Dealing with the fallout, Nick Matwiyoff

Nuclear New Zealand: Sorting Fact from Fiction
Andrew McEwan
Hazard, $39.99,
ISBN 187727058X

In July 2002, on the 36th anniversary of the first French nuclear tests on the Mururoa Atoll, John Doom of Papeete’s Association Mururoa e Tatou announced that an investigation into the health of 700 members of the Association of the Veterans of the Nuclear Test had revealed that 85 per cent had health problems, and that, although incidence of cancer in France was no higher than 17 per cent, 32 per cent had cancers. His announcement went on to acknowledge an anniversary conference at Hiroshima at which delegates “will make an appeal to the … heads of states for them to give up definitively their nuclear arsenal and to accept accountability towards all those workers, the military and civilian population – whom they deliberately exposed to bombing and nuclear fallout.”

This announcement was but a feeble echo of many, literally incredible, claims made about the adverse health effects of Pacific nuclear-weapons testing by the French, British and Americans. The claims, which attracted broad international interest, included huge increases in the incidence of cancer, cardiovascular and bone degeneration, and birth defects in descendants of “nuclear veterans”. Are they legitimate? Along with responses from governmental and scientific agencies, such claims are examined in this timely and important book by Dr Andrew McEwan, which I highly recommend, especially to fervent believers in a non-nuclear New Zealand.

His book is direct, informative and instructive, as well as entertaining. It has 15 chapters, the first few covering the basics of radiation and radioactivity, radiation risks, the biological basis of radiation-induced cancers, threshold effects, natural radiation backgrounds, pressurised water reactors, global nuclear power and nuclear power plans (or lack thereof) in New Zealand. Then there is a chapter on nuclear reactor accidents at Winscale, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The descriptions and analyses of these accidents are concise, clear, and worth the price of the book. Chapters 7 and 8 on nuclear-weapons testing and test-site evaluations are extremely valuable as well, although in places the many details (almost encyclopaedic) are overwhelming.

The remaining general interest chapters (6 and 9-15) are well written, mainly clean of unnecessary detail, and apparently on subjects the author knows well and enjoys. These are also subjects widely discussed in New Zealand: nuclear-powered vessels, radiation-processing of food, transport of fissile and radioactive materials, nuclear waste, and non-ionising radiations. Descriptions of the properties, handling and effects of plutonium, and the handling of radioactive wastes are lucid and should help dispel some prevalent myths. Interesting miscellanea are also included (how many New Zealanders know exactly what Ernest Rutherford, portrayed on the $100 bill, received the 1908 Nobel Prize for? Easy? Then what are the half-lives of $5 and $100 bills?).

The author is well known beyond New Zealand shores for his respected international activities. He received his PhD from Cambridge, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, and long served as director and later scientific director of the highly respected New Zealand National Radiation Laboratory.

The book is an easy read for scientists, a considerably more difficult one for non-scientists, particularly the first few chapters, but those who persevere will be richly rewarded. It would have been helpful if the author had expanded the basic chapters to include more detail: for example, units of nuclear properties and measurements used frequently throughout the book are sometimes not appropriately defined and related to effects people can identify with. Thus, it would be helpful for the general reader to know not only that the dosage of radiation to New Zealanders from radionuclides resulting from atmospheric testing is low, but is at least 50 times less than they would receive from a medical CAT scan. But it may be that, for a text already highly detailed, a decision was made to assume a higher level of knowledge than this reviewer would assume for the US population.

Another weakness is that scientific and technical assessments are sometimes not cleanly separated from personal opinions. In Chapter 7, for example, a section on the assessment of birth defects in descendants of nuclear veterans ends with the sentence:

Prime Minister Helen Clark’s award of medals in March 2002 as an emollient for their sense of hurt and injustice was nicely timed as an attention-drawer for the electorate to the anti-nuclear cause, at a time just prior to a meeting with the US administration in Washington.


One must read the book to appreciate that Dr McEwan was not unprovoked. But note, too, that Chapter 7 is a good read!

