Why women should oppose nuclear power

Pregnant women don’t get x-rays. There’s a reason

By Linda Pentz Gunter

It may come as no surprise to learn that it was women who first raised the alarm about just how dangerous radiation exposure might be to humans, but especially to women and their children. As the late Walter Wolfgang, a co-founder of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), recalls in Carol Turner’s book, Corbyn and Trident: 

”Around the time of Britain’s first atomic tests many women in particular became concerned about the health dangers of radiation, its effect on unborn children and so on. This was much discussed in scientific journals at the time, and found a reflection in political magazines such as Tribune and New Statesman. Through opposition to testing, people became aware of the problem with nuclear weapons. Then politicos such as myself got involved, concerned about Britain’s foreign policies and international relationships. There was a coalescence between the two that led to the foundation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.”


Dr Alice Stewart (third from left) with Edinburgh doctors and nurses. (Photo: Wellcome Trust/WikiCommons)

What is surprising is that, decades later, we still find ourselves trying to impress these truths upon the public, and even on reluctant women politicians. After all, it was back in the 1950s that these dangers first became apparent, through the pioneering work of a woman, Dr. Alice Stewart, who died 17 years ago, on June 23, 2002 at 95.

Stewart, a British doctor, medical researcher and epidemiologist, was the first person in the world to link x-rays given to pregnant women and the damage done to their children. She showed a cause between the mother’s x-rays and subsequent cancer in their children. Needless to say, as both a woman, and a physician, who demonstrated how even exposure to low levels of radiation causes negative health effects, Stewart faced hostility and discrimination. Her obituary in The Guardian recalled these struggles:

“Resisted briefly by the medical profession, this finding later led to dramatic changes of practice. But it was aggressively opposed by many physicists and radiobiologists, by the committees of the international commission for radiation protection (ICRP), and by the powerful nuclear lobbies, within and outside government, that ICRP appeared to serve. The Oxford findings implied that low-level radiation — being imposed on nuclear workers and the public by fallout and nuclear-waste disposal — could be far more serious in its effects than had been officially admitted.”

Today, pregnant women don’t get x-rays. So why do they live near nuclear power plants? Stewart’s research showed an unnaturally high rate of leukemia among children born to women who had had x-rays while pregnant. Decades later, more than 60 studies worldwide now show an increased rate of leukemia among children under five years old living close to nuclear power plants. The closer the children lived to the reactor, the higher the leukemia rates.


Studies show risks of leukemia increase the closer a child lives to a nuclear power plant, but no “exclusion zones” exist to protect them. (Photo: © J. Kamien for Hard Rain Project)

Evidence as incontrovertible as this ought to be a definitive enough warning to put an “exclusion zone” around operating nuclear power plants, not just those that exploded, like Chernobyl and Fukushima. But there are no such laws and, indeed, warnings today similar to Stewart’s back in the ‘50s, often face similar suppression and dismissal. The nuclear power lobby would rather kill kids than tell the truth.

That leaves it to the rest of us to carry on Stewart’s work (she was also known for her Hanford workers’ study, which was equally assailed, but which also persisted and prevailed.)

Here in the U.S., Beyond Nuclear is off to Capitol Hill again, this time to visit every office of every woman Representative and Senator. We will take our Radiation and Harm to Human Health handbook, and our one-pager — What women need to know about nuclear power. At the very least they cannot say they did not know. Whether those who continue to support nuclear power choose to take the blinkers off or not, is then up to them.

Among the points our fact sheet raises are:

Why are women and children at greater risk?

Experts theorize that rapid cell division during childhood and pregnancy seems to be the reason for the vulnerability of embryos and fetuses. Studies also indicate a negative impact of radiation on estrogen and its functions; therefore radiation might be an endocrine disruptor and this would affect women in particular. Women also have much larger reproductive organs and far more hormonal systems than men.

Women and children are more vulnerable to radiation damage than men

Women are as much as 60% more sensitive to radiation than men. Infants and children are more radiosensitive than adults, with female children at higher risk. Established levels of exposure to radiation, deemed “acceptable” — but not “safe”— average the doses to adults and children, hiding the full impact to more sensitive members of the population. Pregnancy is not given any special protection.

In her recent paper, Disproportionate Impact of Radiation and Radiation Regulation, Mary Olson, founder of the Gender + Radiation Impact Project, notes that “Girls exposed to ionizing radiation (including X-rays) are ten times more likely to suffer cancer at some point in their lives than is predicted by ‘Reference Man,’ the hypothetical radiation target used by federal regulators to evaluate harm from radiation.”

These points clearly need to be driven home to women decision-makers — and indeed all women — everywhere. Consequently, Beyond Nuclear International is also assisting a United Kingdom project targeting women members of parliament, a campaign appropriately led by CND and its executive director, Kate Hudson. While the Conservative Party is generally viewed as a lost cause, there are six prominent women Labour Party MPs who go out of their way to extol what they see as the virtues of nuclear power.

At the initiative of veteran CND member, Rae Street, whom we profiled in May 2018, and Dr. Ian Fairlie, a UK-based independent consultant on radioactivity in the environment whose work we also feature, a letter and supporting documents were drawn up and sent in late May, aiming to inform the officials about the very specific risks nuclear power poses to women and their children.

The letter was signed by Hudson and eight leading Britsh women scientists and academics. It asked for a meeting with the women MPs. Whether they agree or not will tell us if their minds are open, or captured by the nuclear industry propaganda.

Headline photo “Ann Louise” by Naty Martins Fotografia is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

One Comment on “Why women should oppose nuclear power

  1. Pingback: Why women should oppose nuclear power — Beyond Nuclear International « Antinuclear

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