third, delayed, effect.  This brings in the question of gene mutations and chromosomes – the unpredictable subject of genomic instability. It is not surprising that politicians, and people in general, do not understand genomic instability. Scientists do not understand it, and what it means for future populations.

The consequences of genomic instability have not been studied, in humans. We know that abnormal genes cause abnormal cells, abnormal tissues, and hence, abnormal organisms, aging process, cancer. Genomic instability in a population will produce changes, some perceptible, some not. It will cause infertility, or changes in the rates of degenerative diseases.  It is hard to do study genomic instability in humans, – for example, how to study the fertilised egg that never gets implanted?

Still, research into this is now an emerging science, that is now being studied with human cells in vitro.

Meanwhile, genomic instability is now studied in  a variety of non  human   organisms. There are research results on butterflies and birds. Danish ornithologists found very serious instability in Chernobyl- the same results are   being found in Fukushima. Results include weakened birds unable to migrate – microcephaly, crooked wings, abnormal tail feathers, and many male barn swallows are sterile.

RESEARCH INTO RADIATION LEVELS  The Ukraine research team chose strontium as the radioactive isotope to study. Radiation dosimetry is complex because  different radioisotopes affect different parts of the body Official measurements are usually done on caesium – probably because it is the easiest and least expensive to measure.  Strontium measuring is much more specialised and expensive. Strontium  is absorbed like calcium – teeth and bones bind calcium. Strontium is measured by USA consistently – they measured it after every atomic bomb test. The Ukraine study found that strontium was pervasive in the area.


The message is that science and medicine must turn their attention to young women, pregnant women, and children. There really can be no doubt about this. It is quite scandalous that official studies, both after Chernobyl and Fukushima continue to ignore children. The only emphasis on children is in measuring thyroid abnormalities, and the epidemic of thyroid cancer in Ukraine children.   Apart from that, all the attention is on cancer, and adults.  There is no registry of pregnant women. There is no monitoring of birth abnormalities.

Even radiation “acceptable” standards are set for adult males, not for women and children.

The absolute priority should be   – women of reproductive age and children   – whatever affects them will affect the most important principles of preventive health. There should be monitoring of congenital malformations. Ionising radiation is a most likely cause, though there are other causes as well. Ionising radiation is prevalent in areas other than Chernobyl and Fukushima – e.g. from coal burning plants, from  dumping wastes.

Because there is now no monitoring of congenital malformations, we have no baseline.

There is now hope that official research priorities will change. There is a continually growing movement to free up the World Health Organisation from its present inability to do medical research in Chernobyl and Fukushima.  From 1959 until now, the World Health Organisation has been hamstrung by its agreement with the IAEA. On May 12, 2011 history was quietly made when the new  WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said “There is no safe low level of radiation.”

Before the Bomb

Before the Bomb – book review

This is a review of Before the Bomb: The Prediction of the Radiological Effects of Atomic Bombs From Knowledge Published Prior to August 1945 by Paul Langley.   Port Willunga, South Australia. Copyright: 11 May 2009. ISBN: 978-0-646-51823-7

Where do we go, to find out about the radiological effects of atomic weapons?

We usually seek out the rather patchy and incomplete stories of the victims – those at the “receiving end” of bombing, at Hiroshima, or of the atomic tests of Nevada, of Mururoa, Montebello, Maralinga. These have been covered in several books.

But, how much was known about these radiological effects before the Bomb?

Here, at last, is the book that answers this question. And Paul Langley’s book The Prediction of the Radiological Effects of Atomic Bombs From Knowledge Published Prior to August 1945 answers it with evidence in forensic detail, a plenitude of exact primary documentary evidence, including digital evidence available on the Internet.

Continue reading Before the Bomb