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June 29, 2011

Fukushima Is Killing Americans

By: Aaron Datesman

In 2009, the New York Academy of Sciences published "Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment", an English translation of a Russian-language report surveying approximately 5000 scientific and medical studies. Since everyone ought to read this report, I guess it's no surprise that it's out of print and that it's difficult to get a copy. It's an astonishing document.

I lifted the graph below from its second chapter, dealing with public health. It shows the increase of perinatal mortality in one heavily-contaminated province in Belarus (Gomel) after the Chernobyl disaster in April, 1986. "Perinatal" mortality includes stillbirths and infants who perish in the first six days of life. The bars on the graph essentially are estimates of dose.


This is not very different from the information about infant death rates due to the Three Mile Island disaster which I wrote about here. It is also not at all different from the following observation, published by Janette Sherman and Joseph Mangano in Counterpunch earlier this month.

The recent CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report indicates that eight cities in the northwest U.S. (Boise ID, Seattle WA, Portland OR, plus the northern California cities of Santa Cruz, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, and Berkeley) reported the following data on deaths among those younger than one year of age:

4 weeks ending March 19, 2011 - 37 deaths (avg. 9.25 per week)
10 weeks ending May 28, 2011 - 125 deaths (avg.12.50 per week)

This amounts to an increase of 35% (the total for the entire U.S. rose about 2.3%), and is statistically significant. Of further significance is that those dates include the four weeks before and the ten weeks after the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster. In 2001 the infant mortality was 6.834 per 1000 live births, increasing to 6.845 in 2007. All years from 2002 to 2007 were higher than the 2001 rate.

I dislike these sorts of calculations, but that's an excess of 3 deaths per week for 10 weeks, or 30 dead babies. Perhaps a representative from the nuclear power industry would like to argue that those lost lives are just the burden we bear in the face of other alternatives which are even worse, and that in any event Fukushima was a horrible accident that nobody could have foreseen. Perhaps I would ask that person why he hates America, after which I might impale him on a wind turbine.

— Aaron Datesman

Posted at June 29, 2011 11:31 PM

H/t to a reader and frequent commenter, who brought this to my attention several weeks ago. I appreciated the information a lot! (You know who you are....)

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at June 29, 2011 11:43 PM

There is a tendency for people to pooh-pooh articles like the one in counterpunch. It's just too far out for some. I mean, the government would tell us if something was bad for us seems to be the predominant attitude. I don't know why people don't mistrust the government more, it's suicidal not to.

Posted by: rob payne at June 30, 2011 12:11 AM

...after which I might impale him on a wind turbine.

You joke, but I drove by some wind farms recently after a few days of 50 mph winds and saw 3 huge turbines that had been blown to the ground. Sure, wind power is safe--as long as you're not standing under it.

Posted by: John Caruso at June 30, 2011 02:29 AM

@John - Actually I'm not joking, AND I now work for the Wind & Water Power Program in DOE..... So I'm interested to know - where were these wind turbines? That's the kind of thing I need to know about.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at June 30, 2011 05:44 AM

If you've purchased this $150 report at your own expense, Aaron, thank you very much.

In your opinion, does the most controversial item from the report-- that 985,000 people have died due to Chernobyl-- bear scrutiny? If so, what's a good way to respond to arguments (such as by George Monbiot) that the report should be discounted, because it isn't peer-reviewed and that the NYAS has backed away from endorsing its content?

Posted by: Quin at June 30, 2011 06:02 AM

Yes, according to Monbiot that source is quite problematic:

A devastating review in the journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry points out that the book achieves its figure by the remarkable method of assuming that all increased deaths from a wide range of diseases – including many which have no known association with radiation – were caused by the accident(15). There is no basis for this assumption, not least because screening in many countries improved dramatically after the disaster and, since 1986, there have been massive changes in the former eastern bloc. The study makes no attempt to correlate exposure to radiation with the incidence of disease(16).

Its publication seems to have arisen from a confusion about whether the Annals was a book publisher or a scientific journal. The academy has given me this statement: “In no sense did Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences or the New York Academy of Sciences commission this work; nor by its publication do we intend to independently validate the claims made in the translation or in the original publications cited in the work. The translated volume has not been peer-reviewed by the New York Academy of Sciences, or by anyone else.”(17)

Like the commenter above, I'd be interested to hear your response to this.

Posted by: JamieSW at June 30, 2011 06:58 AM

Maybe I'm just dumb, but I don't understand the graphic you're posting. I don't know what the dark bars and the dots with error bars are supposed to mean. Since it's really important to your point, it would be great if you could elaborate a bit more. Thanks, in any case, for pointing out the perinatal birth increase in the western USA. Interesting.

Posted by: setty at June 30, 2011 09:11 AM

...where were these wind turbines?

In the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs. There's a mix of newer and older turbines there (or so it appears), and I saw about 3-4 turbines laying on the ground behind their towers--mostly older ones, but I believe one of the newer/larger ones as well. Given the position and orientation it seemed unlikely they'd come down by design, though I don't know that they weren't down before the 50 mph wind days (but given how windy it had been it was natural to think that was the cause).

