“The Medical Implications of Fukushima” — Helen Caldicott

This presentation was made at the one-day symposium on “The Medical Implications of Fukushima” held at the International House of Japan in Roppongi, Tokyo, on Sunday, July 7, 2013. The presentation was sponsored by the Japan office of the Helen Caldicott Foundation.

Below is the entire presentation, which provides critical information for understanding the current status of the nuclear reactors in Fukushima, the health effects of different types of radiation and the radioactive elements released from the Fukushima reactors. It truly seeks to unravel this ongoing, complicated situation and present scientific facts about radiation into layman’s terms. In the next post, I will include Caldicott’s policy recommendations that followed the presentation.


by Helen Caldicott, M.D.

Introduction to Helen Caldicott

Helen Caldicott is a pediatrician who has practiced medicine for 53 years. The early part of her training at Harvard Medical School was in the treatment of a genetic disease, cystic fibrosis. She was later appointed to the faculty of Harvard Medical School as an instructor in pediatrics.

In 1980, however, Helen became so concerned about the threat and the medical consequences of nuclear war at the start of the Reagan era that she transferred her clinical practice at Harvard to the practice of global preventive medicine and founded Physicians for Social Responsibility to teach people about the medical consequences of both nuclear power and nuclear war. She recruited some 23,000 physicians in the US and many other countries around the world including Japan, and in 1985 they were accorded the Nobel Peace Prize under the umbrella of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

She had also written seven books on these subjects – see Helencaldicott.com for details.


I come to you today with a sense of deep anxiety and concern about the health and well-being of the people of Japan as a result of the accidents at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and in fact I organized a 2 day symposium at the NY Academy of Medicine on March 11 and 12 this year, the second anniversary of the accident titled The Medical and Ecological Consequences of Fukushima which was addressed by some of the world’s leading scientists, epidemiologist, physicists and physicians who presented their latest data and findings on Fukushima. http://www.totalwebcasting.com/view/?id=hcf

As you undoubtedly know the Great Eastern earthquake and the subsequent massive tsunami that occurred on March 11, 2011, caused the meltdown of three nuclear reactors within several days, and four hydrogen explosions in buildings 1,2, 3 and 4. Never before had such a catastrophe occurred and Fukushima is now described as the greatest industrial accident in history. Massive quantities of radioactivity escaped into the air and water from these damaged reactors, three times more noble gases – argon, xenon and krypton than were released at Chernobyl, together with huge amounts of other radioactive elements, such as cesium, strontium, tritium, iodine, plutonium americium etc.  Unfortunately the people of Japan were not notified of the meltdowns for 2 months.

A 1000 megawatt nuclear reactor contains as much radiation as that released by the explosions of 1000 Hiroshima-sized bombs and the fissioned uranium becomes one billion times more radioactive than the original uranium because more than 200 radioactive elements have been created, some which last seconds and some last millions of years.

Fortunately for Japan, for the first three days of the accident the wind was blowing from west to east so that 80 percent of the radiation was blown out over the Pacific Ocean, however the wind then turned to blow from the southeast across much of the Fukushima Prefecture heavily contaminating the ground with fallout while Tokyo also received considerable fallout.

So concerned was the Japanese government that they were considering plans to evacuate 35 million people from Tokyo, because other reactors including Fukushima Daini on the east coast were also at risk.

Thousands of people who were fleeing from the smoldering reactors were not notified where the radioactive plumes were traveling despite the fact that the Japanese government and the US were tracking the radioactive plumes, so people fled directly into the path of the highest radiation concentrations where they were exposed to high levels of whole-body external gamma radiation being emitted by the radioactive elements (gamma radiation is invisible like X rays) inhaling radioactive air, and swallowing radioactive elements. Nor were these people supplied with inert potassium iodide that would have blocked the uptake of deadly radioactive iodine by their thyroid glands except in the town of Miharu. However prophylactic iodine was distributed to the staff of Fukushima Medical University in the days after the accident after extremely high levels of radioactive iodine – 1.9 million becquerels/kg were found in leafy vegetables near the University. Contamination was and is widespread in vegetables, fruit, meat, milk, rice and tea in many areas of Japan. http://ex-skf.blogspot.com/2013/06/fukushima-medical-university.html

The Fukushima disaster is not over and will never end. The radioactive fallout which remains toxic for hundreds to thousands of years covers large swathes of Japan will never be “cleaned up” and will contaminate food, humans and animals virtually forever. The three reactors which experienced total meltdowns I predict will never be dissembled or decommissioned and even TEPCO says it will take at least 30 to 40 years and the International Atomic Energy Agency predicts more than 40 years before they make any progress because of the enormous levels of radiation at these damaged reactors.

