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Rerun Episode - Fukushima & Much Ado About Tritium

Dr. Geraldine Thomas

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Chris Keefer  0:03  

Hello, everybody, and welcome to the Decouple podcast, where we explore the science and technologies that can Decouple human wellbeing from its ecological impacts, and the politics that can make decoupling possible.


Welcome back to Decouple. Today I'm joined by Dr. Geraldine Thomas, who's a senior academic and sharing molecular pathology at the Faculty of Medicine of Imperial College London. She is an active researcher in the fields of tissue banking and molecular pathology of thyroid and breast cancer. She's also the director of the Chernobyl tissue bank, and has become quite an expert on issues of the effects of radiation, particularly following nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima. So, Jerry, welcome back to Decouple you were on I think in Episode Six, I think this is probably Episode 56. It's, it's, you know, been wonderful, you know, having that as a reference episode. And thanks for coming back on. That's great. Thanks, Chris. So Jerry, I think the story I wanted to touch on with you, it's raging in the media, I like to handle sort of breaking stories. And that is the fact that the Japanese government, I think, has finally decided on a controlled release of the treaty aid and water that has been stored at the Fukushima site. And I believe, again, this is supposed to be over a 10 year period, but it has created quite the uproar. And as I should say, not only with environmental NGOs, most predominantly Greenpeace, but also with regional governments, which I found really interesting. You know, there's, these are big numbers. And and I think they play into, you know, fears and, you know, ideas around industries that are, you know, dumping a contaminant that that is something that I think people are scared of, and sometimes for very good reasons, but it's 1.2 5 million tonnes of treated tritiated water. So can you tell us a little bit about that water, it has been treated, and you know, where it's coming from and what the plan is,


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  2:10  

yeah, where where the water came from was when they were washing coolant through the reactor site. But also you've got flow of water down off the hills into the into the site as well. So some of that was was water that came from groundwater as well. And what they did was to store the water. And then they took the what people would regard as the nasty stuff out things like the actinides, and things like that, out of it, and that you're left basically with with tritium, which has its hydrogen, you can't extract it from the water, so you're stuck with it in order. So there are there are massive tanks that are just holding this water full of tritium, which is actually a fairly small amount of radiation in a very large volume of water. So although it may be several million tons of water, actually, the amount of tritium in there is not as huge as you might think.


Chris Keefer  3:01  

Yeah, I'm blanking someone made a calculation for me. And it was it was something very small link on the order of several grams, you know, and I guess I mean, we're talking about billions of atoms, and it's the smallest atom around but but still, it's, it's interesting how it's how it's reported. The numbers that are used, you know, are a big numbers frightening.


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  3:20  

Yeah. The other thing, to put that into some context, where are you going to put it, you're going to put it in the Pacific Ocean? That's a pretty big body of water as well. Yeah. So there will be a huge dilution effect of of the putting it in the Pacific Ocean. And for me, I've always wondered why it's taking them so long to get to this point, right? Because storing that water in those big tanks is fine providing there was another earthquake, then you get a major leak. Right. And then you handle the publicity around that. Right, in absolute uproar. So this, this is a blog for a long time coming on. I was hoping they get around to this. I think it's in two years time the action starts. Yeah. See?


Chris Keefer  4:02  

And I mean, I think one of the reasons why I might have taken so long as statements from Greenpeace, like, quote, The Greenpeace Japan says radionuclides discharged into the sea may damage the DNA of humans and other organisms. So let's and I should also say again, like because I was I was surprised when I was researching that. There's also been strong statements from China, which, you know, China is sort of leading the world in a nuclear build out right now. They're, they're projected to have I think, the most nuclear plants in the world outpacing the US by 2040. Maybe


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  4:40  

the career in China aren't that fond of Japan either. is politics rather than science? It gives them a big stick to bash your neighbor that they're not particularly fond of as well. I mean, there's absolutely no question of this from the scientific point of view. There is no problem with being exposed to tritium in the levels that you're likely to be exposed to. It's the old situation of the long physical Half Life versus the short biological half life. You know, the the half life of tritium Islam, it's only 12 years, but actually will only stay in your body for around about I think it's seven to 14 days, right? So actually, you're not going to get a very big dose, and it's a week, it's a pathetic beater of jmeter. So the only way you get exposure is to take it in. Yeah, and you're not exposed to very much because you've got a very short biological Half Life compared with his physical half life.


