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The Cult of Nuclearists

(photo courtesy Louis Ricciuti)

A new book says nuclear safety experts have deliberately underplayed the dangers of radioactivity. So what does that mean for Niagara Falls?

This summer, two stretches of road in Niagara Falls whose beds are known to contain dangerous radioactive materials—materials whose only reasonable provenance can be the Manhattan Project—will be torn up and repaved. Radiation surveys produced within the last two years for the city by national defense contractor Science Applications International Corporation reiterate the findings of radiation surveys produced for the federal government in the 1970s and 1980s: Portions of Lewiston Road and Buffalo Avenue are emitting unnatural levels of gamma radiation. Some hotspots reach up to 100,000 and 1,000,000 counts per minute, respectively, 50 and 100 times what SAIC deceptively calls “background” levels of radiation (set at 2,000 and 10,000 counts per minute for the SAIC studies) and thousands of times what might be called “natural” levels of radiation for this thoroughly contaminated region (between five and 50 counts per minute).

The prospect of those materials being thrown up into the air as dust and carried off site as runoff deeply concerns author Paul Zimmerman. He thinks the prospect ought to concern residents of Niagara Falls and surrounding communities, too.

Zimmerman’s new book is called A Primer in the Art of Deception: The Cult of Nuclearists, Uranium Weapons and Fraudulent Science. In it, Zimmerman describes how the agencies that set safety standards for exposure to radiological materials have consistently ignored new science that shows even small doses of so-called “low-level” radiation can have devastating health consequences, clinging instead to outdated and often fraudulent guidelines that enable and excuse the nuclear industry.

Zimmerman became interested in the subject of radiation and its health consequences in the 1980s, when he began lecturing about the history of radiation accidents during seminars for healthcare professionals and first responders on managing radiation emergencies. In studying that history—from fallout at the Nevada bomb test site in the 1950s to the Chernobyl disaster, to studies that showed elevated rates of childhood leukemia and other illnesses surrounding nuclear facilities throughout Europe and North America—Zimmerman came across numerous communities that were exposed to materials that the radiation protection community declared harmless, and yet manifested catastrophic health issues down the road. He fears that Niagara Falls is poised to write a new chapter in that history.

“When you’re tearing up a road in Niagara Falls, you’re creating an inhalation hazard to the surrounding community,” Zimmerman says.

He is not placated by assurances that extraordinary safety measures will be taken by the contractor that won the bid to do the actual roadwork. (The bid went to Man O’ Trees, a West Seneca company with no previous experience handling radiological waste, and which only recently received training and licensing to do so for this project.) After all, he says, the US military wrote protocols for the handling of depleted uranium munitions that were completely ignored during both gulf wars. “Who’s going to supervise the work so that they follow procedures?” Zimmerman says. “Are we really going to do this again? Twenty years from now are we going to discover there was a higher rate of cancer and birth defects, the birth defects occurring the year after the road projects were finished and the cancer appearing 20 years later? How can we watch this happening again, when there is such a historical record of illness being created by doses that are being called safe?”

Fraudulent science

A Primer in the Art of Deception—an elaborately researched book that draws on decades of studies and work in scientific journals—is something of a follow-up to a book Zimmerman produced in the 1980s about the history of radiation accidents. He regarded that book as a failure. “I was never really happy with the result,” he says. “It wasn’t really complete. I was tearing my hair out, I was ripping up pages, because I knew I had entered into some sort of dysfunction. The pieces weren’t fitting together: Radioactivity was being released in all sorts of different scenarios, in areas where populations were being exposed. People would go out and do studies and find there were increased rates of illness in those populations, and then government would come along and say, ‘No, there’s something wrong with that study. Let’s reevaluate this.’ In every single instance, no matter what evidence was provided that people were getting sick, it was washed away.”