Meanwhile building 4 which was severely structurally damaged during the initial earthquake could collapse during an earthquake greater than 7 on the Richter scale taking with it more than 100 tons of fresh radioactive fuel in the cooling pool which sits precariously 100 feet above the ground on the roof. The cooling water would dissipate, the fuel rods would spontaneously ignite releasing 10 times more cesium than that released at Chernobyl contaminating much of the Northern Hemisphere and more than 50 million Japanese people would need evacuating. In a race against time TEPCO is currently building a massive steel structure next to and partially over the remains of building 4. It is designed so that workers can place a huge crane over the cooling pool in order to extract more than 1,500 fuel rods from the damaged building. This risky procedure is expected to begin in November 2013 and take about a year to complete. The problem is whether the fuel rods are so damaged and twisted that they will not be able to remove them from their racks in the cooling pool.

One hundred tons of molten fuel that rest on or have penetrated the concrete floors of each of the three containment buildings and the radioactive waste fuel in four cooling pools must be cooled continuously with seawater, otherwise the molten fuel or the radioactive fuel rods could catch fire or produce more hydrogen explosions. However much of the temporary cooling systems are composed of plastic piping held together with duct tape and several months ago the electricity supplying the pumps to circulate the water failed for 30 hours because a rat had eaten into the temporary electrical system putting the reactors and cooling pools at great risk as the water levels fell.

Up to 10 million becquerels of radiation are released every hour from the stricken reactors into the air and blown over areas of Japan, while the government sees fit to transfer millions of tons of radioactively contaminated refuse from Fukushima and incinerate it in many cities in Japan including Osaka, thus exposing millions more people to radioactive contamination. (A becquerel is one disintegration of radiation per second)

Meanwhile 400 tons of groundwater are leaking into the damaged containment buildings of the stricken reactors each day which then becomes extremely radioactive, while 30 tons more water is being used daily to cool the reactors and cooling pools and this also becomes very radioactive. As of May 2013 TEPCO had diverted 290,000 tons of radioactive water into 940 huge tanks nearby, however 94,500 tons remains inside the damaged reactors. TEPCO is rapidly running out of storage space with another 700,000 tons of radioactive water to be expected by mid-2015. But as water will inevitably continue to collect at this site at this rate for many decades, eventually TEPCO will run out of storage facilities so the radioactive water will have to be released to the Pacific Ocean – there is no other way around it. Thus the fishing industry will be destroyed on the east coast of Japan. The amount of radioactive water that has already been discharged into the Pacific is far greater than that released to the sea by Chernobyl. Fish caught out as far as 50 Km from Fukushima are radioactive. http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2013/s3750728.htm

In late June 2013 it was discovered that the levels of tritium in the Fukushima Port are the highest yet detected at 1,100 Becquerels per litre and this figure indicates huge quantities of radioactive water accompanied by many more dangerous radioactive elements are already escaping into the Pacific Ocean from leaking ground water and other sources. http://english.kyodonews.jp/news/2013/06/232195.html

At the same time strontium 90, which causes bone cancer and leukemia, has been detected in ground water near unit 2 at 30 times the so-called safety level. In other words there is no stability at the plant, and there appears to be little adequate control indicating that the situation could become much worse in terms of ongoing contamination.

Now it is time for me to explain the medical dangers of radiation, because many people, even those in the nuclear industry, government and media have little comprehension of these dangers.

Huge quantities of radioactive elements, more than anyone has been able or willing to measure, have been continuously released into the air and water since the multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Complex in Japan on and around March 11, 2011.