Chris Keefer  5:37  

So just just to define a few terms, because, you know, most of my listeners are pretty well informed on on physics and chemistry, but I sure wasn't, a year or two ago, despite my medical degree, I studied physics and forgot it after the exam. But tritium is a hydrogen atom with two protons, which makes it weakly radioactive. And that's, again, why it can't be separated from water, I guess you'd have to do like electrolysis of the water, maybe you could do green, which is slightly flammable, smell. very safe and legal process everyone else. One thing that I found really, really interesting, like is tritium is not only relevant to Japan, it's created in the upper atmosphere by cosmic rays, also by nuclear power plants at very, very low doses. And there's a lot of uproar about it in the Anti-nuclear community. And, you know, one of the comparisons I made because you know, it's this is people say, well, it's an internal emitter, it's, you know, it's water, it's going to be, you know, it's going to be incorporated into DNA structure, or it'll be right next to the DNA because there's water in cells. And, you know, my thought about this was, well, let's compare it to another, you know, probably one of the predominant, you know, intracellular calcium ions, and one of the sub radio isotopes that we have in the highest concentration or body, which is potassium 40. And I was comparing the energy of that beta decay, so the beta is an electron shooting off, right, that's one of the three types of radiation. So is 18,000 electron volts for tritium, and it's 1,300,000 for potassium 40.


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  7:16  

And that's particularly weak beta emitter. Yeah. Leaving a bit more DNA.


Chris Keefer  7:22  

Yeah, yeah. So you know, I always find that kind of an interesting comparison. Because, you know, again, I think there's this this perception that the world isn't radioactive at all, that it's this kind of virgin place. And artificial radiation is the only source of radiation and that it's this enormously significant amount.


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  7:39  

I mean, there's huge amounts of uranium sloshing around in the sea that's coming from erosion of rocks. And I mean, I always find it a rather ridiculous thing that we're panicking about small amounts of radioactivity, as we always do with tritium at the moment, when you look at the amount of uranium that's sloshing around in the world sees is something like three micrograms per liter, right? thing, how many liters of water there are in the world's ocean, that's a hell of our uranium. And in fact, if we could extract it from the sea, we'd never have to mine it again. Right? off the fuel our nuclear plants travel is it's too expensive. So we can't do it. Right. But people think that we are not exposed to natural radiation at all, but you cannot avoid it. If you go swimming in the sea, you're going to be exposed to any weird panic about it, though. I think it's probably because people just don't know it's there.


Chris Keefer  8:26  

Yeah, yeah. I mean, there's also tons of potassium 40 in the ocean with 70 times the beta decay power of, of tritium. So we've kind of got the tritium out of the way and you've mentioned the sort of the uranium that's, that's in the oceans. I wanted to follow up a little bit, though, on, you know, health impacts in general from Fukushima, because that's been a bit of a source of controversy. I know this is an area that you've researched thoroughly. He just catch us up to date on the latest science on the, you know, the radiation impacts from Fukushima.


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  9:01  

There isn't any radiation impacts, there's an impact of the fear of the radiation, right? None of the none of the radio biological consequences.


Chris Keefer  9:09  

There's one worker who was awarded compensation, I think he got lung,


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  9:13  

saying that his cancer isn't actually caused by radiation. He has actually, lung cancer. He was relatively young. So he was a bit surprising. He had lung cancer, but it does happen in non radiation exposed populations. It's not that uncommon. And of course, in Japan, a lot of people do smoke, so he would have been exposed to smoke in the atmosphere from other workers, etc. But the Japanese government made a policy of if somebody is diagnosed with cancer, they will pay compensation if it was above a certain number of millisieverts. But that is not the same as saying it was caused by the the radiation. In fact, it was highly unlikely it was caused by the radiation, but because of their policy, and you can understand why I mean, you have a workforce that's fine. traumatised is worried sick about their health? Yeah. Why would you make it any worse for the family if somebody does, unfortunately suffer from cancer? So I can see, you know, it's a good sort of kind of way of dealing with it. But then people get it into their heads that actually, it's a proven causative mechanism, which is very far from the truth.


Chris Keefer  10:18  

So I mean, the Japanese government's response to Fukushima involved a lot of modifications of their regulations around exposures to radiation, right. And so, and I think that's been the FDA, the idea behind it was to try and sort of restore confidence in Fukushima produce, for instance, I think in the in the UK and in America, it's 2000 becquerels per kilogram. And in Japan, they lowered it actually, I think from 100 to 50. Is that right?


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  10:51  

Yeah, and it's close up. Now. I think it was 500 to 100. But you know, if you, you suddenly say, you're going to lower something, then the public will automatically think, well, it must have been really dangerous on top with it. And, you know, it's, again, it's a political knee jerk reaction, with no scientific basis to it, you can understand why they did it, because they thought it would improve confidence, it actually had complete the reverse. People got were more and more scared, because, well, if they're having to lower it, it must be much more terrible than we really thought it was to begin with. So you know, I think you have to think these things through very carefully. And unfortunately, they need at the moment and with politicians, it's really difficult sometimes to get the science over, and you have to think of the consequences of what you're doing. And politicians have a slightly different way of thinking about it than we do, I think. Because it was it was a no brainer, then well, we'll just we'll just say we're doing this because we'll make it safer. And that will improve how everybody feels about it. Not completely opposite.