Posted by: John Caruso at June 30, 2011 11:12 AM

@Quin - Actually, I got my hands on it the most punk way I could think of - I got the US nuclear industry to purchase it for me. (I'm a staff scientist at Argonne National Laboratory. I requested it from the library, and read over it at my desk at the Department of Energy.)

@JamieSW - On the topic of the death toll estimate: read the report, you'll wonder why we aren't ALL dead. I'll try to post something a bit more illuminating this evening. But I would note two things:

1. I first heard pro-nuclear opinions similar to Monbiot's current position in 2005, when I worked at Bechtel Bettis Atomic Power Lab. He's just parroting the industry line. This influences my willingness to believe what he says a great deal. Maybe the same will be true for you.

2. Parts of the critique of the document are nonsensical; if more people could see it, maybe this take on its usefulness wouldn't have such traction. It's a review of thousands of articles, broken out into four sections (environment, health, remediation, and one other I can't recall at the moment), each section broken out further by topic (neoplasms, birth defects, neonatal, heart disease, etc.), then broken down geographically (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Europe, North America), then providing a couple of paragraphs about each relevant report.

Those individual reports come from many sources, including Western peer-reviewed journals, but also (for instance) proceedings from conferences held in Belarus, Ukraine, and so on. Because this is information generated by scientists who ARE ACTUALLY THERE and which is not available to Western researchers, it's a tremendously valuable document.

Criticizing the report for lack of peer review is a technicality, I think. If the articles it surveys were reviewed and are sound, then most of the information contained in the review should be considered solid. And did I mention that there are 5000 of them?

About the 985,000 figure, I agree that that deserves scrutiny before deciding whether to accept it or not. I have not yet examined that calculation closely. However, like I said, I've read big chunks of the report, and it only leads me to wonder why we aren't all dead.

@Setty - The open circles with error bars represent perinatal mortality. The story is that mortality diverges from the long-term trend (a value of "1") after 1986. It appears to begin to return to trend starting around 1995-96, although the final point in 1998 is high again.

The bars represent calculations of the amount of radioactive strontium in pregnant women, by year. The amounts increase for some time after the accident probably due to bioaccumulation, although I don't have access to the source article and can't say for sure. The Sr-90 burden should relate straightforwardly to the dose the fetus receives in utero.

Taking the open circles and the bars together, then, the story Korblein is telling is: more dose due to radioactive materials in pregnant mothers, more dead babies.

I'm sorry it isn't clear. I've really looked at a lot of these things....

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at June 30, 2011 11:36 AM

The wikipedia page about the NYAS report is surprisingly useful: here

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at June 30, 2011 01:14 PM

Sr-90-its in the milk. It replaces the calcium/same valence group.
When Mom feeds those that do survive birth---???

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 30, 2011 03:39 PM

Dr. Datesman:

I am so coveting my neighbor's goods right now. You must have god-like access to journals with your current job/employment history. Do you have a pdf of the Academy text?

Posted by: Amandasaurus at June 30, 2011 03:53 PM

"The passage Monbiot is referring to comes from Charles' review, and actually relates to the 2006 Greenpeace report on Chernobyl, not the book by Yablokov et al.[8]"

Posted by: Amandasaurus at June 30, 2011 04:03 PM

At risk of note-spamming this post, I have a question.

From what I've read about TMI, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima, there seems almost always to be mention that each of these disasters occurred as the result of precautionary drills gone horribly awry. So, my question is: wtf? In attempting to determine how we'd respond in the case of an emergency, we've created an emergency that we don't know how to respond to? Three goddamned times now? That sounds pretty foreseeable to me, much like installing cheaper safety mechanisms when more expensive and more reliable alternatives are available kind of screams, "bad idea!"

Posted by: Amandasaurus at June 30, 2011 04:33 PM

...that last part is phrased somewhat incoherently, but what I meant was: RAGE! CORPORATE PROFIT OVER PEOPLE!

Posted by: Amandasaurus at June 30, 2011 04:37 PM

@Amandasaurus -

I'm not aware that there were precautionary drills ongoing at Fukushima. Where did you read this?

My e-mail is You can write to me to ask me the question about pdf's again. I'm not sure that the gods need journal subscriptions, since I think they make the rules. AD

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at June 30, 2011 06:09 PM

Okay, thank you!

And I misread what was actually "planned maintenance" at Fukushima. Rage contained.

Posted by: Amandasaurus at June 30, 2011 06:32 PM

Fukushima children test positive for radiation

Posted by: Susan at June 30, 2011 10:32 PM

British government plans to play down Fukushima accident

Posted by: Susan at June 30, 2011 10:34 PM


You've answered a lot of potential criticisms of the graph already, but wouldn't it be better if it showed a few years _before_ Chernobyl for control purposes? (I realise you didn't draw it, and you may not have the data to hand). How about a long-run infant mortality time series for those cities you mentioned, with the date of the Fukushima accident marked? (Yeah, I know, do it y'self - but you seem to be the man on the case here). At least compare 2011 with the same seasonal period for a few years back.

Do you have a plausible mechanism for those infant deaths in the Northwest?

