The recent release and popularity of the HBO series Chernobyl reminded its several million viewers — regular folks — of something that many experts have been worried about for decades: That the nuclear-industrial complex that’s been mining uranium since the middle of the 20th Century to make both atomic bombs and atomic energy is increasingly a hazard to human health.
Many people have come to define nuclear risk in terms of cataclysmic events that either have happened — most notably the 1986 explosion and fire at the then-USSR’s Chernobyl plant but also the 2011 meltdown event at Japan’s Fukushima plant, not to mention the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — or which could happen in the future.
But the rise of our nuclear regime since World War II has created a large and ongoing industry that routinely exposes millions of people to constant and sometimes daily doses of radiation — from things like mining uranium, the hazardous nuclear waste from abandoned bomb factories, the use of depleted uranium in conventional warfare, and increasingly, radioactivity seeping its way into our everyday environment.
What if I told you that the initial framework that scientists developed to measure the risks of human exposure to uranium has turned out to be serious flawed and, as a result, is underestimating one of the greatest threats to public health of the 21st Century?
That grim diagnosis is at the center of short but vital new book from one of the world’s most renowned experts on the health effects of exposure to radiation, Christopher Busby. The British scholar, a retired professor for the University of Ulster, is back with arguably his most important work yet in Anomalous Health Effects of Uranium Exposure,” recently released by Scholars’ Press.
In the book, Busby — whom I’ve worked with on major legal cases and critical environmental issues for years — argues that evidence gained during the past decade of human radiation exposure on the battlefield and elsewhere leads us to a stunning conclusion: That uranium risks can’t be safely assessed by the conventional model developed by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.
Busby notes that the so-called “absorbed dose” model that can be assesses over large masses of tissue on an average basis became the scientific standard, and that the standard has remained the same even as decades of data now show that much lower doses can damage human DNA and is linked to serious poor health consequences.
His book describes the inability of modern science to adjust to the real-world evidence on radiation as a failure of the so-called Philosophy of Science as described by the writer Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which is that deeply entrenched beliefs are difficult to overthrow. Busby notes that when it comes to uranium, “evidence that the current model is wildly inaccurate is ignored by the authorities, just as Kuhn’s account predicts.”
Busby draws on his own research to show that battlefield exposure to uranium during the Iraq War was badly underestimated, especially since the uranium was mostly inhaled and thus absorbed at greater levels than the flawed models would predict. “The situation in Iraq has become serious,” he writes. “Genotoxicity of uranium exposures has resulted in a catastrophic increase in cancer and congenital disease.” He also makes a strong case of the linkage between uranium exposure and Gulf War Syndrome among American troops.
Why are the effects of exposure worse than predicted? Busby points to ‘the affinity of uranium for DNA phosphate,” which would accelerate the genetic impacts of exposure. But he also explains in extensive scientific detail — much of it from his own groundbreaking research — why the photoelectric effects from uranium exposure have been underestimated and yet are playing a critical role in harming human health.
The upshot of Busby’s research and his analysis are significant: The idea that uranium exposure makes people sick at much lower doses than science predicted it would at the start of nuclear era. And yet the scientific world has failed to adapt. He writes:
“The area of internal radioactivity exposure and health is a textbook example of what Kuhn refers to as a paradigm shift. But of all of the paradigm shifts which Kuhn discusses in his seminal work, this issue has the most critical importance to human health and biological systems of any in the history of science. But at the same time, it also has the strongest system of military, political and economic power shoring up what Kuhn termed ‘Normal Science.’”
Busby work’s is, in essence, a plea for us to throw away the old normal when it comes to radiation science and embrace a new one. That calls for additional research and a willingness to embrace new standards that could dramatically change the fundamental nature of humankind’s century-long efforts to control the atom. It’s a huge challenge, but the consequences of anything less ambitious are unthinkable.