Chris Keefer  11:50  

Yeah, so product is just to be clear products from the Fukushima Prefecture is like, got 1/20 the radioactivity of products from Europe and America,


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  11:59  

well, that it's safe levels, I mean, you know, its limits over which you cannot sell something in different countries. The fact is that, you know, produce any of that gets anywhere near the legal limits. And in fact, I went to a village in the Atlantic region where the plume went up, and they hadn't evacuated everybody, and they got more contamination they were expecting, and that there, they actually got a gallon cans, do this, from Belarus, of all places. And they actually put it in the community center, there are people who go and take the projects, they grown on their allotments measure it. And then if it was okay, they could take it away and eat it. And I said, to the the head honcho of the community, they asked, you know, well, have you ever had anything that's actually exceeded even the Japanese limits? Nevermind, are you no more generous European limits? He said, Oh, no, no, nothing's ever exceeded it. It was, I think it was good for the community, because they had the reassurance of being able to see that it was not reading higher than it should have done. Yeah, at the same time, it was really quite pointless because nothing got anywhere near the legal limit.


Chris Keefer  13:09  

It was it was really interesting. I was interviewing Iida Reese, who runs the thought scape ism blog and has a really extraordinary science communicator. And she has a habit of sort of carrying a Geiger counter everywhere she goes, because radiation, again, is something we can't we can't sense. And I mean, she was talking about, she used to she stopped leaving it on overnight at her bedside, because a stray cosmic ray hit it and set off an alarm. quite terrifying in the middle of the night. Yeah, but I mean, I think, you know, it's really Demet she she did a trip to Chernobyl and measured all of her exposures. And of course, the highest exposure was the flight there. So that that was interesting. But I think you know, this, there's so many different units to describe radiation, the biological effects of radiation absorbed doses, back URLs is interesting. Can you can you explain that to us? Because when you hear 2000, or 500, or 100, if you're someone who doesn't think that radiation is natural, and all around us, yeah, explain.


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  14:08  

To show you exactly how old I am. In the early days, we used to use curious as, as the measure of radioactivity, then it swapped back rails and the change in the in the magnitude of the number was huge, right? I can't remember offhand what it was now, because I'm so focused on backgrounds now. But you, you are adding zeros to numbers that you used to be dealing with in the lab. And in fact, there was a saying, and I'm not sure that this will be able to go out. But we refer to them as bog rules, because they really were such a small amount of radiation compared with the cure is that we've been used to working in. And I think that that's part of the problem when you use a unit that uses sort of several orders of magnitude, to be sort of written down on a piece of paper. It looks massive, and therefore if it's big, it's frightening, right? We're actually What you're talking about is a disintegration of second, which is very, very small amounts of radiation into. And again, you can't just take a background and say it's that dose, right, you know, all about the half life of the isotope that you're dealing with, you have to know whether it's concentrated in the body, you have to know what type of radiation intimates, you have to know the energy if it's a beater. And then you can start to make some decisions about the dose that you are likely to get. And of course, you have to know the biological and physical HalfLife relationship. So we use Becker ELLs to talk about radioactivity. And they're big numbers, but when you actually translate that into what it means in terms of dose to a given tissue, and it is the dose of the tissue that's going to govern the effect they're going to have in health, then you actually get down to tiny, tiny doses of radiation, which actually really have very little effect, if any, that you will ever see in a human exposure situation.


Chris Keefer  16:00  

I think what's extraordinary is just like, you know, we went from not being able to measure radiation at all beyond, I think there was the skin erythema test where, you know, X ray technicians would sort of calculate those by seeing when they got a sunburn from, from radiation to, you know, measurement devices that can that can measure a single atomic decay. And, you know, I mean, I was struck by this as well, apparently, that amount of potassium 40, that that radio isotope of potassium, there's 4600 decays per second within our body. Right. And so I think people say, Man, what's that? Sorry?


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  16:35  

And average? 70 kilogram man? Yeah, yeah, you are, the more dose you're going to get because you're going to have more potassium 40, because you're bigger. So yes, I mean, actually, 70 kilograms is quite small for men, right? Like, you know, it's, again, you're taking, you're taking your finger, and you're sort of saying that, but actually, you know, we don't have any problems with potassium 40. Again, because the dose is so small, because it has a very long physical half life, and a much shorter biological half life. And I didn't get my head around why that mattered so much until I really saw the doses that come from cesium after Chernobyl, right, you're talking of 10 millisieverts to a lot of the population that was in the contaminated area, over a 20 year period. You can pair that with a CT scan, the whole body CT scan is 10 millisieverts that you give in a matter of seconds. Yeah, I do it all the time. Maybe now I can understand why this stuff is not producing so many cancers, right, because the depth is miniscule.


