Womankind arise!

Nuclear exposure standards discriminate on the basis of sex

By Linda Pentz Gunter

As we mourn the passing of Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we look back at her landmark victories against discrimination “on the basis of sex” and wonder how nuclear regulations might have stood up to her legal scrutiny. As things currently stand, the nuclear power industry gets away with “allowable” radiation exposure levels that discriminate against women.

When Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign fizzled so dramatically in the primary season, I was asked by many overseas friends why this was. Was it that the United States is still not ready for a woman president? Is that really possible in this day and age and in such a supposedly advanced country? (Trump is president, so “advanced” may be the wrong choice of word here.)

Let’s be clear; discrimination is alive and well in the US as we are seeing played out in almost daily tragedies — against people of color, but also against the poor, the LGBT community, immigrants, the elderly and, yes, women. 

It’s completely plausible that Warren’s gender cost her the chance of the Democratic presidential nomination. There may be other worthy arguments — such as that those hoping for radical change preferred the more Left Bernie Sanders, and those looking for the compassionate center saw it in Joe Biden. We may never know, but at age 71 now, we can be fairly sure that Warren will not be able to try again.

Sister Suffragette
But equality under radiation law still eludes women who fight on for nuclear justice. (Photo: Marc Nozell/Wikimedia Commons)

When the 2018 feature film came out about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s early triumph in making discrimination “on the basis of sex,” (also the film’s title) illegal, it was a glorious reminder of the progress we have made. But now, with her death this past week, we face a potentially ominous shift backwards to the way things were, if the White House and Republican-controlled Senate get away with filling her seat before the November election.

And despite RBG’s immense contribution to our greater wellbeing, as women, we still face discrimination in so many walks of life. That could be about to get worse.

That discrimination remains most infuriatingly true when it comes to the nuclear power industry which is not, it turns out, an equal opportunity poisoner, as we have shown in our earlier articles about Native American and African American communities.

Women and children, and especially pregnant women, are more vulnerable — meaning they suffer more harm from a given dose of radiation than the harm a man suffers from that same dose.

One should quickly add here that scientists still agree that there is no completely safe dose of radiation. In fact, when a dose is described as safe, it doesn’t mean harmless. It means something called “As low as reasonably achievable”, which means as safe as we are prepared to protect for — or, really, as safe as the nuclear industry is willing to pay for.

So not really safe then, and when they say “safe”, the question women must ask is: safe for whom?

In the US, that means safe for someone called Standard Man or sometimes Reference Man. That is on whom the “allowable” radiation exposure standards are based.

Who is Standard Man? 

Depending on your age-group it’s a young Paul Newman, a younger Colin Firth or, today maybe Timothée Chalame. But not Idris Elba or either of the Michael Jordans (actor or athlete).

Discrimination strikes again here, on the basis of race and age, because the amount of radiation exposure that is considered “safe” for an individual in the US is based on what would be safe for a healthy, robust, 20-30-something white male.

Of course, “Reference Man” exposure standards are not in the least bit safe for women. Because what they don’t look at in making these calculations is specific things like damage to the placenta or stem cells. They don’t look at a fetal dose but at a dose to the uterus — which is not developing cells. They do not look at estrogen impacts. They do not account for pregnancy in their dosage recommendations. 

All this is discrimination on the basis of sex. Against women.

These standards are the result of a mathematical calculation that combines all of us and then creates an average. So the more vulnerable, like women, children, the elderly and infirm, are mixed in with healthy males and a dose is established which definitely is not safe for these more vulnerable groups.

That’s discrimination, because when regulatory authorities or governments set standards for allowable exposures, they should take into account not only everybody who might be living in the exposure pathway, but the most vulnerable among us, and protect for them.

No one really knows why women are more susceptible to damage from radiation exposure. With children, embryos and fetuses, it is more clear-cut as their cells are still rapidly dividing. With women, it could be that radiation functions as an endocrine disruptor. And we certainly have much larger reproductive organs than men.

But if we don’t yet know the why, we do know what happens. Cells, when exposed to radiation, get damaged in a way that they cannot always repair. This leads to diseases such as cancer.

These concerns have been borne out, for example, by the studies that show elevated rates of leukemia among children age five and under living close to nuclear power plants. The closer they live, the higher the rates. Again, women and children are being discriminated against, asked to take a higher risk than the male members of their community by living close to a nuclear plant, whose routine radioactive releases — never mind the huge doses from a major accident — will harm them more readily than they will harm men.

But there are no signs around nuclear facilities warning us of these dangers. There are no laws that say women and children should not live within say five miles of an operating nuclear power plant.