This accident is enormous in its medical implications. It will induce an epidemic of cancer, as people inhale the radioactive elements, eat radioactive vegetables, rice, and meat, and drink radioactive milk and teas. As radiation from ocean contamination bio-accumulates up the food chain, including seaweed, radioactive fish will be caught thousands of miles from Japanese shores. As they are consumed, they will continue the cycle of contamination, proving that no matter where you are, all major nuclear accidents become local.

In 1986, a single meltdown and explosion at Chernobyl covered 40 percent of the European landmass with radioactive elements. Already, according to a 2009 report published by the New York Academy of Sciences, almost one million people have perished as a direct result of this catastrophe, yet this is just the tip of the iceberg because large parts of Europe and therefore the food will remain radioactive for hundreds of years.

How does radiation cause disease and what sort of radioactive material is contained in a nuclear power plant?

Fact number one

According to every version of the BIER study by the National Academy of Sciences, up to and including the most recent in 2007 – The Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation No. V11 (BIER VII), no dose of radiation is safe. Each dose received by the body is cumulative and adds to the risk of developing malignancy or genetic disease.

Fact number two

Children are 10 to 20 times more vulnerable to the carcinogenic effects of radiation than adults. Little girls are twice as sensitive as little boys and women are more sensitive than men. Fetuses are thousands of times more sensitive. One X ray to the pregnant abdomen doubles the incidence of leukemia in that child. Immuno-compromised patients are also extremely sensitive. Very high doses of radiation received from a nuclear meltdown or from a nuclear weapon explosion can cause acute radiation sickness, where the actively dividing cells of the body are killed, causing the hair to fall out, severe nausea and diarrhea and bleeding. There are many reports of such illnesses amongst people, particularly children within the first few months after the Fukushima meltdowns and explosions. When I came to Japan for a speaking tour late last year, I heard evidence from the people who attended my lectures that either they or their children were suffering from possible radiation-induced sickness.

[Testimony from various sources related to radiation sickness in the aftermath of the triple meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi is available here:

1) http://www.theage.com.au/world/escape-to-okinawa-20111205-1ofh3.html

2) http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/opinion/AJ201304300010

3) http://www.eurasiareview.com/18042012-japan-fukushima-woman-organizes-radiation-information-centers-at-church/

Fact number three

Ionizing radiation from radioactive elements, and radiation emitted from X ray machines and CT scanners, damages living cells. This can result in cancer.

How? Simply speaking, there is a gene (a DNA molecule) in every cell called the regulatory gene that controls the rate of cell division. If this specific DNA sequence is hit by radiation the cell may be killed or, alternatively, the regulatory gene can be bio-chemically altered. This is called a mutation. It is impossible to know if this damage has taken place in your body. The cell will sit silently for many years until one day, instead of dividing in a controlled fashion to form two daughter cells, it begins to reproduce uncontrollably, producing trillions of cells. That is a cancer. A single mutation in a single gene in a single cell can kill you. This process is greatly accelerated in children.

Fact number four – The latent period of carcinogenesis.

The incubation time for leukemia is five to ten years, but for solid cancers (such as breast, lung, thyroid, bone, kidney, and brain) the incubation period ranges from 5 to 80 years. All types of cancer can be induced by radiation.

Fact number five

The reproductive cells in the body, the eggs and sperm, are even more important genetically than normal body cells. Each egg and sperm has only half the number of genes as those in a normal cell so that when they unite, a new normal cell is produced which goes on to form an embryo, then a fetus, then a fully formed baby. Every gene in an egg or sperm cell is precious because these genes control the characteristics of the new individual. Therefore, if normal genes are mutated by radiation the new baby could be born with a genetic disease, or will carry abnormal genes for diseases like cystic fibrosis and diabetes, or inborn errors of metabolism to be passed on to future offspring. There are over 2,600 genetic diseases now described in the medical literature.

We all carry several hundred genes for genetic disease but unless we mate with someone carrying the same gene (such as cystic fibrosis) the disease will not become manifest. These abnormal genes have been formed over eons by background radiation in the environment.

As we increase the level of background radiation in our environment from medical procedures, X ray scanning machines at airports, or radioactive materials continually escaping from nuclear reactors and nuclear waste dumps, we will inevitably increase the incidence of cancer as well as the incidence of genetic disease in future generations. Mutated, or abnormal genes are passed down from generation to generation in perpetuity.