Chris Keefer  17:38  

So speaking of you know, the more dangerous radioisotopes, which again, have been removed from the the water that's being stored on site, you're, you're a specialist in thyroid cancer, you run the Chernobyl tissue bank, iodine 131 definitely has been associated with upticks in cancer. Can you kind of I guess, compare and contrast that to tritium? Because you mentioned that? Yeah, go ahead. But


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  18:00  

it's interesting, because you know, my Dean, although, you know, we say it causes cancer, it only causes cancer in young people, you have to be young when you're exposed. I remember having a long conversation with one of the radiation protection officers, because everybody assumes that if you get a change in the DNA, you get cancer. If only biology was that simple, it is really not that simple. It matters at what stage your body is when you're exposed. And for something like thyroid, you can easily understand that because the thyroid is still growing in young people. It isn't growing when you get to over 20 mind shots mind starting to sort of lose cells like Mads Now, we know that hypothyroidism is is an issue in older people, because their thyroid cells are affording off of their purchase and not being desired isn't isn't being in place this all. So you can understand that actually, growth is a very key thing to giving you cancer. So if you're young and you're growing, you're going to be much more risk of developing cancer than if you're my age or your age.


Chris Keefer  19:00  

And I don't want to be one, you're comparing tritium, with the biological half life of seven to 14 days and the


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  19:10  

with ideen. It's an eight day Half Life physically, but 100 day Half Life biologically, so it's the complete opposite.


Chris Keefer  19:20  

So it's in your body way longer decaying?


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  19:23  

Yes, exactly. So it's going to give up its radiation while it's inside. And also it's concentrated in one single tissue in your body. It goes to your thyroid, your thyroid isn't an iodine sponge, it will take any idea and it can find because normally iodine is fairly rare in the environment. So it's the mechanism because it needs it into produces hormones, whereby it can sequester and hold on to it, right to make sure that they can it can produce its thyroid hormones, which run your metabolism. So if you're slightly iodine deficient, which areas around Chernobyl, certainly were iodine deficient, your thyroid is going to think What a isn't, is it seems a harlot high amount of radio ID and sequester that as much as it possibly can, until the gland is completely flooded with hiding. Right? It's completely different in Japan where their ID in replete. So they probably couldn't have taken up much radio Id had it been released in sufficient quantities anyway, because all of their thyroid is completely bound up with normalizing.


Chris Keefer  20:23  

Right. So they've already sort of taken the potassium pill in a sense that that people are offered that live around nuclear power plants. Yeah, almost. Yeah. Yeah. Interesting. And then I mean, that's, that's also I mean, again, I'm not an endocrinologist, I don't treat thyroid cancer, but from what I understand it's one of the most treatable cancers because it's almost the perfect chemotherapy. I mean, we want targeted chemotherapy that only kills the cancer cells. So can you explain how anyone does that?


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  20:48  

Well, ironically, because the thyroid is the one tissue in the body that takes up ideen. As long as the cells that are in the in the cancer still carry on doing that, in most cases they do, it will take up any radioactivity and if you give a high enough dose, obviously, you're going to damage the DNA DNA of the cells so much that the cells will effectively apoptosis and die, you're using it like a sterilizing agent, basically, the same way that we give, you know, gamma radiation to patients to for breast cancer and things like that we but it's with iodine, we can target it directly to the thyroid, because it's the only tissue that really takes it up in great quantities. It's the takes up and binds it in saliva gland also takes it up and the lactating mammary gland will take it up. But it doesn't bind it and keep it in side the cell and inside the follicle in the same way that the thyroid does. And it's that keeping it it within the gland is what gives us that longer biological Half Life relevance relevant to its relative to its physical half life. Right. And that's why it is such a targeted treatment. And ironically, you know, only about 1% mortality with thyroid cancer. So it's it's pretty good treatment. If we could treat all cancers like that, we'd be very, very happy.


Chris Keefer  22:08  

Right. So, you know, I think something that's striking is the sort of fearmongering that's that's going on from, you know, Greenpeace, I haven't looked at everybody that's fearmongering. But I would, I would guess that that would include the usual suspects like Helen caldicott, my erstwhile colleague, but you know, it's interesting, because you mentioned, I think, in both the Chernobyl and Fukushima, un SCR reports, which are really we had you on our last episode together, which was looking at the quality of the scientific evidence around these accidents, because you have reports that were commissioned by the European Green Party, for instance, that had radically different findings, maybe unsurprisingly, and had radically different methodology. But you're mentioning that the fear of radiation is what and that rushed evacuations are what's really harmed people from these accidents. You know, the when I hear people fearmongering, right, you know, there's a low dose radiation expert, named Chris Busbee, who's a compatriot of yours in the UK, you know, and he was spreading a conspiracy theory after Fukushima, that they were spreading Rick contamination from the Fukushima Prefecture to all of Japan so that they could disguise an increased cancer rate there. And then he was actually involved in marketing as supplements that children can take, which was just from what I understand that calcium or might was just what you get over the counter at a drugstore. But it was an inflated price. So do these, I mean, these people do think bear some responsibility. I mean, what I find amazing is that they their reputations leave intact all the time. But despite the most, you know, erroneous claims,


