Articles

Scientist Asks A Canadian HAVE WE GONE TOO FAR WITH ATOM TESTS?

NORMAN J. BERRILL July 9 1955
Articles

Scientist Asks A Canadian HAVE WE GONE TOO FAR WITH ATOM TESTS?

NORMAN J. BERRILL July 9 1955

LIVING IN the Atomic Age means living in a world more radioactive than it used to be. This age started with the discovery of radioactive uranium and radium. At first, people who worked with these substances suffered from burns, anaemia and bone cancer. By the end of 1953, according to W. C. Hueper, of the National Cancer Institute of the United States, lung cancer had killed forty to fifty percent of the uranium miners at Joachimsthal in Czechoslovakia and from seventy-five to eighty percent of the miners in other radioactive mines at Schneeberg in southern Germany.

Although there is as yet no known cancer problem among our own uranium miners, Canada’s atomic-energy officials are watching the health of these miners closely. Meanwhile what has happened in Europe underlines the danger of atomic particles. If the Atomic Age becomes more of a practical reality we will encounter this danger more and more.

The plain fact is that atomic radiation is potentially harmful to everything that lives, although the harm it does depends on the kind of radiation and the quality of life. Radiation may enter a living cell like small bullets fired from a repeater rifle or as the same kind of bullets fired from a machine gun; or it may consist of much more massive missiles traveling at a slower speed but harder to stop. The damage depends on a combination of speed, massiveness and how many “bullets” or “missiles” penetrate within a given time. And an increase in general radiation occurs each time a test bomb is exploded. The question is: How much can we stand?

One thing seems clear, and that is that the so-called radiation safety levels set by military and civil authorities are not so much inaccurate as they are meaningless. Even if our body tissues can withstand or recover from a certain amount of radiation, our reproductive cells cannot stand any marked increase in the radiation level if this increase is sustained indefinitely.

A radiation unit is usually spoken of as a roentgen, which is an arbitrary unit named after the discoverer of X-rays and is the amount of electricity produced in a small mass of air. Four hundred units is the average lethal dose for humans and one hundred and seventy units produce temporary sterility in women. A radiation “dose” is the intensity of radiation multiplied by the length of time it acts. We receive about one radiation unit from natural sources in the course of three years, or ten units in the thirty years most of us live before we have children. Twenty-five units at the most, and probably less, will double the frequency at which undesirable heredity effects are produced, no matter whether the dose is received in a week or in thirty years. Thus, if we don’t worry about ourselves, we should at least be worrying about the quality of our descendants. In this connection test-bomb explosions are inexcusable and should cease before we make a habit of them.

The present situation is serious because even experts seem to disagree, and conflicting advice is always disturbing. The federal health minister, Paul Martin, has declared that, the fall-out. of radioactive particles after a hydrogen-bomb explosion and the hazards of radioactivity represent in very truth a peril to humanity. On the other hand Dr. O. M. Solandt, chairman of Canada’s Defense Research Board, states that although Canada and perhaps the entire world has been subjected to some radioactive dust the quantity, except in atomic test areas, is infinitesimal and harmless to humans, animals and vegetation. He states the global radioactive level would have to be raised a hundredfold before it became dangerous to humans. Sir John Cockcroft, director of Britain’s atomic-energy research at Harwell, goes further and claims the level would need to be a thousand times greater to be harmful.

Whom are we to believe? Should we take seriously the warning of the two physicists of the University of Colorado, Dr. R. R. Lanier and Dr. Theodore Puck, that radioactivity from the Nevada tests has already reached the stage where it can no longer be ignored as a factor affecting heredity? Or should we agree with the Governor of Colorado, who said the scientists’ statement was an irresponsible publicity stunt and that, they should be arrested?

The question amounts to this: What is the safety level of radiation or is there no safety level at all? The answer is that it depends on whether your concern is for yourself as an individual or whether you are worrying about your descendants. As an individual human being you can stand a certain amount of radiation. As a custodian of the generations to come there is no threshold of safety whatsoever. In the light of both what we know and what we do not know concerning the hereditary effects of exposure to radiation, further explosions of test bombs anywhere, whether in Nevada, Australia, Russia or the South Pacific, are not justifiable. With our weapons for atomic war we obviously have no statement need for powers of destruction greater than those already developed.