Fact number six

There are basically five types of ionizing radiation:

1. X rays (usually electrically generated), which are non-particulate, and only affect you the instant they pass through your body. You do not become radioactive but your genes may be mutated.

2. Gamma rays, similar to X rays, emitted by radioactive materials generated in nuclear reactors and from some naturally occurring radioactive elements in the soil.

3. Alpha radiation, which is particulate, and composed of two protons and two neutrons, emitted from uranium atoms and from other dangerous elements generated in reactors (such as plutonium, americium, curium, einsteinium, etc- all known as alpha emitters). Alpha particles travel a very short distance in the human body. They cannot even penetrate the layers of dead skin in the epidermis to damage living skin cells. But, if these radioactive elements get into the lung or the liver, bone or other organs, they transfer a large dose of radiation over a long period of time to a very small volume of cells. Most of these cells are killed, but some on the edge of the tiny radiation field will survive. Their genes will be mutated, and cancer may later develop. Alpha emitters are among the most carcinogenic materials known in medicine.

4. Beta radiation, like alpha also particulate, is a charged electron emitted from radioactive elements such as strontium 90, cesium 137, iodine 131 etc. The beta particle is light in mass, it travels further than an alpha particle but does the same thing, mutates genes.

5. Neutron radiation is released during the fission process in a reactor or a bomb. Reactor #1 at Fukushima is still periodically emitting neutron radiation as sections of the molten core become intermittently critical. Neutrons are large radioactive particles that travel many kilometers, and they pass through everything including concrete, steel etc. There is no way to hide from them and they are extremely mutagenic.

So, let’s describe just four of the radioactive elements that are continually being released into the air and water at Fukushima. Remember, though, there are over 100 such elements each with its own characteristics and pathways in the food chain and the human body. All are invisible, tasteless and odorless. And when the cancer develops it is impossible to determine what caused it, but there is a large literature proving that radiation causes cancer including the data from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

1. Cesium 137 is a beta and gamma emitter with a half-life of 30 years. That means in 30 years only half of its radioactive energy has decayed, another 30 years to decay again to half, so it is detectable as a radioactive hazard for over 300 years. For the first 300 years (the standard 10 times the half-life calculation) the levels remain of regulatory concern, but for 300 more years the radiation is still detectable. As there is no safe dose, these levels are still significant and still a hazard. When it lands on the soil cesium, like all radioactive elements bio-concentrates in grass, fruit and vegetables to many times background levels. It then bio-concentrates tens to hundreds of times more, in meat and milk, as animals eat the fruit and vegetation. It also concentrates up the food chain in seafood from algae to crustaceans to small fish to concentrate most avidly in big fish. It concentrates the highest in the human body, the top of the food chain. Because cesium resembles potassium that is in every cell in our body, it tends to concentrate most highly in brain, muscle, ovary and testicles. There it can cause brain cancer, muscle cancers (rhabdomyosarcomas), ovarian or testicular cancer and, most importantly, mutate genes in the eggs and sperm to cause genetic diseases in future generations.

2. Strontium 90, is a high-energy beta emitter, half-life 28 years, detectably radioactive for 300 years. As a calcium analogue, it is known as a bone-seeker. It concentrates in the food chain, specifically milk (including breast milk), and is laid down in bones and teeth in the human body, where it can irradiate a bone forming cell, or osteoblast, causing bone cancer; or mutate a white blood cell in the bone marrow which can initiate leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells.

3. Radioactive iodine 131 is a beta and gamma emitter with a half-life of eight days, so it is a hazard for 20 weeks. It bio-concentrates in the food chain, in vegetables and milk, and specifically concentrates in the human thyroid gland where it is a potent carcinogen inducing thyroid disease and thyroid cancer. It is important to note that of 174,376 children under the age of 18 to have been examined by thyroid ultrasound in the Fukushima Prefecture, 12 have been definitively diagnosed with thyroid cancer and 15 more a suspected to have the disease. 43.2 percent of the 174,376 have been found to have thyroid abnormalities – cysts and nodule, some of which will almost certainly be precursors of cancer. Almost 200,000 more children are yet to be examined. http://fukushimavoice-eng2.blogspot.com/2013/06/11th-prefectural-oversight-committee.html

Thyroid cancer is extremely rare in children, so this is an extraordinary situation. In Chernobyl thyroid cancers were not diagnosed until four years after the accident, so this early presentation indicates that these Japanese children almost certainly received a high dose of radioactive iodine to their thyroid gland but also points to the fact that high doses of other radioactive elements were received by the exposed population in Fukushima prefecture and elsewhere so the rate of cancer in Japan is almost certain to rise.