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  23:49  

like that reputation stay intact with the people who believe what they say, right? It doesn't stay intact with everybody. I mean, I really do. I mean, I've spoken to a lot of journalists about this as well, that I feel feel the way it was reported after Fukushima. And the way some people acted, and you've named one of the actors there who I know really doesn't like me very much. You know, that just made the situation much worse. And it's why I personally got involved because I can't stand back. And let these people say these things with no scientific evidence whatsoever, sorry about the noises office, the dogs. And, you know, it was just spreading rumor and lies and making a bad situation much worse. Because what we knew from Chernobyl was that it was the fear of radiation exposure had actually cause more psychological damage to the public health of the population than the effects of thyroid cancer and children more. It's and also there, you do get an effect that goes down the generations because if your parents are worried, you will be worried and you will carry that worry down the generations. Up to us now is this generation to do something about that? I think


Chris Keefer  25:03  

yeah beautiful example from eatery, Sam's trip to Chernobyl, one of her tour guides had been a liquidator and and I think some of the other members of the film crew were asking about, you know, the risk of going to the zone, and this guy was kind of smoking away and you know, and when she asked him about smoking, which you know, carries a very high mortality and risk of cancer with it. You probably know those numbers off of heart but he said, Well, you know, I was I was a Fukushima liquidator so it's gonna get me anyway, you know, and he had a very fatalistic attitude. And I think that's that's been sort of demonstrated to be one of the chief harms is people feel a lot of a stigma and be kind of, well, I'm dying anyway.


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  25:44  

And we know that is a real problem with the liquidators cohort is that they do feel that you know, well is going to get me. And unfortunately, they don't have the best sort of health records, because they do they do drink and they'd smoke. I mean, we've seen that with our own populations get a population stress, and what's the first thing you do? It goes out and buys a lot of alcohol, and get into bad habits, eating and things like that. That's just the way that we respond to stress. But it wasn't it's not just those people who were actually exposed, it spreads out to the wider population. And then you have a lot of people who were worried about, you know, can they have children? If they have children? Will they be normal? And there were people who had abortions, even after the much lower doses of Fukushima, feared their children will be affected, and there is no evidence for that whatsoever.


Chris Keefer  26:35  

So what does what does that? What does that that's based off of the Herman Mueller? fruit fly experiments? Can you just go


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  26:43  

to my animal and insect type experience where the doses were massive in terms of the human dose, and it is a problem that I've seen when I was very young, I used to have gone on non genotoxic carcinogenesis, where you give pesticides and things like that to rats and mice, they develop tumors, and then people will get worried that that would happen in humans. But when you look at the doses you go, how much of that you really got to ingest to get the same dose as you're giving a mouse or a rat. And a lot of I think of our problems with radiation come from those early experiments were very, very high doses were given. And the automatic assumption is, well, if that happens in high doses is going to happen in small doses. And if you've got loads of people, then you're going to see those effects. But that just hasn't been borne out, in fact, at all. And we know now that very low doses of radiation, we're surrounded by radiation, we can't avoid low doses of radiation. And really, once you get below about 100, millisieverts, it becomes increasingly difficult to really see any effects in terms of public health.


Chris Keefer  27:41  

So what kind of differences are we talking about, and dose like 100 times 1000, like compared to say, the dose that people get, you know, from Fukushima or Chernobyl in terms of these germline or hereditary effects? Yeah, I


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  27:52  

mean, I mean, you talk well, we haven't a we haven't seen anything, the human anyways, any dose level in any human, many humans, not from the atomic bombs, nothing. There's no, there's no evidence of transgenerational effects from the atomic bomb. People who were pregnant at the time, got very high doses, and was certain certain phases of their pregnancy, did have issues, but they had massive doses, we're talking, you know, several Grey's worth of expensive exposure to the, to the fetus, which often meant that the mother had some form of acute radiation syndrome, you know, had very, very high dose I


Chris Keefer  28:26  

agree is like 500 times your annual background dose or something. And


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  28:31  

you run it, again, we were mixing sort of units, background has about 2.5 million seabirds, if you live in the UK, a lot more than that, if you live in certain parts of the US, you know, Colorado and places like that. Denver have much higher doses about six or seven,


Chris Keefer  28:49  

hundreds of times more from the atomic, yeah,


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  28:51  

hundreds of times more in a very short period of time as well, usually.


Chris Keefer  28:56  

I mean, we see that with you know, in the first trimester, if you take certain drugs, there can be you know, increases in certain deformities, like cleft palates, and things like that, that get us very worried. But yeah, but in terms of hereditary effects that's never been measured in humans.


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  29:10  

It's never been shown that if the parent was exposed, and then had a subsequent child that that child was affected, no evidence that from the atomic bombs, and there is a study coming out that will support that functionable liquidators as well.