A calculated risk might be considered reasonable to attain greater precision in a war that all common sense says must never be waged, but the present alarm rises as much as anything from the fact that the risk we are now taking has not been calculated. At least it has not been calculated by the powers that be to the satisfaction of independent scientists. The authoritative Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which speaks mainly for physicists who have been but are no longer associated with the atom - bomb laboratories and the Atomic Energy Commission of the United States, and the large and influential Federation of American Scientists have both called for a cessation of all further test explosions. Danger certainly exists, but it’s hard to say just what is dangerous and what is not.

The fact is that as individuals we are particularly vulnerable to radiation of all kinds, while our reproductive cells of either sex are far more vulnerable since so much more depends upon their integrity or normality. You may get along perfectly well if a number of your body cells have been damaged by radiation, but if a cell that is in large part responsible for the growth and development of a whole new human being is injured in even the slightest way the result may be anything from moronic to monstrous. It comes to this, that we of the Atomic Age are beginning to play with a new kind of fire, knowing only that the flame is hot and that we as material are inflammable.

No Time for Secrecy

This is no time for official secrecy or for soothing words. We need candor in high places, with less fear that the Russians might learn something concerning the maintenance or the destruction of human health; and if behind the curtain of security the military authorities are acting and planning without adequate knowledge or consideration of biological consequences, we should know how we stand. According to Dr. George LeRoy of the University of Chicago, who was one of the original members of the army medical team studying the atomic-radiation effects on the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, even important new medical knowledge concerning how to treat nuclear-explosion survivors is being needlessly withheld. Testifying before a subcommittee of the U. S. senate this year he declared that he found it difficult to understand why the Atomic Energy Commission had imposed secrecy about the effect of radiation, flash burns and the fall-out. Even if the possibilities are as grim as some people suspect, a frank and open discussion of the matter is far more preferable than a stultifying fear of the unknown.

Even if we put aside the thought of atomic war with all its terrible consequences, we are still faced with an atomic age that must be taken seriously. Apart from the prospect of continuing to set off test explosions as part of the program of an armed peace, there will be an increasing hazard to life and posterity as atomic power plants are built and operated in increasing numbers as the years go by. Atomic energy will steadily take over as other sources of energy such as coal and oil become scarcer and more expensive. And as atomic plants multiply, especially during the experimental periods, the possibility of industrial accidents will be high. Atomic accidents and irresponsible disposal of atomic wastes are possibilities we will have to contend with as long as we have atomic fuel to burn. As hazards they may be less immediately startling than explosions of fission-fusion bombs, but in the long run they present the greater threat.

At present we are worrying most about the nature and effect of test-bomb fall-outs. A hydrogen or fusion-bomb explosion craters the earth immediately beneath it and the pulverized soil and subsoil are swept into the fireball where the particles become coated with radioactive fission products. As the dust cloud is carried downwind, high in the stratosphere, the heavier and more dangerous particles fall to the earth and may lethally contaminate the ground. The lighter particles are carried further away and may travel halfway round the world before rain or snow carries them down to earth.

Cows Are Radioactive

Japanese scientists have been analyzing the nature of radioactive snow and rain for several years as a means of checking on atomic explosions in North America and Russia, while radioactive clouds have been detected passing over eastern Canada shortly after most of the Nevada explosions in the southwestern desert. According to Dr. James Foulks, professor of pharmacology at the University of British Columbia, all the cattle in the world already appear to have been affected by radioactive fall-out from hydrogen and fusion-bomb explosions. He states that radioactive iodine has accumulated to a significant extent in the thyroid gland of cattle on every continent. Grazing animals would naturally concentrate any such substances contaminating their grazing territory, and radio-iodine, like ordinary iodine, tends naturally to collect in the thyroid gland, although in this case the effects are likely to be more disturbing to the cattle than to human beings since we do not eat the glands. Yet it is evidence of the universal character of the fall-out, and if the radiation level of the fall-out from recent Nevada tests reported from Columbia, Mo., turns out to be correct, it can be disturbingly high.

Fall-outs however may originate in test explosions thousands of miles away, as at present, or they may originate locally and on a smaller scale within population centres in the future. Dr. George Weil, of the Atomic Energy Commission at Washington, recently gave a vivid account of the possible consequences of an accident in an atomic power plant. Speaking to the Atomic Industrial Forum in New York he said the danger arises from the fact that such plants will at all times contain large quantities of radioactive materials, including radioactive fuel and fission products, and particularly because a power plant will at times contain much more than enough fissionable material to cause an explosion if things go wrong.