In the late 1990s, Zimmerman found what he’d been missing—“the joker in the pack,” he calls it—in the work of British scientist and activist Chris Busby, whose studies of ionizing radiation led him to investigate the health effects of depleted uranium deployed in Kosovo and Iraq. Busby taught him that the agencies that set the safety standards for exposure to radiological materials were engaged in fraudulent science.

An example that he provides in the book: Imagine you are walking through Fallujah, which was bombarded with depleted uranium armaments, on a windy day. (Or, for that matter, imagine you are driving down Buffalo Avenue this summer with the car windows open, as concrete saws, jackhammers, and backhoes send plumes of dust into the air.) You breathe in a particle of uranium, which lodges in your lung. As each atom decays, the uranium emits alpha particles that pack millions of electron volts—that’s what makes a Geiger counter click—more than enough to damage or break a strand of DNA or RNA. These alpha particles can only travel about six cell diameters, so a tremendous amount of potentially destructive energy is concentrated in a very small area of the lung.

But the radiation protection agencies consider the energy emitted by that particle as a dose to the entire lung—when and if internal does are considered at all. That is to say, they average out that tremendous burst of energy over a much larger mass of tissue, thus diluting its apparent impact—at least on paper. “They’re creating a mathematical fiction by saying that that’s a lung dose,” Zimmerman says. “But it’s not a lung dose; it’s a dose to individual cells. Cancer is known to start from the aberration in an individual cell. It has nothing to do with a lung dose. You have to look at the individual cell and the cellular response.”

In a similar vein, the radiation protection agencies deploy adjectives like “background” and “normal” deceptively. To say that 2,000 or 10,000 counts per minute is a “normal” level of radiation on the roadways of Niagara Falls is absurd. It’s like measuring the temperature in a burning house in Wales Center and declaring 800 degrees Fahrenheit the ambient temperature for Erie County. To determine whether radioactive materials in the air, water, or ground presents a human health threat, Zimmerman says, a scientist should consider what constitutes natural exposure.

Another example of fraud: The Veterans Administration argues that the primary hazard presented by uranium, also a heavy metal, is its chemical toxicity. They consider its radioactivity separately, and deem it to be too low-level to pose a cancer threat. Therefore, if a veteran does not manifest kidney damage as a result of uranium’s chemical toxicity, then the VA argues that the veteran has not been injured by exposure to uranium. In fact, current science shows that the radiation produced by internalized uranium works synergistically with its chemical toxicity, to devastating effect. That the VA and other health agencies should consider the chemical and radiological effects of uranium on the human body separately is a fraud.

“A tremendous amount of research into the effects of uranium has been instigated since the first gulf war,” Zimmerman says. “People are starting to study uranium exposure in a way that it never was studied before—which is funny, because uranium is the parent of all these other radioactive materials that have seeped into the environment. Evidence is emerging in the journals that uranium is cytotoxic, it’s toxic to cells; it’s genotoxic, it adversely affects DNA; it is mutagenic, it causes mutations in DNA; and it also has been shown to produce birth defects. Plus it’s a neurological hazard.”

The cult of nuclearists

In writing his book, Zimmerman found himself referring often to they and them as he described the government-funded agencies and scientists who justify the continuing discharge of radioactive materials into the environment. He coined the term “Cult of Nuclearists” to take the place of the vague pronouns. In fact, Zimmerman argues that it’s not important to identify and attack a specific culprit.

“What I’m presenting in the book is not some crazy conspiracy theory, because the proof in what I’m saying is in the science itself,” Zimmerman says. “The fraudulent science will testify that there’s mischief somewhere, so you don’t have to find out who’s the guy doing this. The current knowledge base is not being used to evaluate the hazards of nuclear pollution. Why is the science being held back?”

