Fukushima is just the latest episode in a dangerous dance with radiation that has been going on for 68 years. Since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945 we have repeatedly let loose plutonium and other radioactive substances on our planet, and authorities have repeatedly denied or trivialized their dangers. The authorities include national governments (the U.S., Japan, the Soviet Union/ Russia, England, France and Germany); the worldwide nuclear power industry; and some scientists both in and outside of these governments and the nuclear power industry. Denials and trivialization have continued with Fukushima. (Documentation of the following observations can be found in my piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, upon which this article is based.) (Perrow 2013)
Powerful arguments were needed, due to the fallout from the fallout from bombs and tests. Peaceful use became the mantra. Project Plowshares, initiated in 1958, conducted 27 “peaceful nuclear explosions” from 1961 until the costs as well as public pressure from unforeseen consequences ended the program in 1975. The Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission indicated Plowshares’ close relationship to the increasing opposition to nuclear weapons, saying that peaceful applications of nuclear explosives would “create a climate of world opinion that is more favorable to weapons development and tests” (emphasis supplied). A Pentagon official was equally blunt, saying in 1953, “The atomic bomb will be accepted far more readily if at the same time atomic energy is being used for constructive ends.” The minutes of a National Security Council in 1953 spoke of destroying the taboo associated with nuclear weapons and “dissipating” the feeling that we could not use an A-bomb.
Even when nuclear power plants are running normally they are expected to release some radiation, but so little as to be harmless. Numerous studies have now challenged that. When eight U.S. nuclear plants in the U.S. were closed in 1987 they provided the opportunity for a field test. Two years later strontium-90 levels in local milk declined sharply, as did birth defects and death rates of infants within 40 miles of the plants. A 2007 study of all German nuclear power plants saw childhood leukemia for children living less than 3 miles from the plants more than double, but the researchers held that the plants could not cause it because their radiation levels were so low. Similar results were found for a French study, with a similar conclusion; it could not be low-level radiation, though they had no other explanation. A meta-study published in 2007 of 136 reactor sites in seven countries, extended to include children up to age 9, found childhood leukemia increases of 14 percent to 21 percent.
The denial that Fukushima has any significant health impacts echoes the denials of the atomic bomb effects in 1945; the secrecy surrounding Windscale and Chelyabinsk; the studies suggesting that the fallout from Three Mile Island was, in fact, serious; and the multiple denials regarding Chernobyl (that it happened, that it was serious, and that it is still serious).
As of June, 2013, according to a report in The Japan Times, 12 of 175,499 children tested had tested positive for possible thyroid cancer, and 15 more were deemed at high risk of developing the disease. For a disease that is rare, this is high number. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is still trying to get us to ignore the bad seed. June 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy granted $1.7 million to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to address the “difficulties in gaining the broad social acceptance” of nuclear power.