Fissionable materials are bound to accumulate during fuel consumption and as power is generated, and if inhaled or swallowed some of them would be from three million to one thousand million times as toxic as chlorine, which until now has been the most deadly of the common industrial poisons. The greater danger however arises from the fact that under certain circumstances enough fissionable material may accumulate to start a runaway reaction, culminating in an escape of a radioactive cloud of dust or vapor. As Dr. Edward Teller, of H-bomb fame, has said: “There is still no foolproof system that couldn’t be made to work wrongly by a big enough fool.” If such a cloud of fission products drifted away from a power plant at the rate of three or four miles an hour, people in its path for several miles would inhale lethal quantities, and if the cloud should touch the ground the lethal distance would extend much farther, with various degrees of nonlethal or delayed injuries affecting a much wider area. Dr. Weil recommended that since it is generally impractical for a power industry to be situated in remote unpopulated regions and too expensive to build on sites large enough to contain possible damage, buildings must be built both gas-tight and fission-tight, with warning systems constructed to enable a community to run from the path of any fission cloud that might escape.

Possibly a completely satisfactory power-plant design will eventually be devised, but during the long experimental period between now and then accidents may happen. The shutdown at Chalk River shows that they occur in even the best-regulated atomic piles. In this case a crack in the reactor allowed a stream of neutrons and other products to escape and contaminate the plant with radioactivity, although no one seems to have been injured. The plant was decontaminated within twelve months and even the bulk of the radioactive water that had escaped was recovered.

We may be lucky and accidents of this sort may be few and far between. The more imposing problem is the disposal of atomic industrial waste, for the ashes of atomic energy will be the most dangerous industrial waste ever known to man. Debris from the weapons factories of the Atomic Energy Commission and from the atomic laboratories in England has already become an expensive headache. The same wide range of radioactive fission products, some three hundred of them, are produced as by-products of atomic energy as they are in bomb explosions, and whereas radio-iodine remains significantly active for only a matter of weeks, one variety of radio-strontium — one of the commoner substances produced—stays effectively active for the better part of a century. Some, perhaps many, of these radioactive substances will find diverse peacetime uses, but not in the quantities in which they are and will be produced.

In spite of its value there are only about six pounds of radium in use in the world today. Yet, according to Dr. L. P. Hatch of the Atomic Energy Commission’s laboratory at Brookhaven, Miss., by the year 2000 the annual waste output of atomic industry will be equivalent to more than 400,000 tons of radium. We cannot use more than a fraction of it, so what shall be done with the rest? One proposal recently made in England was to bury the containers in deep abandoned coal mines in the Forest of Dean, but miners in the area made such an outcry the idea was quickly forgotten, and the tanks were dumped in the Atlantic Ocean beyond the edge of the continental shelf. Supposedly by the time the containers erode the radioactivity within will have subsided. Or will it? This deep-sea method of disposal is favored by Dr. Walter Claus, chief of the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission’s biophysics branch. He thinks that there are many places in the ocean where the bottom water has remained without mixing with upper levels for at least two thousand years, and that atomic wastes dumped in these chasms would not permeate upper levels to damage marine life, enter the atmosphere or injure people at sea.

On the other hand oceanographic experts state that no one knows how often the ocean turns over in its bed. There is evidence that the bulk of the cold deep-sea water sank to the bottom during the great cold period of 1810-1820, which made the surface water so heavy that it sank. Cold spells have been coming periodically and no one can tell when another one will send chilled water to the bottom, bringing to the top much of the water already down there.

What are the alternatives? If we bury the wastes in shallow ground they may eventually escape into the ground water. There seems to be no safe place on the planet to put the stuff, and it has even been suggested that we shoot the disagreeable products into space. Dr. S. F. Singer, rocket expert at the University of Maryland, reckons the cost would run to about one million ! dollars for every hundred pounds of atomic garbage. Perhaps some genius of the future will devise a way of turning unwanted -and unkeepable fission products into something more useful and less dangerous. Otherwise the Atomic Age may turn out to be too costly in every way to go on with. In some ways it is a pity it ever started.

Will Radiation Kill You?

What radiation does to a human depends on the duration and intensity of the radiation and where it affects him. The human animal, like other animals, can live only as long as it can replace ageing and dying cells with cells that are newborn. You see this in the skin, where new tissue is continually forming at the base and old dead tissue rubs off the surface when you dry yourself after a bath. Red and white blood cells, like skin cells, are also short-lived and the marrow in your bones is forever manufacturing new ones at a fantastic rate. You would die of anaemia in a few weeks if the process ceased entirely and blood cells died without being replaced.

