Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Nuclear Fears

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I got tested for radiation contamination at NIH-the National Institutes of Health.

In the fall of 1988, I was contaminated with Chernobyl radiation. It was two and a half years after the accident and I was nowhere near the nuclear facility. The contamination happened when I was sharing a meal with a Sami family in northern Sweden.

I had been photographing a story on radiation for National Geographic Magazine. I was in Sweden to look at the effects of radioactive fallout from Chernobyl on the animals and people who lived below the plume of radiation that swept over Europe soon after that catastrophic accident on April 24, 1986

I was a young photographer at the time. I had only worked a couple of years for the National Geographic. Radiation was my first international story and the first one where I dealt with complexities of science. I had little idea what I was getting myself into.

My contamination was found quite by accident. Several months later, I was at the Hartford nuclear plant in Washington State looking at their programs dealing with radiation detection. I photographed a woman receiving a precise radiation measurement called a whole body count.  Afterwards the technician asked if I wanted to go through the process for the experience. Always up for a new experience, I responded, “Why not?”

At the end of the procedure, the technician asked if I had been in Europe recently. In fact, I’d traveled a great deal that year, covering not only French nuclear power plants, but also Japanese A-Bomb survivors, workers at Chernobyl and in Sweden at nuclear waste storage facilities, radon gas leaks, and cleanup of a radiation accident in Brazil.  “Why do you ask?” I inquired.

“Because you are contaminated,” he replied. “You’re registering cesium-137 in your whole body count. The signature of the isotope is from Chernobyl.”

That long ago moment came back to me this week when I heard the news reports of fear sweeping through the Japanese populations living close to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

I know exactly what that fear felt like. I felt it—intensely—when I heard the technician utter those words, “you are contaminated”.

As a woman, several questions went through my mind all at once.  Would I get cancer? Would I die soon? Can I have children? What will they look like?

I knew I been exposed to radiation several times over the course of working on the story. After photographing in a Swedish nuclear storage sites located a mile under the ocean, I had to go through an isotope detector in order to leave.

Sweden’s nuclear facilities have strict standards. You are scanned as you go in, and you cannot leave if the scanners show more radiation than you had on entering.  As I attempted to exit through the scanner, alarms went off.  A display screen showed an outline of a human body.  There at the back of the head—my head—a light flashed as the alarm blared.

“You cannot leave. You have radon contamination in your hair,” the security people told me.

They escorted me to a decontamination shower. I scrubbed myself down–Karen Silkwood style—with a green soap. I got dressed and tried to leave. But once more, the alarms went off.

The security people said I could try one more time to scrub down, but after that, I’d have to have my hair cut off. So I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed.  I hated the thought of losing my hair. But the third time was the charm, and I walked out with my hair intact.

The damaged reactor at Chernobyl, two years after the 1986 disaster.

Soon after that event I was at Chernobyl on a media trip into the contaminated area. During the story, I carried a small radiation detector with me. It looked like a fat pen, and had a tiny digital readout. If the levels rose above normal the detector would begin to click. The bus carrying our group approached Chernobyl, entering a strange post-apocalyptic world. The earth was denuded of life. Only a single tree hung on and it too would soon be dead.

As we drove into the area, my detector started clicking. It began slowly, and then picked up the pace, clicking every few seconds, and finally erupting into an alarming cascade of “click-click-click-click-click-click-click.” This steady rhythm annoyed the Soviet official telling us media representatives that the area was now clean. He offered us cucumbers to eat that which been grown there. No one took a bite. We toured the plant and were allowed to photograph the so-called healthy workers. Then we walked on the edge of Pipyat.  Once home to 45,000 people, it was now a ghost city, uninhabitable for future generations.

The official said that all children in the region were healthy. Just a few years later the lie was exposed as children began dying of leukemia and babies were born with serious birth defects.

But I wasn’t contaminated on that trip–at least not in any way measured by the whole body counter at Hanford.

Swedish health workers test reindeer for radiation contamination following the Chernobyl disaster.

I returned to Sweden to cover the reindeer roundup conducted each year by the Sami people living in the far north of the country. I accompanied a health worker from Sweden’s public health department.  The first plumes of Chernobyl had swept across Sweden, settling into vegetation that reindeer and other animals ate.  The health department monitored radiation levels of the reindeer being slaughtered that year. The government set a level of radiation acceptable for human consumption of reindeer meet. But if the reindeer were above that level they were fed to minks.

I often wondered how that level was set.  And would the radioactive meat consumed by the minks eventually be transferred into the coats created by their fur when they were slaughtered?  I never found out.

I got to know the Sami who herded reindeers for food and income. They invited me to share their meals, so for two days, I ate with the people I was photographing. Because I knew of the reindeer contamination, I nibbled on reindeer jerky, but I consumed the main meal of moose meat. I have no idea why I didn’t think the moose would also be contaminated along with the reindeer.  I didn’t think much about it until my editor and I started to think about where I might have gotten contaminated.

When I came home from Hanford my husband took me immediately to the National Institutes of Health. They have one of the most sensitive radiation detectors in the world there, a chamber lined with thick steel from pre-World War II battleship that contain none of the trace radioactive particles released into the environment after atom bombs were developed in 1945. I was tested again, and indeed, I had internal contamination from Cesium 137.

The writer also received a whole body count at NIH, but was not contaminated.  We both visited Chernobyl together and ate the same foods. In fact, he had been to most of the places I had, except for Sweden. I deduced that I had been contaminated there.

What did that mean?

Nobody really knew for sure. The NIH officials told me the dose I had received would not kill me, nor would it strongly increase my chances of getting cancer. I had to believe them. They tried to reassure me, telling me that they found Cesium 137 in people who never had been to Europe but had eaten imported French cheese.  The cheese came from goats and sheep eating grass contaminated with fallout from Chernobyl.  I often wondered why knowing that would reassure me.

My husband and I went on to have two children. Through both pregnancies I worried about the potential health of my children. If they had been born with any defect or developed cancers as young children I would never have been able to forgive myself. If I had known what was going to happen on the radiation story, I would never have accepted it.

When I heard about the possible contamination in Japan, my first thought was they needed to get all the children and young women who hope to be pregnant out of there.  Then I heard the radiation had gotten into the food chain; vegetables, milk and water are contaminated.

No matter if the contamination levels from this accident are small, I have to wonder why we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past. I think of all the reindeer who had became contaminated because they ate lichen made radioactive from particles drifting slowly down from the Chernobyl disaster.

How much radiation exposure does it take to increase cancer rates?  I have no idea.  It seems that no one really wants to declare specific numbers.

Craters from nuclear tests dot the landscape of Frenchman Flats at the Nevada Test Site.

The U.S. tested nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert from 1951 to 1962.  There were sad statistics about those unfortunate enough to live down wind of the test sites.  In some cases entire families died from various cancers.  The connection was so uncontestable that in 1990, the US passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) to compensate individuals who suffered from one of 20 diseases, mostly cancers, that the U.S government connected to exposure from the testing and other activities related to the nuclear testing.

The Centers for Disease Control reported that they expected to see over 212,000 additional cases of thyroid cancers from fallout caused by nuclear tests in Nevada.

So yes, Japan should be fearful of what may follow. The long-term consequences and hidden costs of nuclear power are a burden they will have to bear long after the cataclysmic events in Fukushima.

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