A central subject that should have received more explicit and complete attention is the difficulty with human studies arising from how individuals variously receive and react to radiation. This factor makes it hard to properly distinguish between groups, or even to select such groups – have we jumbled apples and oranges and made a fruit salad? In this context, it is instructive to look more carefully at John Doom’s announcement.

To the average untrained observer, increased health problems and incidence of cancer would probably seem obvious and compensatory damages justifiable. The trained observer, however, would have questions, knowing that she is considering the effects of low-level radiation and that these might be small. Is the group of French veterans big enough to get a statistically meaningful comparison with French citizens; is it valid to compare the two groups? She might note that the group of “veterans” must now have an average age of 65 or older: groups of that age all have health complaints of some sort.

As to the cancers, incidence increases dramatically with age and is strongly affected by diet, smoking, alcohol consumption and sunlight exposure. Here then are French civil servants and soldiers in the tropical sun: how many risk factors apply? The trained observer would expect the incidence of cancer to be well above 17 per cent for that population, and the average Frenchman is not a proper population for comparison. She remains to be convinced that there are any effects at all attributable to the testing, knowing that the cancer fatality risk for a normal South Pacific population (say, New Zealanders) is 24 per cent (or 168 of those 700 veterans), and that age and lifestyle effects might well push this group’s risk beyond the 32 per cent (224 of 700) claimed.

As a reference point, note that the additional cancer fatality risk expected from a radiation dose 10,000 times the average annual dose received by the typical New Zealander from 1960s weapons-testing fallout is less than 10 in 700. This is a small effect, and hard to demonstrate in a carefully controlled lifetime study – too many people might die of non-radiation effects before the study is completed. (The book covers risk, radiation effects and the incidence of cancer in detail and in an interesting way.)

So there is conflict: the untrained observer (often a sizeable fraction of the population) is sure there is a recompensable injury; the trained observer is either sceptical or can show there is no statistically significant injury. Soon they are shouting at each other across a deep chasm of disbelief. What is a just society to do in the face of other high-priority, and expensive, responsibilities?

The author grapples with this question throughout the book, and in a direct, honest and often amusing manner. In the grappling, he seems to believe that the principal problems in dealing with the mess are greed and venality. Greed and venality are there, and in abundance. But maybe the larger issue is fear of the unknown, and dread in the face of the awful knowledge that God does play dice with the universe, that life is indeed problematic, with a futile deterministic drift.

The man who emerges from the pages of this book is the serious, sensitive, careful and productive scientist that his published works and public acts would suggest, an effective defender of the scientific method and of his laboratory, which is a valuable New Zealand and world resource.

And we owe him another debt: discussion of his book is sure to bring to a boil the simmering topic of the need for nuclear-powered reactors in New Zealand and the South Pacific. Three events have conspired to direct our attention to the re-evaluation of uranium-fuelled nuclear reactors as a major source of the world’s power. This re-evaluation may be especially important in New Zealand, which is poor in oil, natural gas and coal resources. First, the world will soon pass Hubbert’s peak, a point at which the supply of easily accessible and relatively inexpensive oil is outstripped by demand for it. Second, the consensus is almost universal that global warming is real and CO2 emissions from fossil fuel must be reduced. Third, a fuel-hungry throbbing economy driven by more than a billion souls is emerging in China. (The economy of India is not far behind.)

Pictures of Chinese citizens in major cities wearing face masks, the growing pollution-related health statistics emerging from China, and the vast brown clouds moving from China over the ocean to other nations is truly scary. Of course, nuclear power production from uranium fuel does not result in CO2 emissions, but it is accompanied by radioactive by-products, an important subject in Dr McEwan’s book. New Zealanders may find it interesting that the Howard government is giving every indication that uranium exports from Australia to Indonesia and Thailand will be increased. Can increased production from new mines be far behind?


Nick Matwiyoff is Emeritus Professor of Neurosciences at the School of Medicine in New Mexico.


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Posted in Health, Non-fiction and Science
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