Radiation, whether in the form of small electrons streaming from an X-ray apparatus, or the larger and more effective neutrons from atom smashers and atom bombs, or the even larger emanations from radioactive elements, has the general effect in the living cell of a bull in a china shop, upsetting or smashing much of the delicate and carefully arranged contents. What happens depends on how great the disturbance is and how long it continues; even a small disturbance that goes on indefinitely can be disastrous. Accordingly, a cell can suffer in several degrees. It can be killed outright. It may go on living but lose its ability to divide and become two newly born cells. Or it may remain alive, vigorous and able to multiply but at the same time become a changeling capable of profound misbehavior.

If most of the cells of your body should suffer in the first degree, then you have had a fatal accident not unlike many others and your worries are quickly over. If you have been thoroughly irradiated without being visibly burned or otherwise injured, as was the case of people in Japan just outside the blast areas of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you go on living but you don’t go on replacing ageing cells since all cells have lost their capacity to grow and multiply. Consequently as your hair falls out there is none to take its place; as your skin wears off there is no new skin forming beneath and pinpoint bleeding appears everywhere; as your red blood cells fade away no others arise to replenish the supply and red-blood anaemia appears: as' the white blood cells—the defensive cells of the body—diminish, the ever-present bacteria invade the tissues and produce mass infections. It all happens more or less at once a few weeks after exposure. It is nasty, but so are many other ways of dying and radiation exposure sufficient to cause this must be regarded simply as an accident with delayed but fatal effects. Short of a general or local catastrophe you are not likely to be so unfortunate.

There are more insidious effects however that are difficult to guard against.

The most dangerous aspect of radiation in the long run is that its effects are cumulative. Every impact is added to those that have already happened, and one of the effects is to change a normal cell into a cancer cell. Leukemia is a form of cancer of white blood cells that turns up in a certain small percentage of the human population. But physicians who, in spite of precautions, are exposed to X-rays much more often than their patients develop leukemia nearly twice as frequently. Radiologists who are working with X-rays all the time, though as cautiously as possible, develop the disease eight to ten times as often as other physicians. This however is simply an occupational hazard like that of the European uranium miners. If you are apprehensive you merely need to avoid becoming either a radiologist or a uranium miner. Yet the effects are basically similar although produced in somewhat different ways.

The X-rays produce vast streams of infinitesimal electrons which penetrate the whole body and are able to interfere directly with the young white blood cells being produced in the bone marrow. The X-ray machine itself is the source of trouble and shoots from a distance. The radioactive particles of uranium that lodge in the lung of a miner are dangerously radiative only over a very short distance, but within that distance lie plenty of cells and sooner or later one of them may get deranged in such a way as to become a malignant cancer cell, giving rise to cancer of the lung. Any radioactive particle lodging in the lung is likely to produce the same effect. Radium or radio-strontium, which is a common fission product of atomic explosions, however, ends up in bone and gives rise to multiple bone cancers, generally after some years’ delay.

Danger Lies In Future

The question now facing us as individuals is whether the fall-out particles produced by the test explosions to date are likely to affect us in this way. The answer is that so far we are in no such danger unless we live close to a testing ground or get caught unexpectedly near an explosion, like the Japanese fishermen on the Lucky Dragon last year in the Pacific. One of these men died. The possibility exists, to be sure, or else cattle here and everywhere would not be picking up enough radioiodine to be detected. But unless we eat green stuff in the same quantities that a cow does we are not likely to be disturbed.

The danger lies mainly in the future when atomic power plants become numerous and accidents are possible, and particularly when radioactive fission products, waste or otherwise, are accumulating all around us. How soon the situation becomes acute is anyone’s guess, although it is more likely to be several decades away than several years. In the meantime most city dwellers are much more menaced by city smog than by fall-outs from a more remote source, for smog itself is far from being innocent in the production of lung cancer and other ailments. If we had no one to worry about except our own individual welfare we could probably tolerate test-bomb explosions for a long time to come, just so long as they don’t get too close. The concern all of us have or should have is not for our own generation but for all those yet to come.

In the course of time all living things, whether animal, plant, bacteria or virus, undergo changes known as mutations. Changes occur in the reproductive cells so that the cells and the individuals that grow out of them are significantly different from what they might have been. Such mutational changes, which are for the most part spontaneous, are not the only source of the differences that distinguish individuals from one another or from their parents, for another process of hereditary reshuffling also goes on. The spontaneous changes are the ones which in a human population give rise to such things as color blindness, albinos, blood deficiency such as haemophilia, stumpy fingers, or too many fingers and toes, and a host of other familial or hereditary features passed on from one generation to the next to the dismay of all concerned. For every mutation that might be an asset, nine hundred and ninety-nine are likely to be a liability and detrimental both to the individual and to the society of which he is part. Radiation increases the rate at which such mutations occur. ’Phis was proven by Dr. H. J. Muller, professor of zoology at Indiana University, who some years ago received a Nobel Prize for doing so.