Chris Keefer  29:22  

And how well studied is that population like the atomic bomb survivors?


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  29:26  

Oh, I mean, we've got a huge lifespan cohort. So there's still ongoing in Japan. So they've been studied, it was difficult to set them up immediately post war because you can imagine the mess of the places in politics that surrounded all of this, right, but they got going in the early 1950s. So actually, pretty soon after the end of the war. So they really have huge amounts of data. And interestingly, a lot of people think that they are high dose studies only, but actually about 43% of the of the people in those doses. We're talking about 100,000 people 40 43% of them had doses in less than five minutes even so less than two years of living in the UK,


Chris Keefer  30:06  

or less than, like half of a CT scan.


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  30:09  

Yeah, exactly. So you know, we are actually looking at really a cohort of low dose, mainly with a few high doses, because they were very close to the epicenter.


Chris Keefer  30:22  

So it's want to talk about some responses to this, I had the pleasure of having Paul blue Stein on who's an American journalist who lives in Japan, and he was one of the first sort of rational voices, I'd say, in the, in the aftermath, writing in the days after Fukushima and researching radiation may be coming across your materials and really pouring some water on the fire. I mean, the US Army was talking about evacuating the military bases there, because of the potential to get a dose that would exceed EPA limits. You know, so this would have ended, you know, the kind of shockwaves that would have sent through Japan, if, you know, their occupiers essentially, decided to abandon their military bases after 50 years of, you know, maintaining those those bases, some of them I think, in voluntarily would have been interesting. And so what he does is he actually buys makes an effort to buy Fukushima produce and Fukushima Sakhi. There's a couple funny things I saw on Twitter recently, there's a Fukushima drinking team. So people sort of offering to take a shot or two of the tritiated water. Is there any, like in your read of this? Is there any risk from bad is that


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  31:31  

insane? Still talking about incredibly low doses, I did actually go around the plant a few years ago now with a with a bunch of green activists, you know, we're actually interested in finding out the truth about radiation health effects, and said, Give me a straw and I'll go in, take a sip out of the tanks, because they you are talking of really low doses. I would, I wouldn't be concerned about it at all. Interesting. You're saying about people trying to encourage people to drink and eat produce from the area. I have a friend called Jim Smith, who works at University of Portsmouth, who was actually set up a vodka factory using grain from the Chernobyl area. Wow, okay, fine. encourage people to, to normalize it. It's not radioactive. But he's actually trying to give something back to the community that he studied the wildlife and things like that. Right. Right. I think I've heard more than than health. But he has some stories to tell about that. But it really is important that we do encourage these regions to get back to normal, right? They get the people who live here. I mean, one of the problems I had when I got there is you see all this topsoil that's been skimmed. Right now focus is one of the major rice growing areas of Japan. And Fukushima rice is supposed to be some of the best rice in the country. So what have you done, you've just taken off the good topsoil, put in a plastic bag and left in a field. That's not to help the base recover either. Yeah, and the ideas are gone. The only thing you really worried about in inverted commas is a cesium. Well, a cesium gives you such a low dose. Why are you so scared? It really doesn't have a scientific rationale to it? Yeah, but it has. I think what they've been trying to do is make people feel safe by skimming the soil and putting to the side, then unfortunately, I don't think it really works. Because people can see all these big bags of contaminated things, which makes them feel a whole land is still contaminated.


Chris Keefer  33:28  

Yeah, probably Stein was saying, like Gregory jesco, who was the head of the NRC? You know, he released some data, which was incorrect, that really undermine the credibility of the Japanese government. And I think a lot of this kind of overreaction is an attempt by the Japanese government say, No, no, no, we really care about your health, there's no cover up, we're going to lower the radiation tolerances. But again, this has led to bulldozing fields to get the dose is lower than they would be from an American or European field, essentially.


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  33:58  

Absolutely. And I think they were stung by the criticism early on. And I mean, there was a certain amount of well, you wouldn't be able to trust the Japanese, would you from certain countries. And I think they were so stunned by that they had to prove they were super clean. But there is also a clean culture in Japan. Right? Right. possibly one of the reasons they're not so affected by COVID is they wash their hands all the time, and they wear masks all the time, right? They aren't super clean, you will go anywhere in Japan, and it is spotless, and it's a matter of pride. So any idea of contamination in the environment would have hit the Japanese very, very hard. I you know, so I think the government was trying to bring up bring confidence. But I don't think it really worked. And there are still some people who are scared, they are going to get acute radiation syndrome, even if the doses were miniscule. They're still they still got that dread and waiting for it to come and get them. Right. It must be awful to live under that sort of pressure, which is which is why you need to do something about this. We can't let this happen again.


