New studies on the effects of radioactivity suggest atomic radiation might not be as deadly as is widely believed:
There, in a long brick building, workers, including many women, sat in a dimly lit environment and placed the encrusted rods into nitric acid, triggering a process that allowed them to remove the weapons-grade plutonium. While the same work was performed with remote-controlled robotic arms in the West, the Soviet workers were not even given masks to wear. There was nothing to stop plutonium gases from entering their lungs.
And yet the amount of health damage sustained by these workers was astonishingly low. The GSF study has examined 6,293 men who worked at the chemical plant between 1948 and 1972. "So far 301 have died of lung cancer," says Jacob. "But only 100 cases were caused by radiation. The others were attributed to cigarettes."
The second large, but as yet unpublished study by the GSF scientists also offers surprisingly low mortality figures. The subjects in this study were farmers who lived downstream from the nuclear reactors, in 41 small towns and villages along the Techa River. From 1949 to 1951, waste material from the plutonium production -- a bubbling toxic soup -- was simply poured into the river untreated. As a result, highly radioactive elements such as cesium 137 and strontium 90 were deposited in the river's sediments. The riverbanks became radioactive.
But as the analyses show, even this accusation is exaggerated. The US National Cancer Institute (NCI) studied 29,873 people who lived along the Techa between 1950 and 1960. According to the NCI scientists, only 46 deaths came about due to radiation exposure.