Zimmerman believes that most of those in the radiation protection community exercise integrity. The bad science on which they base their work is taught to them in textbooks and reiterated by powerful institutions. The “mischief,” he says, occurs at the top of the information chain, and it justifies and excuses terrible crimes against the environment and it habitants, as delineated in this passage from the book:

In the 16 countries where uranium is mined, millions of tons of radioactive mill tailings remain uncovered, allowing radionuclides to be swept into the air or washed into waterways. British Nuclear Fuel’s Sellafield reprocessing facility dumps radioactive waste directly into the Irish Sea. Cogema’s reprocessing facility at La Hague in France dumps one million liters of liquid radioactive waste, the equivalent of 50 waste barrels, into the ocean every day…Russia has scuttled decommissioned naval vessels, sending loaded nuclear reactors to the ocean floor. Between 1949 and 1956, the nuclear weapons complex at Chelyabinsk in the former Soviet Union dumped 96 million cubic meters of radioactive liquid into the Techa River…The facility also pumped 120 million curies of radioactivity into Lake Karachay. Standing on the shoreline, a person would receive a lethal dose of 600 roentgens in one hour…Water levels at the lake have been steadily dropping for years and parts have dried out completely. Winds have lofted radioactivity into the air, spreading contamination around the planet. At the Hanford Reservation in Washington state, one third of the 177 tanks holding 54 million gallons of high-level waste are leaking. Nearby underground aquifers contain an estimated 270 billion gallons of contaminated water…Also at Hanford, 40 billions gallons of contaminated water was dumped directly into the soil and storage ponds are leaking. As a result, radioactive waste is migrating into the Columbia River. At the former West Valley reprocessing facility 50 miles south of Buffalo, New York, radioactive and chemical wastes continually leach into Cattaraugus Creek. For 18 miles, the creek flows along the Cattaraugus Reservation of the Seneca Nations of Indians before emptying into Lake Erie…Cesium-137 and strontium-90 contaminate soil and groundwater in and around the 3,345 acre site. The Department of Energy is attempting to change its regulations to declassify high-level radioactive waste into “waste incidental to reprocessing.” Under this new classification, environmental contamination would be allowed to remain in the ground…DOE favors covering up contaminated areas with concrete and walking away…This despite the fact that a 1996 study by DOE calculated that within 500 years radionuclides from West Valley would begin migrating into the Great Lakes Watershed….

And then there’s Niagara Falls, which was during the Manhattan Project and the years immediately following World War Two the free world’s leading source of uranium and other radioactive metals for weapons and reactors. Niagara was also, therefore, the leading source of the massive quantities of waste material created in order to produce those metals. Much of that waste is consolidated at the Niagara Falls Storage Site in Lewiston, where it sits in a containment facility that has outlived its projected lifespan. Some of it was used in roadbeds and other construction fill. Some of it was dumped directly into waterways or injected into shallow wells. Some was buried cavalierly in factory yards and farm fields. For decades, the agencies charged with protecting communities exposed to radioactive materials insisted that the legacy waste produced in and around Niagara Falls did not pose a significant health risk. Zimmerman’s book argues convincingly that they’ve got it wrong. He says that Niagara Falls residents ought to be asking a lot of questions about this summer’s road repaving projects: Who will oversee the work to make sure safety protocols are followed? Where and how will waste material dug up from those 100,000- and 1,000,000-counts-per-minute hotspots be transported and dumped? Who will monitor air and water quality during and after the project? And, once this project is complete, what will be done to study the health effects on a community that has been exposed for decades to radiological hazards via numerous pathways?

Zimmerman points to a city not too far away as an example of what Niagara County residents might demand. Inhabitants of Port Hope, Ontario, a sister city to Niagara Falls which has long hosted uranium refinement facilities, grew fed up with being told that their community’s health issues had nothing to do with uranium contamination. So the residents paid for tests, conducted by the Uranium Medical Research Centre based in Toronto, that proved their exposure was real and dangerous. And they used the results to shame the Canadian government into undertaking a cleanup. That cleanup comes late and may be inadequate, but it’s a step in the right direction.

“Port Hope is analogous to Niagara Falls,” Zimmerman says. “What worked there might work here.”

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