4. Plutonium, one of the most deadly, is an alpha emitter. So toxic that one millionth of a gram will induce cancer if inhaled into the lung. It imitates iron in the human body so it can cause liver cancer, bone cancer, leukemia or multiple myeloma. It concentrates in the testicles and ovaries where it can induce testicular or ovarian cancer, and it can mutate genes in the egg and sperm to induce genetic diseases in future generations. It also crosses the placenta where it can kill a cell that would form the left side of the brain, or the right arm- like thalidomide, the morning sickness drug, did years ago. There are medical homes full of grossly deformed children near Chernobyl never before seen in the history of medicine.

The half-life of plutonium is 24,400 years, so it can cause medical diseases for at least the next 250,000 years, inducing cancers, congenital deformities and genetic diseases for virtually the rest of time. All plants and animals develop cancer and genetic abnormalities.

Plutonium is also fuel for atomic bombs. Five to 10 pounds will fuel a weapon that would vaporize a city. Each reactor makes 500 pounds of plutonium a year. It is postulated that one pound of plutonium, if adequately distributed, could kill every person on earth from cancer.

Fact number seven

In summary, the radioactive contamination and fallout from nuclear power plant accidents will have medical ramifications that will never cease because the food will continue to concentrate the radioactive elements for hundreds to thousands of years inducing epidemics of cancer, leukemia, congenital abnormalities and genetic disease, because damaged genes will be passed over many generations

Already we are seeing such pathology and abnormalities in birds and insects, and because they reproduce very fast it is possible to observe disease caused by radiation over many generations within a relatively short space of time

Pioneering research conducted by Dr. Tim Mousseau, an evolutionary biologist, in the exclusion zones of both Chernobyl and Fukushima has documented very high rates of tumors in birds, genetic mutations in birds and insects, many of the male barn swallows are sterile and many birds have smaller than normal brains. What happens to animals will happen to human beings.

[Further information about the pioneering research conducted by Dr. Tim Mousseau is available here: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20121209rp.html

Fact number eight

The Japanese government is desperately trying to “clean up” radioactively contaminated soil, trees, leaves etc. But in reality all that can be done is collect it, place it in containers – the government- contracted workers are using plastic bags, and transfer it to another location. It cannot be made neutral and it cannot be prevented from spreading in the future. Some contractors have allowed their workers to empty radioactive debris, soil and leaves into streams and other illegal places. Then the main question becomes – where to place the contaminated material stored safely away from the environment for thousands of years. There is no safe place in Japan for this to happen, let alone to store the thousands of tons of high-level radioactive waste that is stored precariously at the 54 Japanese nuclear reactors.

Last but not least Australian uranium fuelled the Fukushima reactors.

Last thoughts:

This is a pivotal time in human history. We watch radiation slowly blanket Japan, a country with four reactors in trouble, in the midst of the worst industrial accident in history, facing an uncertain future of terrible health effects, and catastrophic environmental damage. We watch, helpless, as Fukushima fallout traverses the Northern Hemisphere, turning up in milk, food and water; on tourists in airports; and products in shipping bays around the world. We are seeing, and understanding, that all fallout becomes local.


47 thoughts on ““The Medical Implications of Fukushima” — Helen Caldicott

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  3. It is very much a modern day Chernobyl and no matter what the Japanese government and TEPCO have to say about it, it will be hundreds of times worse. It looks like all they plan on doing is putting a sarcophagus over the damaged reactors and from there they will probably forget about it. The towns surrounding the plant will become like Pripyat, never to be inhabited again. Just. Like. Chernobyl.

  4. Pingback: The Medical Implications of Fukushima | Helen Caldicott, MD

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