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Can nuclear power ever comply with the human right to health? Part III



In the continuing wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations sent Special Rapporteur on the right to health (a position created in 2002) Anand Grover to assess Japan’s compliance with human rights principles; specificallythe right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”. His visit took place between November 15 and 26, 2012 with permission of the Government of Japan. This is the third part of a Beyond Nuclear exploration into how the Special Rapporteur’s (SR’s) recommendations and conclusions may apply to nuclear power and human rights compliance beyond the Fukushima catastrophe. See Part I and Part II.

Many aspects of the SR’s report are groundbreaking and speak directly to the shortcomings of our current assumptions on radiation and health not only in regard to events in Japan, but also in the context of radiation protection worldwide; leading ultimately to an extremely important question:

Is it possible for the nuclear power industry and government proponents to comply with the UN definition of the right to health, or must they always exist in violation of these principles?

In this part we examine how nuclear proponents have turned a legitimate anxiety disorder, radiophobia, into a label they use to silence valid questions regarding the impact radiation has on our health, particularly that of children.


How are my family? Young Fukushima evacuee, Kasumi, age 14. Click on her drawing for her family's story.“The Special Rapporteur personally observed the anxiety and stress among evacuees, residents and their families, which were related to the effect of radiation leakage on health, especially of children, cost of evacuation, loss of livelihoods as well as uncertain future and delays in receiving compensation that hindered rebuilding of their lives.” (p 14)

Radiophobia: definition and misuse

Radiophobia is a medical condition that has been co-opted as a bullying tactic by nuclear proponents, often targeting women in order to silence their inconvenient questions and make them feel like social outcasts. When nuclear proponents use a legitimate mental condition to bully, they perform a disservice to both those who suffer from this condition, and those who do not.

Radiophobia is an anxiety disorder, like fear of spiders (arachnaphobia) or fear of public places (agoraphobia). The clinical definition and common symptoms of radiophobia are much the same as other phobias and anxiety disorders.

“During a panic attack associated with a fear of radiation, a person may experience one or more of the following:

  • Nausea or dizziness
  • Change in heartbeat
  • Inability to form thoughts or speak
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling of terror
  • Desire to flee

“A fear of radiation and x-rays is not necessarily unnatural, since exposure to these elements can be dangerous, but often within radiophobia the fear of being exposed can become entirely irrational. (emphasis added)

‘Without proper treatment, symptoms will gradually worsen and a radiophobic person may begin to avoid unfamiliar places and new social situations which can damage physical and mental health, damage existing social relationships, and prevent a person from making any new meaningful relationships.”

Tribute to the TEPCO workers who fought to control the catastrophe in the early daysRadiophobia, like any other anxiety disorder, should be diagnosed by a qualified professional, deserves to be recognized for what it is, and the sufferer treated. This is the case for both survivors of nuclear catastrophes like Chernobyl and Fukushima, and for those who have not suffered the full force of these catastrophes. Nuclear industry proponents should not use this condition to ignore inconvenient and uncomfortable questions about the impact of radiation on worker and public health – questions that deserve answers.

Unfortunately, nuclear proponents have used radiophobia to describe anyone who refuses to be exposed to radiation for any reason. This can include a nuclear accident survivor trying to glean information about their exposure, relocate out of a contaminated area, etc; people who refuse radioactive medical exams in order to limit their exposure, or people who oppose nuclear power and weapons.

The term “radiophobia” makes an early appearance in an opinion letter “Radiophobia; a new psychological syndrome, published in the Western journal of surgery, obstetrics and gynecology in 1951. The author, Mr. Jack de Ment, staggers on in a very disorganized way about how damaging the fear of radiation could be to all atomic undertakings, bombs and energy. He basically accuses teachers, parents and social workers in particular, of making children fear atomic bombs. This “conditioning” he argues “amounts to psychological punishment”—in essence accusing these parents of abuse. Since this is published in a medical journal which addresses women’s health issues, the not-so-subtle implication is that radiophobia is a “woman’s disease” and she passes it to any children she contacts: “Anxiety-ridden parents or teachers who fear atomic bombs probably project the same fears to their children…” During this same era, people were encouraged to rabidly fear communists, proving that those in power only want people to fear what is convenient politically and economically. Fear of communists was not maligned while fear of radiation was.

Mr. de Ment, who fancied himself an inventor, came up with a plan in 1953 to seed clouds with radioactive salts. This would result in weaponized rain, capable of crippling or killing whole populations. Today, Mr. de Ment’s commentary would be considered anachronistic—inapplicable to our more nuanced understanding of radiation. But in the early days of a budding nuclear industry, he was able to get his remarks published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. What Mr. de Ment failed to recognize is that not all anxiety is a disease. Well-placed anxiety prevents disease. Unfortunately, many nuclear proponents are still unwilling to acknowledge this and rather than provide answers or admit they don’t have them, they resort to mislabeling the people who ask.