Posted by: Plucky Underdog at July 1, 2011 04:03 AM

Interesting post as usual, Mr. Datesman. Not exactly a criticism, but: If the contents of the report make you wonder that we're not all dead - and yet, evidently we're quite alive - does that alone call into question the conclusions being drawn from it? Kids the problem in the report, or in your reading of it?

Posted by: RMailhot at July 1, 2011 05:33 AM

I'm skeptical because there is no mechanism for radiation, except in extreme doses, to cause death in a short period after exposure.

Posted by: rapier at July 1, 2011 05:55 AM

The graph doesn't show mortality or mortality ratio - it shows the odds ratio of the year's mortality statistic, which is a different thing. It's always > unity, which probably explains why the axis is truncated there, and it could correspond to a reduced or increased death rate in any given year, as far as I can tell from a skim of the relevant Wikipedia article. (I Am Not A Statistician).

It looks like things bob along below or at significance level (if that's what the error bars mean) for a few years, and then start to increase in 1989-1990. Did anything else happen in Ukraina, or the SovUnion as a whole, in 1989-90 that might have contributed to a deterioration in public health in general, and mortality of the most vulnerable, i.e. neonates, in particular?

Yeah, I know. And I've heard it argued that Chernobyl was an indirect contributor to the fall of the Soviet Union insofar as it increased the general level of anti-govt. feeling. So I suppose you could ascribe a whole bunch of deaths to Chernobyl if you aren't too fussy about how you define the causal chain. Or you could ascribe the deaths to US/Saudi sponsorship of the Afghan Muj if you prefer. These things tend to be somewhat over-determined, and history is just one damn thing after another.

I'm sure the report you cite controls for all these things and more. But so far you haven't chosen to share that part of it with us.


The Plucky Underdog.

Posted by: Plucky Underdog at July 1, 2011 09:19 AM

Boing Boing looked at this last week -

Posted by: gumby at July 1, 2011 09:49 AM

Thank you Mr. Datesman for an informative article.

Some U.S. nuclear power plants are killing Americans too, in a way that does not involve atmospheric contamination, it involves river contamination.

Posted by: Dredd at July 1, 2011 11:52 AM

@PU -

Well, a graph in a scientific paper is useful if it elegantly describes the story told in the text. I have the abstract of Korblein's paper, and according to that document the long-term trends in Gomel and in the comparison region coincide up until 1988. I think the graph tells that story, too.

I agree that the Sherman/Mangano information is not well fleshed-out - but it's there, and it's alarming. I hope that Mangano will do a more extensive study and publish the results through the Radiation and Public Health Project. (To whom I think I will donate about 35 $5 Fridays.....)

The point of my post is more that TMI happened, and infants died; then Chernobyl happened, and infants died; and now Fukushima happened, and look....

To your last point, I believe it's well-established that radiation exposure is extraordinarily harmful to fetuses and infants. (I have not gone to the fundamental scientific literature on this point, however.) Sherman and Mangano touch on this point briefly in the linked Counterpunch article.

@RM - Hi! How are you? I was kidding (a bit) about the "all dead" part. My impression from the report is actually, "Wow....this was MUCH more serious than I ever understood."

@rapier - In the womb, and for very small children, I do not think this is true. Beyond that, the distinction between "no known mechanism" and "no mechanism exists" makes me twitchy.

@PU - I will post some additional info soon; a report from Env. Health Perspectives which sites this Korblein article, and then the abstract of the article itself. The criticism is legitimate, but it's contradicted by the observation that there were corresponding increases in perinatal mortality in Bavaria and Poland.

About the odds ratio, well, that's dumb. I guess, if it can't be lower than one, then statisticians must just switch the observed and comparison groups to use the concept meaningfully. But the article abstract clearly states that there was a 30% increase in perinatal mortality through most of the 1990's, which is what the graph shows.

Ugh. That was long.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at July 1, 2011 12:01 PM

Didn't _all_ the Warsaw Pact countries -- Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Bulgaria and all the others -- experience political turmoil around 1990? I don't know how you're going to unconfound the economic and radiation effects.

What about comparative infant mortality in areas of higher natural radioactivity? Or are you asserting that this is specific to airborne 90Sr?

Posted by: Plucky Underdog at July 1, 2011 12:13 PM

the distinction between "no known mechanism" and "no mechanism exists" makes me twitchy.

Exactly! The difference between the category of theory ('We believe that we understand this inside and out and can explain the whole causal chain') and the category of empirical results ('We don't have a mechanistic understanding, just correlation') is badly under-taught.

We *like* to have the former, but usually don't outside of fundamental physics problems involving, y'know, a grand total of two particles.

But the latter is the real essence of science, because the theory might be wrong.

This is so hard to get across to people.

Posted by: Cloud at July 2, 2011 03:11 PM

Lack of imagination (of a mechanism) is not by itself a valid test, in other words.

Posted by: Cloud at July 2, 2011 03:13 PM

Odds ratios do not have to be greater than 1. Greater than 1 indicates an increased chance, less than one a decreased chance. Odds ratios are significant if the confidence interval does not include 1.

Posted by: Mike B. at July 4, 2011 03:24 PM