Chris Keefer  34:59  

Yeah, and I mean, why That way the scaremongers, you know, I think really have some I don't want to call it a criminal responsibility blood on the hands as is. I don't know. I don't know if that is too far of a term because when you when you like yell fire in a theater, I mean, that's illegal. Right. That's one of the few limits on American free speech. And that's that's really what this is equivalent to, particularly with, you know, conspiracy theories about Japan spreading Fukushima radiation over the islands to Yeah, yeah,


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  35:25  

I mean, that those that they're completely wrong. But you see, compass conspiracy theory, works in all sorts of guises. You know, we've we've seen it most recently with the anti vaxxers and COVID, and things like that, right? If you tell a good story, and you tell it Well, yeah. But the problem is that people like to disbelieve experts, we've got that sort of culture and how we have to that has to change. I mean, I am hopeful that with everything that's happened, and that you can see how fast science can move, the last year or so we're developing vaccines and things like that people are beginning to become a bit more confident in science, right? And you should listen to the science, you shouldn't listen to the evidence. And it shouldn't be good evidence you're listening to not conjecture and hearsay, and conspiracy theory. But it is very easy to get dragged into all of that, especially when you're pushing the right buttons and radiation does push all of those fear buttons in the public mind.


Chris Keefer  36:25  

Just to be 100% clear here, we've kind of clarified that there's never been any human cases of hereditary effects from radiation. Artificial versus natural radioisotopes, you know, I'm sorry, I already know this. But just for the benefit to clear this up, because you actually, I think, research this to see if thyroid cancers are any different internal versus anywhere else, right.


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  36:46  

One of the big questions has always been and people like to demonize radiation. So the idea was that a radiation exposure would give rise to a really nasty form of thyroid cancer, that would be much, much worse than something that that had been derived from whatever causes thyroid cancer spontaneously, because every cancer has a spontaneous incidence, we just don't know what's actually causing it. Right. And so there has been an awful lot of speculation about that. And the early studies poster novel, people found a lot of fusion genes, which would fit with radiation exposure, because you get double strand breakage of the DNA, and the DNA fuses and appropriately so you get a novel gene being made. And people immediately jumped to the conclusion, oh, well, there you are. It's caused by radiation. And these cancers are different from any other cancers that are caused by anything else that causes Syrah cancer, with the passage of time, and a bit of sort of thinking about this, I mean, you wouldn't actually do an animal experiment with that age and sex matching now, would you? So why did we do a human experiment by looking at childhood thyroid cancer and comparing it with adult cancer? The answer was because childhood cancer normally is so damn rare. We didn't have the samples to study. But there is no way you should ever do that you should always age match. So when you actually age match cases. So you were looking at children who were young, who had thyroid cancer, who were not exposed to radiation, and compared it with tumors that were from patients that probably had developed their cancer, from exposure to radiation from Chernobyl, you've actually found that they have the same fusion genes. And the most recent paper, which will be coming out next week, which is a much bigger cohort of samples, actually shows that those drivers are the same, whether you're exposed to radiation or not, which is really good news, because we know how to treat thyroid cancer. If the driver genes in the cancers have been different, we might have to find a different way of treating radiation induce our cancer, but the answer is no. It is exactly the same mechanism that produces the tumor. So therefore, we can treat it exactly the same way. Right? It means we should get our very low mortality rates that we've been expecting about 1%.


Chris Keefer  38:57  

Right, right. The you know, just that, I guess maybe in closing a couple of more, we talked about the Fukushima drinking team. There was actually a I believe it's a German Twitter account. Most vague gave our who has offered to fly people to Japan to bathe in the Fukushima water during the discharge. So if you want to take him up on that, go ahead to his twitter and I think he's subsequently retract after he got about 100 replies of people saying yes fly me Oh, I'd like to trip anyone's COVID over he retracted his I don't know it was only offered to one person. I'll see if he follows up on phys Wiz is the the Twitter name. I forget the guy's actual name, but he was offered the free trip. So you'll have to wait two years until they start discharging it. And COVID you know, everyone should be immunized by then. So I hope he enjoys his trip.


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  39:50  

Well, I'll give you another story about radiation and water and things like that. I have a colleague in Cambridge who wanted to work on depleted uranium right as research He was getting a hell of a lot of stick from the radiation protection officer, until he pointed out that actually the amount of uranium he was talking about dealing with was less than a beaker full of seawater. Wow. And that is our problem, we have become so fixated on how dangerous this stuff is, we're losing the context of it.


Chris Keefer  40:17  

Right. And then, of course, you know, one of the, one of the useful comparisons, I think, is to say, Okay, well, what's the what's the health impact of risk? I mean, even if you take LNT assumptions, you know, which are incredibly generous this is, you know, it's used in radiation protection as a sort of consensus, but there's certainly not a scientific consensus that it's valid, and there's no epidemiologic evidence that it's valid. But when you you know, Japan as a result of I think they've only reactivated something like six of their 40 reactors. They, they're in a, I think they're, they're building at least something like 10 new coal plants, they're importing, I think, $60 billion of fossil fuels per year now. And the relative health impacts of air pollution mortality from that, compared to Chernobyl is striking.


