Cancer Fears From Hiroshima Nuke Were Exaggerated, Says Scientists

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Survivors of the two atomic bombings that ended World War II didn’t suffer from as many negative health effects as commonly believed, according to a new study.

A study funded by the Japanese and U.S. governments examined data from more than 100 studies and found the long-term effects of radiation weren’t nearly as bad as originally believed. Individuals most exposed to the bomb’s radiation were more likely to develop cancer, but had an average life expectancy only 1.3 years shorter than the national average.

“There’s an enormous gap between that belief and what has actually been found by researchers,” Bertrand Jordan, a molecular biologist and lead author of the analysis, said in a Friday press statement.

Of the 44,635 exposed to the Hiroshima bomb, Jordan only found 848 additional cases of cancer. The cancer risk of Hiroshima survivors only increased by 42 percent, meaning the cancer risk of surviving a nuclear bombing are comparable to that of smoking. Overestimation of radiation risk could have huge implications for nuclear power.

“The extent of the overestimation even in the scientific community is quite striking,” Jordan continued. “I would prefer that people look at the scientific data, rather than gross exaggerations of the danger.”

Jordan analyzed data from roughly 100,000 survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, as well as 77,000 of their children and 20,000 people who were not exposed to radiation.

“An enormous effort has been devoted to the scientific study of the A-bomb survivors, which is why the data are so valuable,” Richard Wakeford, an epidemiologist at the University of Manchester, told Bloomberg. “Even so, public perception of the risks of radiation exposure is at variance with the scientific evidence, possibly because of fear surrounding nuclear weapons.”

Wakeford’s own work found about 1 percent to 2 percent of all cancers in Europe were attributable to radiation, compared to about 20 percent to smoking tobacco.

Recent studies have shown that the radiation risks of nuclear power were massively overestimated. Predictions of thousands of cancer deaths from nuclear incidents like Chernobyl or Fukushima have consistently failed to be borne out. Current regulations assume that any dose of radiation, no matter how small, causes some harm.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission began soliciting comments on revising safety standards to include the scientific research. If the NRC regulations change, the costs of building new nuclear power plants would significantly decline and could even become cheaper than coal power.

These regulations have no “scientifically valid support,” wrote Dr. Carol S. Marcus, a professor of nuclear medicine at UCLA, in a statement to The Wall Street Journal. Other scientists have shown that radiation is far less dangerous than current regulations assume.

There were no immediate deaths due to radiation exposure during the Fukushima incident and only 6 workers exceeded the legal limits for radiation. The number of additional cancer cases from Fukushima will likely be undetectably low. However, the evacuation ordered Japanese authorities is estimated to have caused 1,600 premature deaths.

Most residents around the Fukushima plant would have received only 4 millisieverts of radiation from the accident, but the average annual exposure is 2.4 millisieverts according to The New York Times. Exposure to 1000 millisiverts of radiation will cause fatal cancers in about 5 percent of the exposed.

Some studies have even shown that small doses of radiation actually modestly reduce cancer risks. A study of radon gas by a Johns Hopkins scientist suggested that people living with higher concentrations of the radioactive gas actually have lower rates of lung cancer than the general population.

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