“Reference Man” radiation exposure standards fail to take into account the increased vulnerability of women, especially during pregnancy.

In Japan, since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the allowable exposure rates have been raised from 1mSv a year to 20 mSv a year. That is the allowable annual dose for a nuclear power plant worker in Europe. 

Why did they raise it? Obviously, human beings didn’t suddenly become more resistant to radiation. Rather it was the fact that Japanese authorities will never be able to clean up the contamination back down to the 1mSv a year level. So they just decided to make the level they are likely to be able to clean up to the safe level. For everyone. This is basically criminal.

It’s not surprising then, that when you look at who has been pushing back against this — in Japan especially — speaking out, rallying in front of parliament, testifying and so on, it has been almost entirely led by women.  Although it is a bit surprising, given how historically patriarchal Japanese society has always been.

The first group who came to the US to speak about the Fukushima disaster soon after the nuclear disaster happened in 2011 was a group of Japanese women, all mothers, and two of them farmers.

It was a group of mothers from Japan who went to testify before the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, to launch an appeal for the rights of nuclear refugees.

And it has been mothers bravely speaking out on street corners, week after week.

Yoko Shimozawa is a Japanese mother committed to educating others. (Photo courtesy Mrs. Shimozawa)

We’ve now learned that almost 80% of the patients with thyroid cancer who were part of the Fukushima Health Management Survey, had cancers which metastasized, most of them to the lymph nodes. Yet these patients, whose information is being held at Fukushima medical university, have no access to their own data. They are denied access to their own medical records.

Why is this information being kept from them? 

Because the Japanese government does not want its own people — or the world — to know the truth about the harm caused by nuclear power plants and especially by the Fukushima disaster, a major black eye. 

It wants to go on manufacturing nuclear power plants and selling them abroad — because its nuclear corporations have a reputation to maintain. (So far its attempts at export have been an abysmal failure, exemplified most recently by Hitachi’s abandonment just last week of its 2-reactor project in the UK).

And it is still trying to re-start some of its closed reactors in Japan — so the government doesn’t want the public to know why this is a dangerous proposition.

Would their medical data have been suppressed if it had been caused by anything other than something nuclear? Or if it had affected the reproductive capability of men?

Women and children are paying the price for corporate and government greed and a false sense of prestige surrounding all things nuclear.

We should take inspiration from those fearless women in Japan, because if it’s hard to get our voices heard here in the US, it is infinitely more so, there. It is in fact taboo to talk publicly about radiation and contamination. 

There are women everywhere doing this. A group of mothers in the suburbs of St. Louis Missouri, waged a years long battle to get radioactive waste that was illegally dumped in their community cleaned up. We wrote about this in a March 2018 article on this website.

One of the JustMoms of St. Louis, Dawn Chapman, speaks at a meeting. (Photo: JustMoms STL Facebook)

The waste was a product of Cold War activities when a St. Louis-based firm, Mallinckrodt, processed uranium from the Belgian Congo as part of the Manhattan Project. 

That waste seeped into creeks, and spread into parks where children play and even into homes. Unsurprisingly, there are abnormally high rates of cancers in these communities.

These mothers went to public meetings, they went door to door, they went to Washington, and they gathered at their kitchen tables in a relentless campaign to get the radioactive waste in their community cleaned up.

And they won, at least a partial victory, as the US environment agency has finally agreed to remove  67 percent of the radioactive waste. It wasn’t the 100 percent removal they wanted, but without these women it would have been zero. 

So how hard is it still for women’s voices to get heard? Things are changing. And that change is being made by having women in decision-making positions.

Women were especially prominent during the 14 weeks of Fire Drill Fridays on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, the climate protests organized by Jane Fonda. Every week, Fonda made sure that most of the speakers were women and, not only women but young women, and women of color and indigenous women, some even teenagers.

And they were by far the most powerful and inspirational and moving speakers of all. Sure it was cool to see Joaquin Phoenix and Lily Tomlin but they weren’t who rocked the house. They just helped get the house there.

Women were instrumental in securing the landmark UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, now close to becoming international law, with just six ratifications to go.

Personally, I tend to think that the more women’s voices there are in the anti-nuclear arena, the less likely we are to use nuclear weapons.

But we still need to think very hard about how we can draw more women, and especially young women, and especially minority women into our movement to rid the world of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. We need a battle cry that will appeal to the young.

Maybe it’s the clarion call found in the song Sister Suffragette from Mary Poppins — not the line about men, being, as a group, rather stupid — but this one: “From every corner of the land womankind arise!’”

Headline photo of Fukushima natural farmer, Sachiko Sato, protesting in New York City outside the United Nations, September 2011, by Linda Pentz Gunter

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