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  41:00  

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we do need to keep these things in context. You know, having a bad diet, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes are far more dangerous for you than being exposed to radiation, even from Chernobyl. Yeah, and, you know, people have got to realize and get a balance over the risks. And it really is difficult, we're not very good at this as a species, trying to balance risks, we actually do it all day, every day, in our own life without realizing it. But you have to remember, we do have to have a balance in all of this. And you know, it's becoming even more important. Now, if we don't do something about burning fossil fuels, we could put ourselves on a course that is it's not going to annihilate our species, but it's going to make life pretty uncomfortable in the future. So you know, we shouldn't be thinking about, well, what can we do to ameliorate those risks, and one of those is to use a different sort of power source that does not use fossil fuels, which uncomfortably happens to be nuclear power, because it produces large amounts of power, you know, with FTP, small footprint, whereas it's, it's not subject to the wind and the sun. with climate change, we might end up with a climate. We're lucky in the UK, we have a lot of wind power. But actually, if the climate changes, we could be stuffed if we can't generate things. We've only gone down that that that route. So we have to be careful that we don't allow people's fears and the inability to put risks into context to stop us moving forward in fighting climate change and things like that, which is way bigger issue than nuclear power is on its own.


Chris Keefer  42:38  

Yeah, I mean, on that note, I was up all night last night, because my son was keeping me awake. And I was sometimes when I try and fall asleep, I listen to bots, labs, meals, audio books, you know, this is an incredibly numerous energy analysts wrote a lot of great books about energy transitions. And he was just talking about, you know, historically, how we powered cities and the sort of power densities of cities and we required, you know, sort of 50 to 100 times the kind of hinterland to extract all the biomass to fuel kind of our medieval or pre industrial cities. And now we require between sort of 1/7 and 1/1000 of the landmass to supply our city. So when you think about how much wind would be required, you know, regardless of the intermittency we're talking about the scale is just an inter reminds me of this kind of innumeracy and I don't say that to pejoratively because I'm enumerate on a variety of different things. Like when you deep dive a topic, you start to understand that you can make links between Okay, this big number, I can compare it to this other thing and Okay, it's comprehensible now, but cognitively, human beings just really struggle with understanding big numbers. And you said, you know, we make risk decisions all the time, it's easy to decide whether we're going to cross the road if that car is far enough away, what speed is moving at, like, we evolved to assess that, I guess, with saber toothed Tigers chasing us. But you know, with these with these kind of concepts, it's difficult. I guess I'll just close with asking you, I guess, you know, how's the science communication going? Any Any tips? Do you feel like you're you're breaking through? And also, I mean, we talked about people's reputations being intact, despite saying really horrific things. I mean, as you mentioned, not amongst scientific circles. But broadly, I mean, how many honorary doctorates has I witnessed Helen called I got getting given an honorary doctorate at my alma mater. How were you received as, as someone who you know, makes the makes this sort of science based arguments that you do and defends nuclear energy?


Dr. Geraldine Thomas  44:32  

depends on which side of the camp you are. I mean, that there's a lot of people who are quite pleased to have somebody speak up and do listen to what I say and get in contact and talk things through with me. There's an awful lot of people who shall I say are not particularly pleasant towards me. I'm the various things have happened. I'm coming to the end of my research career now but things like Gross Misconduct cases bought against me, my university and things like that. So I mean, the University handled it beautifully. But you know, it's stressful, and it's not nice. And at times you do feel like giving this all up. But you know, at times I do think, right, well, next year, I actually take full retirements, shall I just go away and do something different? But then, then you see something in the media and you think, well, I can't allow that to go when challenged. I mean, I have a great belief that science is what's going to get us out of a mess. You know, it's the only thing that is going to keep our species going and it's a ski, you know, we have to look at the science, make decisions from the science and persuade the politicians to take decisions based on the science. And sometimes that that's pretty hard. But if, if nobody comes out of our labs and talks about the science, what's the point in doing science anyway? Because it's not going to change or influence anything. So you have to take that step. But at times, it's really hard. You do think, why am I doing this? Right? And I would advise any youngster grow a thick skin before you're out there if you're going to be controversial, because you will get things thrown at you.


Chris Keefer  46:06  

Right. Okay. Well, I think that's a great place to leave it. Geraldine I, you know, I've intended this to be what I call it Decouple short, which is under 15 minutes, but that's just impossible with you so much to learn. It's great touching bases with you again, and you know, thanks for all that you do. And I hope to have you back. I understand there's some new data coming out about the liquidator cohorts at at Chernobyl and I'm always interested in in following up on that. So I look forward to having you back soon. If you'll oblige. I'm more than happy. Thanks very much, Chris. Okay, take good care God.


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