Radiophobia is often blamed for the desire to avoid medical radiation exposure, such as diagnosis and treatment for tuberculosis, or exposures occurring from natural radiation like radioactive sands in Turkey. But research has shown an increase in the incidence of secondary diseases  (cancer and heart disease) after medical procedures using radiation like those for tuberculosis, scoliosis, and cancer. This secondary effect is especially prevalent if the patient is exposed as a child:  

“However, studies of radiation exposure from multiple chest fluoroscopies used to monitor treatment for tuberculosis (TB) in adolescent girls and young women and a study of multiple diagnostic X-ray examinations to monitor curvature of the spine in girls with scoliosis have reported increased mortality from breast cancer with increasing radiation dose. In the TB cohorts, the average breast doses from highly fractionated high-dose-rate exposures ranged from 0.79 to 2.1 Gy, whereas in the scoliosis cohort, the average breast dose was lower, 0.11 Gy. In these studies, the risk of breast cancer began to appear 15 years after radiation exposure and the risk remained elevated up to 50 years later.”

Moreover, this increase in risk of disease is not limited to medical doses. Studies of natural and artificial background radiation have shown that this radiation is responsible for a certain number of childhood cancers already (starting at about 1.3 mSv per year for certain cancer types.) Children and pregnancy life stages are known to be particularly vulnerable to radioactivity.

Students born in regions of Sweden with higher Chernobyl fallout performed worse in secondary school, particularly in math. “Damage is accentuated within families (i.e., siblings comparison) and among children born to parents with low education… To the extent that parents responded to the cognitive endowment, we infer that parental investments reinforced the initial Chernobyl damage.” This decreased performance in school was not accompanied by any health damage, meaning that neural development is compromised at very low radiation doses (4 mSv is estimated to be the highest dose received by an individual in Sweden as a result of Chernobyl radioactivity). This very low radiation could be responsible for subclinical negative health impacts that would be harder to spot, much less attribute to a precipitating cause.

An additional study showed that living in areas where the natural background levels of radiation are high can result in “significant negative effects on immunology, mutation and disease frequency”, including reduced levels of antioxidants. These effects are small, but consistent and significant. Mutation effects, including but not limited to cancer, start at approximately 1 mSv per year of natural background radiation. Any additional exposure to artificial radioactivity increases the risk of this damage, as demonstrated by study after study that supports increasing risk per increasing dose.

Clearly informing oneself about the consequences of radiation exposure, even for an initially perceived benefit like cancer treatment, is not “radiophobic”; it is prudent and should be encouraged.

Even worse, according to Macmillan dictionary, radiophobia is now being defined by “technical experts” as anyone who opposes nuclear power: “Chernobyl has left an enduring legacy of opposition to nuclear power, now often referred to as radiophobia by technical experts investigating the long-term effects of the accident[.]” Clearly nuclear industry proponents don’t like the difficult questions raised by either ongoing nuclear catastrophes or nuclear facilities capable of causing ongoing catastrophes.

Consider Japan.

Radiophobia mislabeling allows cover-up of health problems that are caused by radiation and societal shunning of those who question authority

In the wake of the ongoing Fukushima catastrophe in Japan, labeling someone or whole groups of people “radiophobic” is often a way to silence concerned citizens by making them appear unreasonably worried. Relating her experiences with people in the contaminated areas of Japan, doctor of psychosomatic medicine, Katsuno Onozawa (pictured) says:

“What shocked me … was the gap between what the newspapers and TV news were reporting and the reality in Fukushima as attested to by the mothers who came for consultations.

“Wanting to protect their children from radiation, they pleaded with the prefectural and city governments and local doctors, but none would take their side.

“They just said things like, ‘It's safe. You don't have to take any special action. There are lots of radiation-phobia mothers, and we can't deal with them all.’

“They worry that they have to continue living amid high radiation levels due to their inability to evacuate the prefecture for financial or other reasons…

 “Thinking they could not know what effects it would have in the future because of the example of the Chernobyl disaster, mothers desperately gathered information and pleaded for the authorities to prepare.

“But all the experts did was say, ‘It's safe so you don't need (radiation) checks, and we do not recommend evacuating the prefecture.

“Yet the children were exhibiting a range of symptoms including sore throats, nosebleeds, diarrhea, fatigue, headaches and rashes. The most dangerous thing is to write off causes of illness as psychosocial factors with statements like, ‘Your child's stress comes from not being able to go outdoors’ and that a ‘mother worrying will make her child sick.’

“These women are isolated in their communities and families as they conceal their discomfort. Many reproach themselves, thinking, ‘Maybe I'm the one who's strange,’ and become depressed.” (emphasis added)

Radiophobia isn’t the problem, ignoring exposure to radioactivity is the problem. Falsely labeling whole groups as  “radiophobic” allows people in positions of power to bully concerned citizens, mostly women, into silence and often results in the dissolution of families (now dubbed as a “radiation divorce” in Japan) because of disagreement between husbands and wives about what level of radiation is and is not safe. Family splits are precipitated by purposeful obfuscation of the danger posed by radioactivity, not fear.