Here is the crux of the situation. While most mutations appear to arise spontaneously, some are the result of natural radiation at the surface of the earth and any increase in the general radiation level raises the rate of their production. This has been shown experimentally in animals in the laboratory by Dr. Curt Stern, geneticist at the University of California, and we have no reason to believe that humans would be immune. In a recent publication Muller in fact estimates that about one quarter of all the mutations that arise in the reproductive cells of human beings are produced by the natural radiation resulting from radioactive materials in the earth’s crust and the cosmic rays streaming in from outer space. In other words, we are already contending with undesirable results of radiation, and inasmuch as we endeavor to keep every born individual alive until he or she is old enough to reproduce in turn, we nurture our misfits along with the rest. Nature’s way has been to get rid of the misfits as quickly as possible so that the strain remains healthy and vigorous.

What the test explosions have been doing is to raise the radiation level of the world we live in slightly above that which prevailed before. And since the radioactivity of fission products may last for a century, every time a bomb explodes the level is raised a little more. They all add up, and the longer we continue our pretty experiments the longer the excess radiation will take to die down. It does not matter very much how slight the rise may be. If it persists it will sooner or later produce its effects and all the unpleasant inheritable defects known to man will slowly but steadily increase throughout the human population.

This process would not spell the doom of humanity however. Not even atomic war would do that. But the penalty for persisting in adding radioactive materials to the air we breathe and the ground we walk on could eventually become appalling. The greater part of the human race would become deficient in various ways, with loss of fertility, loss of vigor and loss of intelligence. Sooner or later humanity would probably become incompetent to maintain the Atomic Age. Then in the course of a few centuries the man-made radioactivity would disappear, and during the course of the next few hundred thousand years the degenerate human stock would become weeded out and replaced by healthy strains that have survived among the wreckage. It would be a slow process of recovery and the Atomic Age would not have been worth the cost. It is our business to see that such a price will never have to be paid. ★

Can radioactivity cause cancer? Here's a statement by Canadian atomic officials:

Although lung cancer has killed a large proportion of the men employed in uranium and other radioactive mines in Europe —as the accompanying article reports—scientists of the medical and biology divisions of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited say no similar problem has yet arisen here. Following is an official statement prepared for Maclean's:

A high rate of occurrence of cancer of the lung in the miners of Schneeberg and Joachimsthal has been reported in the medical literature for some years. It has been thought to be the result of long continued inhalation of the radioactive gas, radon, and other radioactive substances clinging to the dust particles in the mine air. But there are other influences which must be considered. There are several stable (nonradioactive) elements which if inhaled as dust increase the likelihood that lung cancer will develop. Arsenic is one of these and is known to be encountered in European mines. There may be other toxic dusts as well. Furthermore the cancer appears after an average exposure of seventeen years, a long exposure by Canadian standards. And finally it is possible that because of inbreeding the local population which has provided the working force for many centuries may be more susceptible to the disease.

In Canada there is, as yet, no known cancer problem in connection with uranium miners. This may be because the annual turnover of workers is high and because of improved working conditions. But the experience in Europe and the recent marked expansion of uranium - mining activities led to careful studies of the possible hazards at. Port Radium, NWT, and Beaverlodge, Sask. As might be expected, it was found that measures taken to reduce the dust content, of the air also reduced the radioactivity. The relation between dust and silicosis is already well known. Methods of reducing dust formation by the liberal use of water at the working faces and removing dust by adequate ventilation have become standard procedures.

As a result of the studies, specific recommendations for further improvement of the control of dust were made and are being acted upon. Equipment has been developed for measuring radon in mine air. The apparatus is not expensive and the plans are available to any mine operator from the Ontario Mines Accident Prevention Association, or the Department of National Health and Welfare. An added hazard peculiar to such mines is that unused workings which are not ventilated may accumulate high concentrations of radon. Such areas must be sealed and must be well ventilated in advance of any resumption of work.

Levels of uranium in the mine air do not constitute a health hazard. To obtain more information about lung cancer, which seems to be increasing everywhere, it is planned to determine the amount of previous exposure to radiation, from any source, of patients with this disease. It will be some time before results can be expected.